Conventional wisdom says that it takes time between the living of experience, and the writing of it—that the immediacy of emotion clouds one’s ability to view an event with the kind of lucidity or insight required to understand what that event might mean.
The problem is that I don’t have time. Things are happening so quickly, and I don’t have the luxury of contemplating in tranquility. It feels important to write about everything, even so, through the fog of unknowing, confusion, and fear. With urgency and attention. If for no other reason than to bear witness to a life which is being lived, more and more, under strain.
* * *
And the only sound that’s left after the ambulances go
Is Cinderella sweeping up on Desolation Row.
— Bob Dylan
I arrived at this residency, in northern Wyoming, three-and-a-half weeks ago, eager to return to my writing after a month’s hiatus. It is a beautiful place, with a view out my window of deer and wild turkeys wandering among the yellowing cottonwoods, and the fallow fields of the nearby farm.
My second night here, I started feeling pain in my chest, on the left side, where my port-a-cath is implanted. I went to the tiny hospital in Sheridan, where the ER doctor informed me it was infected. I was sent to a surgeon, who took the port out while I was on local anesthesia, and sent me home without antibiotics. The next few days, I felt increasing pain, and by the next week, I was in the hospital in Billings, Montana, being pumped full of IV antibiotics, having my infected wound packed and unpacked, with weird, cloth tape that resembled extra-wide dental floss. I spent two nights in the hospital—my first since the one I’d spent when my daughter was born—and it was as miserable experience as one might expect. It was like sleeping in a bus station—noisy and bright, with people waking you up every few hours, to feed you drugs and extract bodily fluids.
I’m not superstitious, but I was starting to wonder if my residency was cursed. I am on a semester sabbatical to write this book, and I have mostly been making good progress, but I feel an increasing unsteadiness, physical—I tripped on the stairs today—and mental, I locked myself out of my room twice yesterday. And I am exhausted. I slept ten hours last night, and took a two-hour nap, and I could just as easily fall asleep again, with my forehead—bang!—on the keyboard of the computer.
In the back of my mind, I am vigilant for signs that the cancer is advancing. I am always anticipating that pivot moment, when life, which has, so far, gone fairly normally, gives way to post-normal. That was the moment, the day, the time, that I knew… life would never be the same. Of course, there have been several of these moments—the day I was diagnosed with breast cancer; the day, almost a year later, that I was told it had come back in my lungs; the day I found out it had spread to my liver. A series of milestones, each eventually absorbed and dealt with, from, O well, there is an 80 percent chance that the cancer will be cured, to, Okay, it’s come back, but the lesions are small, to Wow, it’s spread to my liver… but there’s just the one tiny lesion.
I think I am brave, but it is hard to be brave. I think I am strong, but it is exhausting to be strong. And what to do with despair? The flat-out, punch-to-the-gut, desolation that hits me from time to time, when I see with terrible clarity, the future of this disease. Where is the redemption in that? What is the pay-off for my vigilance in this case? These are the times I want to close my laptop, lay down my pen, and crawl into bed with a pillow over my head.
What do I have to counter these moments? Talismans against the dark. I have my children, and G., who are the loves of my life. I have a little black dog who shimmies when you scratch her butt. I have friends who send me palo santo, postcards, small stones and shells.
And this: a red fox in the field, bushy tail tipped white, frolicking in the tall grass, jumping up, and slinking low, zigzagging across the yellow expanse, until he disappears in the trees.