Life has been particularly unkind to me over the past five years. Grief, heartbreak, struggle have been closer than ever. And now there’s more.
I had my annual physical this past fall and mentioned an episode of abdominal pain that was particularly severe. In the past, I’d had these episodes several times a year but dismissed them as bouts of food poisoning. They always passed by the next day, and this latest was only different in its intensity. I started to think maybe I had an intolerance to something. My doctor scheduled a colonoscopy, which was going to be scheduled in any case since I’m over 50. I had this routine procedure just 9 days ago, and afterwards the doctor told me he’d found an obstruction and couldn’t complete the procedure. He took a biopsy and said that I’d need surgery. When I mentioned I’d planned ten weeks of travel beginning on January 15th, he asked if I could cancel it.
I spent the next week in an anxious state of limbo. I told some close friends about the results and figured that my chances of having cancer were about 50/50. My main concern was not having to cancel my trip. My short film series Shorts That Are Not Pants has been running for six years, and my plans in 2018 are ambitious, including monthly screenings and a festival weekend in November. I was returning to volunteer at the Sundance Film Festival for the third time (I missed out last year while I was working in Dublin) and then planning a return to the biggest short film festival in the world, in Clermont-Ferrand, France. After that, I hoped to attend the Berlinale and visit that city for the first time, return to Dublin for a few weeks, attend the Glasgow Short Film Festival for the second year in a row, and then wrap up my trip by attending the Short Waves Festival in Poznan, Poland. I’d mapped out my schedule and booked about half my flights and accommodation. I’d arranged for my cats to be taken care of, and had found a lovely couple to sublet my apartment until the end of March. To be quite honest, my first reaction to the colonoscopy results was annoyance at having to change or even cancel my trip.
So on Tuesday this week, I went in prepared to bargain. Surely the surgery could wait a few weeks or even months. I had made commitments and plans and didn’t want to change them. I wasn’t that surprised when the word “carcinoma” was mentioned. My surgeon calmly explained that the protocols of cancer care in our province required him to operate within a month of diagnosis. He agreed that I didn’t seem symptomatic and that I could travel but that my surgery was going to be scheduled for Tuesday February 13. This allows me to attend Sundance and Clermont-Ferrand, the first two legs of my trip, and the ones for which I’d already arranged flights and accommodations. I’ll return to Canada on February 9th, and have the weekend to prepare for my surgery.
Knowing I’m scheduled to leave on Monday, the good people at St. Joseph’s Health Centre quickly scheduled blood work, my pre-admission appointment, and a CT scan all for this week. I came home Tuesday, a bit numb, and started letting some people know the news. I’ve stuck to just telling people the facts, and the practical arrangements for the surgery. I don’t know how to feel about having cancer yet. The surgeon said they won’t know what stage it’s at or my prognosis until they’ve removed it from my body. So for the next month, I’ll be in a busy fog, which is maybe the best kind of space to be in.
In 1986, my mother told me she had lung cancer, and I remember holding onto that news for weeks, not wanting to tell any of my friends. I was afraid of two things. One, that it would make the whole thing real and give it power. And two, that everyone around me would start treating me differently, with pity or with awkwardness. I knew that what I needed was connection, and that our fear of disease and death would create distance. Of course, that feeling came flooding back this week. And I’m still afraid of being seen as “sick” and pushed away with well-meaning platitudes. But holding stuff in and keeping secrets is its own kind of cancer, so I won’t do that.
I’ve felt a lot of shame over the past few years, for how my life didn’t turn out the way I’d expected, or wanted. This latest bout of bad news seems weirdly unsurprising to me. I don’t mean to sound pessimistic. It’s just that I’ve been dealing with a lot and this just joins the rest of that junk. In 1997, I created my very first home page and gave it the title “Between the Hammers.” It was a reference to a line from The Ninth Duino Elegy from Rainer Maria Rilke:
Between the hammers our heart
endures, just as the tongue does
between the teeth and, despite that,
still is able to praise.
Even back then, I saw my life as one filled with struggles, and my aspiration was to have a heart that endured and kept praising. I may not leave much of a legacy when I leave this world, but if people talk about me as someone with a big and tender heart, then I’ll be okay with that.
Re-reading the entire poem now is quite powerful. Here’s something from the beginning:
apparently needs us, this fleeting world, which in some strange way
keeps calling to us. Us, the most fleeting of all.
Once for each thing. Just once; no more. And we too,
just once. And never again. But to have been
this once, completely, even if only once:
to have been at one with the earth, seems beyond undoing.
And the last section:
Look, I am living. On what? Neither childhood nor future
grows any smaller… Superabundant being
wells up in my heart.