Everyone is kind here. They smile with their eyes. I’ve known people who bend the corners of their mouth upward mechanically, but not these people. These people are compassionate. They understand why you’d do just about anything to change places with them. And deep down, in a place they might not even be acquainted with, they’re thinking, “I feel bad for you, honey, but you have cancer and I don’t.”
I used to jolt myself out of depression this way. Maybe I was going through the heartbreak of a faithless boyfriend or the despair of an empty bank account, but there was always something worse. “At least,” I told myself smugly, “I don’t have cancer.”
I could hardly bring myself to say “cancer.” It’s an ugly, inelegant word with a flat, midwestern A, like “splat” or “blam.” Why can’t we call it “Piccadilly” or “popsicle”? The announcement, “I was just diagnosed with popsicle” doesn’t sound nearly as ominous as, “My doctor says I have cancer.”
And why do people choose to become oncology nurses? It eludes me. For seventy years I’ve run away from cancer the way mobsters fled from Al Capone. My make-believe world was cancer-free, although fate didn’t always play along. My dad died of a witches’ brew of maladies at the age of 71: Lou Gehrig’s disease, lung cancer, heart failure, and finally a stroke. But I created a cancer-immune bubble around myself and was somehow convinced that—though I smoked a pack of cigarettes a day for forty years—I would live to be at least 85 and when I did succumb, it would happen in the middle of a country line dance such as “Cotton Eye Joe” or “Boot-Scootin’ Boogie.”
In any case, no one was more surprised than I was by my lung-cancer diagnosis. There was a period of four or five days between when I began to suspect that I had lung cancer and when it was confirmed. During those few days, I tried it on for size. I stood in front of the mirror, looked my reflected self in the eye, said, “I have lung cancer,” and waited for the tears and hysteria, the weeping, the wailing, the gnashing of teeth. When none of these was forthcoming, I ratcheted it up a bit.
“I have lung cancer and it will probably do me in,” I said to my reflection. Still no emotional breakdown. The best I could come up with was a peevish, “Oh, shit!” Annoyance because my last will and testament was only half completed. Anxiety—the type that comes on when you realize that it’s December 1 and you haven’t started your Christmas shopping. But the only actual trauma I experienced was the sort of knee-jerk panic that happens when you’re in a car accident, before you take attendance and realize that everyone is more or less all right.
I am sad for my friends and family, though I have every intention of lurking around after my demise in such a way as to make their lives interesting, dropping in whimsical surprises now and then. But, try as I might, I can’t work up a sense of tragedy for myself. I’m pretty sure that the change we call “death” is just exactly that—a change leading to a new way of being. I suspect it’s a thrilling ride, but I could be wrong. It could be a huge yawn, or it could be oblivion, which is what it looks like from the outside. Either way, it makes no more sense to fear dying than to fear falling asleep.
The way I see it, quite a few people have died—trillions, probably more—and hardly any of those people have been known to suffer horrendously after death. We do know that chickens run around with their heads cut off for a while after the decapitation has occurred, but that hardly qualifies as suffering. If anything, the chickens seem quite chipper, almost gleeful, as one might feel when one discovers that one can carry on without one’s head for a bit. But being merely operational could get tedious after a while, and we humans are conditioned to aim higher than merely “not suffering.”
Stage 4 lung cancer is not the diagnosis you want if you are a college freshman with aspirations to be a neurosurgeon, but it’s an excellent primer in mindful living. You’re going to live one day at a time whether you want to or not, so you might as well focus most of your attention on the sunny square of sidewalk you’re sitting in, playing Barbies with your grandchildren. Right now I’m perched next to a small machine whose purpose is to poison me without killing me. The machine is dispensing precise amounts of chemicals that are designed to destroy fast-growing cells—cancer cells, but also cells of skin, nails, hair, and bone. This is why I am wearing a wig so obvious it might as well bear a sign that screams “wig” through a bullhorn. I thought I’d have a few weeks to prepare for wearing the wig. I didn’t expect to reach up one day, pat my head, and look down at a hand that might belong to Chewbacca… or to brush at a snarl and find half my hair on the hairbrush.
Fortunately, I had bought a wig about two years ago for no particular reason. Finding myself suddenly and virtually hairless, there was nothing to do except take my wig to the beauty salon, have it trimmed, and emerge as a comparatively hirsute redhead. To tell the truth, the wig looks much better than my real hair, which is thin, gray, limp, lifeless, and—at the moment—absent. Don’t ever let anybody tell you that you can’t improve your appearance one-hundred percent by spending $11.11 on eBay. My son Eli sent me a much nicer wig from Amazon, so I now have a go-to wig and a backup—something every moderately vain 70-year-old chemo patient needs if she wants to show her face in public.
I believe in the sort of reincarnation in which you continue to make progress as you move from one life to the next. I hope that one’s hair makes progress too—although it might be that as one grows spiritually one cares less and less what one looks like. Vanity, I believe, is not a hallmark of spiritually advanced life.
To be continued….