Time for a New Year

As another year (and what a year…) draws to a close, I’ve been thinking a lot about the passage of time. Because of the relative frequency of my treatment schedule and the fact I have a couple of days after each treatment where I’m largely out of commission, I live with a near constant sense of an impending deadline. As each treatment day approaches, I feel much like I do when I’m readying for a trip–there’s always a list of things I need and want to do before we leave, and it always seems the time is too short to make it all happen.

Curious as to its origins, I looked up the etymology of “deadline” in the Online Etymology Dictionary, and found, in addition to the unsurprising reference to “1920, American English newspaper jargon,” the following, rather grim citation: “Perhaps influenced by earlier use (1864) to mean the ‘do-not-cross’ line in Civil War prisons, which figured in the trial of Henry Wirz, commander of the notorious Confederate prison at Andersonville, Georgia.

And he, the said Wirz, still wickedly pursuing his evil purpose, did establish and cause to be designated within the prison enclosure containing said prisoners a “dead line,” being a line around the inner face of the stockade or wall enclosing said prison and about twenty feet distant from and within said stockade; and so established…he, the said Wirz, instructed the prison guard stationed around the top of said stockade to fire upon and kill any of the prisoners aforesaid who might touch, fall upon, pass over or under [or] across the said “dead line” …. [“Trial of Henry Wirz,” Report of the Secretary of War, Oct. 31, 1865]”

Talk about harsh consequences for missing a deadline. Yikes. Not striking something off my list for a few more days pales in comparison.

Always to do’s to be done

Writer Gretchen Rubin tells us, “The days are long, but the years are short.” As we round out 2020, I think a lot of folks might revise that statement: “The days are long, but the year was interminable.”

We are all so tired–the medical community, especially–of the pandemic and the damage it’s doing. Yet we’re so close to turning a corner, now, with the vaccine being distributed. We have to be patient, stay the course, even when it’s hard, because the consequences for not doing so are potentially so much worse. Reminding myself that I’m sacrificing a few “good” days up front so that I can have more days, period, down the line is what gets me through the toughest chemo side effects.

Kitty snuggles help on the tough days, too!

Actually, many of the coping strategies I’ve learned from fighting cancer have helped me meet the challenges of this crazy year. Going bald, for example, quickly settled the whole “should I or shouldn’t I risk getting a haircut?” question. But seriously, I’ve had a lot of practice at doing what the mother of one of my fellow cancer survivors preached: “accept and adjust.” I adapted quickly to wearing a mask, partly because I’ve already learned to adjust my daily wardrobe in more intrusive ways, pulling on a compression sleeve each morning before I even put on my underwear. It’s just what needs to be done, and spending energy bemoaning the discomfort or inconvenience is a waste of time.

And I understand that, like cancer, coronavirus is a sneaky little bugger, especially with its asymptomatic spread. I hear so many people say, “But ____ hasn’t had any symptoms,” as if that’s proof they aren’t infected or infectious. It’s counter-intuitive to believe something invisible, something as tiny and common as a virus, could wreak havoc upon your health. Trust me, when the rash appeared under my arm that signaled the return of cancer, a reddish patch not much bigger than a couple of quarters, it seemed utterly absurd that something so small and benign-looking could be life-threatening. It’s hard–but necessary–to get your head around.

A little artwork I created this time last year, and still true.

If you’re tired of me, or anyone else, banging on about the virus and masking and being safe, I offer this: the last four years have shown me, again and again, how profoundly your entire world can change in an instant. I understand at a deep and visceral level that we are all vulnerable to such sudden shifts. Acknowledging that isn’t succumbing to pessimism or negative thinking; it is, in fact, its opposite. It is that knowledge that encourages me to treasure time, to try to spend it wisely.

“The days are long, but the years are short.” On the whole, Rubin’s statement resonates with me. But as we look forward to a new year (with a new vaccine), I think there’s also value in flipping her statement, our perspective. The days until we can move toward a different (improved) reality are drawing short, and there is hope in that. And if we can hold out and take care of ourselves and each other, our years will, god- and the universe-willing, be long.

Cheers!

Happy New Year, friends! May 2021 bring us all health, happiness, and peace.

In the Only-a-Little Bleak Mid-December

There seem to be no limits to the ways 2020 can be strange. Coronavirus surge and ongoing chemotherapy notwithstanding, this is the first year since 2015 that mid-December hasn’t been marked, personally, by some kind of trauma or bad news.

Recent Decembers have been hard. In 2016 I had a bilateral mastectomy on December 12th. In 2017 I had nipple reconstruction surgery at Thanksgiving, and in mid-December the left nipple failed, which brought on cellulitis on the eve of Christmas Eve. That was the first time something in the long series of treatments and surgeries I’d had went “wrong,” and it hit me hard. In 2018 we got word on December 14th of the first recurrence; I had a surgical biopsy December 31st. Last year, in 2019, I was diagnosed again right before Thanksgiving, and we spent early and mid-December uncertain of the extent of the spread, shuttling to multiple scans and appointments, waiting for news. Treatment started the day after Christmas.

The year’s not over yet, and I don’t want to tempt fate. But I’m glad we’ve at least made it to December 15th this year without a sudden disruption to our lives. Certainly there is disruption, but as wearying as treatment and the pandemic are, neither are new adjustments. And chemo is going in the right direction, which is something to be glad of!

A lot of people find the winter holidays difficult, for a variety of reasons. I’ve been lucky; aside from my paternal grandmother’s death in early December 1994, and the loss of my beloved Tiko kitty just prior to Christmas in 1997, Christmas has almost always been a joyful time for me and my family. I love choosing presents for people, making ornaments, baking cookies. I’ve led a privileged life, and the holidays have been rich with tradition and abundance. Back when I was declared cancer-free after my mastectomy, the hope was that Steve and I would have just that one Christmas in 2016 impacted directly by cancer, and then things would return to normal–or rather, go forward, having been changed by cancer, but done with it.

Decorations ready for this year’s kitten-friendly tree

Though my mind occasionally travels toward “what if…?” it’s simply too tender, too painful to contemplate with any depth what that life could have been like, had it been granted to us. I comfort myself with the reminder that there’s no guarantee an alternative path would have been better. That’s the thing about counterfactuals. We oftentimes imagine the thing that didn’t happen, the path we didn’t travel, in its ideal form. In my case, the house would be fully painted and decorated, I’d have finished and published a book (and it would be a bestseller!), Steve and I would be traveling regularly, and I’d be fit, thin, and have beautiful hair. Okay, it is likely I’d have hair. But–life happens. It’s never going to be perfect, chronic illness or no. Fairy tales are classified as fiction for a reason, and they stop at “happily ever after” because that’s precisely the moment things get complicated, and besides, happiness is a dynamic, messy, multi-faceted enterprise.

I’m happy I’m still around to note all these mid-December anniversaries, even as it can be hard to find the festive some days. I’m happy I’ve learned to pay attention to and appreciate all the good and beauty that is present, even when times are tough and the world’s gone weird. I’m glad for silly kittens, and old-fashioned paper snowflakes, and twinkly lights on our tree. I’m glad for today’s calm and routine, whatever tomorrow may bring.

Peace to you, friends, this December and always.