In August I entered an alternate universe. I was already orbiting from six months of quarantine when, at a routine gynecologist appointment, it was discovered I had an as yet not-quite-named gynecological cancer. My mother died of ovarian cancer 34 years ago. The next few weeks woke me from my pandemic stupor, each day suddenly filled with another exam, another procedure, another doctor. Pre- diagnosis I struggled with the uncertainty of these times, having to accept life without the ability to make a plan. Now scheduled for chemo, surgery and more chemo, I had months and months full of plans.
Initially the hardest moments were somehow coming up with the words to tell those I love the most… and then waiting l-o-n-g days for definitive test results. After those traumas were resolved, I dealt with the next fear at bat, being seen as “that woman” with the turban. A person in need of doctor recommendations and anecdotes about this friend’s battle and that must read book. I dreaded looking into the sorry-for-me eyes of even the best intentioned people. Blessedly, my world didn’t include many of those. Instead there’s been an embarrassment of lovely empathy. Knocked off my caretaker pedestal, I landed in a safety net softly woven by my family and friends, lovingly lined with a complete understanding of my powerlessness, rage, fear and despair. The way they pay attention and listen and extend themselves has nourished me.
All through these last few months, I haven’t been able to ever see the face of any of doctors I so trust and admire. When I stand on line waiting to check in for any appointment, and one of the five masked receptionists behind a bank-like counter shout out “next,” it’s always a guessing game which of them I should approach. Not once in a dozen tries have I not had to repeat…then spell…then repeat my name three times. COVID requires I go to each doctor’s visit, each six hour chemo treatment, masked and alone. Somehow it’s all doable.
Studies have shown that a sense of humor reinforces resilience, allowing us to see the bad things that happen as a challenge rather than a threat. I can’t change what I’m dealing with but humor can help change how I view it. I arrive at chemo with a ten pound bag filled with my laptop, a paperback, two magazines, a pad and pen, a phone charger, a snack, tissues, hand sanitizer, hand lotion, a folder with my medical information…and lunch. Then I spend the entire time on my phone. The men sharing the waiting room with me are empty handed with a Kindle in their shirt pocket. Ah… women and choices. For the first time in my life I get on the scale with my sneakers on… and it’s kind of mortifying to admit I smile when I see my elusive ideal weight in front of me.
For twenty-five years in the before time I would spin at the gym five times a week… now I walk in the park, with a friend or a podcast, and pay attention to where I am instead of being fixated with miles covered and calories burned. What’s on sale doesn’t intrigue me. A two week delay installing the fence? … I don’t care. And the unrelenting anxiety and incessant news of an onslaught of the horrific events that have defined this worst year of 2020 are muted a bit under my roof.
I am swaddled in softness, gifted with blankets and candles and orchids and scarves and luxury lotions. I have slippers for days. My daughters put up a bulletin board in my kitchen, now covered with funny cards and tender notes that I glance at a dozen times a day. I know you have children and sisters and friends…but mine, mine rule. They take COVID tests before visiting…they understand my phone phobia…they show exactly the right amount of concern…their devotion humbles me.
I have a long road ahead but one of the lessons brutal 2020 has taught all of us is that somehow the days evaporate. I’m aware that way more often than not I can say that right now, I’m all right. The core of my being is OK. Challenging my fears and anxiety are newly revealed strengths, both internal and external, that are awesome in their power. So the job is, in Cory Booker’s words, ‘to turn fear into fight and worry into work. I’m ready.