A friend recommended I read the book Anatomy of an Illness by Norman Cousins recently. So I did. The illness that I’m currently dealing with is skin cancer. The biopsy, diagnosis, scheduled surgery, extensive follow up reconstructive surgery that came on it's tail, occurred across 3 weeks time. Hardly enough time to read a book dealing with an illness in an effort to prepare, cope, come to terms with, and land squarely on my feet.
But hey, that’s the time-frame I’m working with. And the months preceding as I wondered, checked, taunted my doctor by showing up with my nose and the tiny, little mark on it, and viewing all of the videos and images that deal with skin cancer and treatments and reconstructive surgeries, well, those months are long gone, and I wasn’t reading any books, but ‘cept those I needed for my current college course load, Policy, Public Administration and other romantic comedy sketches of that nature. Additional surgery is scheduled and so I have some more time and this new book to read.
Waiting until the mark was good and raging before approaching my doctor and saying, “hey, dr. buddy, not for nothing, but what the hell is that thing and why won’t it go away?” was maybe not the best use of my time. I still haven’t exactly mastered the best use of my time. Strategies and schedules not withstanding, I fill up every ounce of my time and even borrow some into the wee late hours of the night. Living to the fullest, maybe to make up for some other long stretches of time I did not use so well, or toward the best possible outcome. I have wasted a vast chunk of time.
My daughter spent the first four years of her life in a constant state of wakefulness, for similar reasons, most of which are genetic and biologically inherent of nature. She is “her mother’s daughter” as they say. She did not want to miss a moment. Not a single one. I was unable to convey, the moments that were going on, had she taken a nap, were not moments that amounted to much. They would have been quiet and calming and restorative. Instead they were moments of struggle and determination until ultimate collapse and exhaustion as I attempted to get her to take a nap because she needed one. Had I stepped back and let her refuse her naps, she probably would have learned this on her own. If she wasn’t inclined at 14 months old, to hoist herself out of her crib onto her 3 year old brother that she had already trained to become her safety mat for high performing stunts and hi-jinx, maybe I would have stepped back in calm and assurance. He broke her fall enthusiastically awaiting an adventure to fill those otherwise mundane moments of time. Those two, loose at her command? I wasn’t ready to find out where that train was headed. Twenty plus years later, she has filled up her moments with joy and color and life, her safety mat lives far away but continues to be entertained and enamored of her charms and adventure seeking zest for life and filling up of time.
I have this memory from long ago. I was maybe 5 or 6. My family packed into a car heading “upstate” late in the night. We traveled at night, a good use of time. Beating the traffic. Following my father’s work schedule. When three of four children would be sleeping as opposed to talking and bickering and asking are we there yet and needing to go to the bathroom or wanting to sit near the window or crying because she touched me or he looked at me or she always gets the window, and he won’t give me back my doll, my pretzel, my blanket…. This may be the one time that I made the best use of my time. I stayed awake. Quietly. Taking it all in. The thinning of traffic, the stars alight in a vast and open sky, the sounds of crickets, or cicadas, or frogs. The sound of my parents speaking gently and friendly, amiably, maybe even affectionately. A sound not often heard around a railroad flat in Queens with four sprightly, frenzied, teetering children and all the charms that go along with that particular continuum of time and space.
Late into the night we drove, and then my mother suggested we stop, so that my father could eat, he must be hungry from a long day or at least get coffee for the continued drive. By then they knew I was still awake, as they checked on my siblings, all deep asleep, safe. I joined them in a diner for coffee and pie. Coconut Custard pie, just because, it was exotic, and I could read the words, and I could ask for it, in a diner late in the night. Also a rare and magical occurrence, we did not tend toward diners or restaurants or luxurious expenses such as these. I have never experienced pie quite that magically again, but I continue to enjoy late hours with a glint and optimism and a readiness to say yes to pie and drives late into the unknown star filled evenings.
I’ve just marked a big birthday. 50 years. Beautiful, amazing, challenging and happy, give or take a month or two, years of life. I was planning my time. I scheduled an art opening commemorating what it has meant to be this woman, in this time. I have planned a party to mark these years and look forward to spending more time in peace and happy and hopeful for all of the pie seeking adventures to come. But as much as I like to fill my time and use up every moment, my time was being a little unruly and had thoughts of it’s own. It scheduled in an unpredictable amount of illness, in the anatomical region of my nose. I went and got skin cancer, so I needed to go and get rid of it, and a large portion of my nose right smack in the middle of some timed events and an otherwise complete face.
The procedure to rid oneself of skin cancer that was performed on me is called Moh’s Surgery. In stages, small, specific amounts of skin is removed and biopsied until the cancer is removed. The hope is one stage will get it, but it usually needs a couple. I needed three, each one leaving me sinking further into a place unknown and unwanted. The thought about skin cancer these days is that it is not really a big deal, and it is easily dealt with. In the scheme of things, this is correct. If the scheme is around cancer, and long term illness, and fear of death or permanent disfigurement. In my mind, I was not comforted by the ease and ordinariness of skin cancer and it’s removal. I had a big sinking feeling it would be bad, and it would need big, reconstructive surgery. When this was confirmed I had a choice between a skin graft that would not match my skin, would not adequately conceal the surgery or conform to my sense of self, but could happen immediately, and reconstructive surgery that will take several weeks to complete and have amazing results over the course of a year, I did momentarily think of time, and plans, and my party and art show. And well, giving in to time and space, and the reality that I don’t have to spend every waking moment seeking out the pie chasing potential is a lesson whose time has come.
I’m enjoying the book a great deal and appreciate the recommendation. Norman Cousins, the author recounts an illness he had in 1964. Sure, a great long time ago. Back when people couldn’t say illness, or cancer, out loud. They didn’t discuss fears and fatalities and the psychological manifestations of physiological ailments. This book speaks to the power of the human spirit, hope and faith and laughter. It also speaks to the “subconscious fear of never being able to function normally again”. We speak about things more these days, 49 years later, but not exactly openly. More in context with an Oprah approval rating, information that is shared on live or taped television segments with applause and timed close-ups helping us to know how to react and respond. This book, is helping me to focus in on this particular time of my life, and reading it slowly through my recovery stage has been a gift. My fears are not so large. I’m gaining permission to feel them and not push them aside or hurry them through for fear of losing time.
I’ve been in a mad rush the past few years to overcome a divorce, a marriage that supported a lifetime of suppressing my desire to live fully in each moment, within some socially acceptable time constraints, of course. In retrospect and within the cliché of being forced to put things in perspective, I feel quite differently about time today. There was this vivid moment in time between surgery when I understood how much time I have wasted on foolish possibilities and out of control fears and what ifs when I could have been simply enjoying pie. Chasing down dreams with intensity and near bouts of despair have not served me. I won’t spend another moment thinking that through, and over, and wrestling down regrets. I was talking to the doctor and assisting nurse, lightly discussing life, parenting, being single, being me, basically. Open and approachable and grounded. Laughing. It suddenly struck me how surreal everything was. I was talking and at ease and laughing, without a nose on my face. With cancer doing it’s thing and a warrior doctor removing it.
There have been times that a pimple, or a few extra pounds would make me debilitatingly self-conscious. Decades of social anxiety have left me mumbling and awkward and staggering with hives to find my place. And then cancer arrives and provides this opportunity to gently remind, life is short but pulsating and thrilling with equal amounts of mundane. Naps are restorative. Kissing is pleasurable. Talking to your children with love and compassion in between bouts of what the hell is happening is necessary. Sunblock is non-negotiable. Laughter is infectious. Worry is wasted. Dancing is exhilarating. Being open to encounters with other humans is life giving. Pie has the potential to be magic.
Norman Cousins sums it up best, the question to be asked of doctors, of hospitals, and for me, of myself, is whether or not I am of the belief and expectation that good things will happen . Maybe just not on a schedule written in pen that I want to have control over. In the Anatomy of an Illness, Mr. Cousins weaves a great deal of Albert Schweitzer’s zest for life into his story of overcoming disease. He talks about his propensity toward life and laughter and how it helped him overcome illness and pain. Music and humor and keeping company with caring compassionate friends seem timeless antidotes. I have been enjoying encounters and the opportunity to have my flame burst open and rekindled of late. Of course all the flaming bursts of inner fires rekindled could be the comorbidity of menopause and cancer. It could also be the euphoric effect of pain killers, but I don’t think so, I stopped those a day or two ago.
In everyone's life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.
- Albert Schweitzer
The party is on. There will be dancing. And laughter and maybe I will wear a scarf or an obnoxious pair of Groucho Marx glasses with a disguised nose, or maybe I will trust that good things will happen and time is of the essence but it is not mine to mold. My scars, and stitched up nose are suddenly insignificant minor flaws in the scheme of things on this particular stage of my place on the time and space continuum.
Come and dance with me for this brief and fluid time.