Life is hard. Even when things are going well, daily living requires a lot of effort—as a response to our own demands, needs, and expectations or those of other people. When you are retired, the demands slacken and you have more control over your time. But if you’re anything at all like me, you might actually miss the good old days when you had to show up somewhere every morning at 8 a.m. Without effort, there’s no payoff.
For many retirees, it’s easy to follow the path of least resistance, sleeping too much and accomplishing too little. The farther down that path you go, the more susceptible you are to depression. We all need a reason to stay awake, and we need people to validate us. Loneliness is a serious health problem among the elderly. Studies have shown that the risk of premature death from loneliness equals that from smoking.
Since my lung-cancer diagnosis a few months ago, loneliness is the least of my worries. For one thing, my friends and family have treated me like royalty. For another, I’m aware of the dangers of isolation, so I make more phone calls and schedule more outings. And finally, between doctors, nurses, and chemo, I have too many appointments to get lonely.
So instead of being solitary, my days are cluttered and disorganized. Now, when time is more precious than ever, I don’t treasure it the way I ought to. My meditation practice is spotty, as is my church attendance. I’m not as useful as I’d like to be, to humankind in general and to my friends and family in particular. I spend little or no time in natural surroundings. The only exercise I get is when I’m forced to walk up and down the single flight of stairs between my individual apartment door and the main front door.
In part, whoever stole my electric bike is to blame for this sorry state of affairs. I had a nifty Cyclamatic CX2 folding electric bike until someone sawed through the cable lock and made off with the bike while I was in the hospital last month. I had relied on the Cyclamatic to transport me when I wanted to run errands, visit friends, get a little exercise, and enjoy some fresh air, plus it was just a whole lot of fun to ride. I could adjust the power level to determine how much effort I wanted to expend, so I could zip up hills without breaking a sweat or I could power down and elevate my heart rate.
The problem was that I had to keep the bike outside. It was securely locked—or so I thought—and was practically invisible from the street, but it was still vulnerable. The bike could be folded to fit in small spaces, but it weighed 57 pounds—much more than I could manhandle up and down a flight of steps.
Since I acquired the Cyclamatic, I’ve seen Amazon listings for e-bikes weighing as little as 25 pounds. These, too, are foldable. The sensibly priced ones cost $400 to $600, plus $100 for assembly. The sturdiest lock I could find is priced at $150, though I wouldn’t need to secure the bike outside if it weighed only 25 pounds. I might have to do some arm-strengthening exercises, but I think I could manage a 25-pound two-wheeled vehicle.
I’m considering crowd-funding the whole shebang—e-bike, assembly, lock, a basket for “cargo,” and a better helmet than my old one, plus tax. That comes to a total of about a thousand dollars. I’ve never crowd-funded anything before. It feels a little tacky, asking strangers to pay for something that was taken from me in part due to my own carelessness. On the other hand, it’s the only way I’m going to get a replacement for my beloved e-bike, so I should probably get over my squeamishness and just do it.
There’s an elephant in the room, and it’s called “life expectancy.” Am I likely to live long enough to get my money’s worth? And how long am I going to have the energy and optimism I have today? Not very long, I’m thinking, if I make every decision as if I’m going to pop off in a week or two. So I think I’ll get the bike—to improve the present and as an investment in the future. And if I’m right about Heaven, it’s lousy with e-bikes. No golden chariots on the other side of the pearly gates. Just electric bikes, lined up neatly and waiting for angels with weary wings to hop on.
For the past few months, since I was diagnosed with stage-4 lung cancer, I’ve felt my life contracting. Time is a gift that arrives in little packets, not the vast, mysterious plain it was when I thought I’d live forever. This has happened before… when my children were newborns, for example, and I got to be a stay-at-home mom for a while. Nothing that happened before they were born and nothing that was going to happen when I went back to work mattered much. The only things in sharp focus were the baby and the new routine… warm bathwater, fresh clothes, mealtime, and overpowering love.
These days, metaphorically I’m playing Barbies with little kids in a sunny square of sidewalk. I’ve developed the spontaneous mindfulness of children. My new superpower is the ability to shut off guilt and regret, anxiety, and fear, living inside the spatial perimeter of that square and the temporal boundary of that hour. Physically I’m warmed and comforted by sunlight and toddler kisses.
This works great for me, but people have questions. They want to know what I’m doing about the cancer and what’s going to happen when the chemo stops working. They’d probably like to know how long I’m going to live, too, but, politely, they don’t ask. Still, it seems as if I should care about these questions, and right now I don’t. I have to trust that when I need certain answers, I’ll get them. Meanwhile, I let the questions bounce off my square of sidewalk. Otherwise they interrupt my dancing.
In the weeks and months B.C. (Before Cancer), I fretted. My life seemed too small. Rather than appreciating the sunrises and sunsets I was dependably receiving, I chafed at limitations. I wanted to be out there in the world, doing things, going to concerts, riding my e-bike, waltzing in a pavilion, meeting friends for lunch. Truth be told, I longed to buy a mini-motor home and take to the road. These days (A.D.—After Diagnosis), I’m enchanted by late-summer sounds—katydids, crickets, and the change in the pitch of children’s voices as they wring every drop of joy out of the final days of summer vacation.
A cancer diagnosis has an unexpected cushion: People treat you like you’re special—or maybe you just feel special and people react accordingly. It’s as if they think you’re particularly brave or strong when, really, all you are is unusually conscious. And your cancer gives them something to do to demonstrate their love for you. Trust me on this—every card, letter, phone call, email… every token of friendship… means the world. Don’t for a minute think the little things don’t matter. Maybe they can’t cure cancer, but the hugs warm my heart and the prayers keep me afloat.
To be continued…
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….