Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.
— English Nursery Rhyme
There are many ways to fall. From great distances or slight. Backwards or forwards. At a leisurely pace, like Alice down the rabbit hole, or precipitously, like tumbling Jack. Icarus fell from over-celebration. Humpty Dumpty was just minding his own business. Satan. Did he fall or was he pushed?
The falling is one thing—the windmilling moment of flailing limbs and slipping feet, the mind projecting ahead to consequence, casting back to caution. Once you accept that you’ve lost control, falling is easy. Might as well relax and enjoy the ride. It’s the landing you need to worry about. Not the falling, but the falling down.
It was two days before my 55th birthday, and I was running late. Scheduled to meet a former student for lunch, I hopped into the shower to get cleaned up, and that’s when I felt it, on the outer edge of my left breast.
Anyone who knows me well knows that I’m absentminded, the kind of person who wears her clothes inside out, or forgets where she put her car keys. I can go days without noticing that G. shaved off his beard, or that a building I pass every day on the way to work has been razed to the ground, but I could not believe I hadn’t noticed this. It was a lump, but it felt more like a ledge or a shelf: deep, rectangular, flat at the edges.
If you had asked me, I would have sworn it hadn’t been there the day before, but, of course, I would have been wrong. Tumors take years to grow, years for the abnormal cells to accumulate, piling up, impossibly, like clowns from a tiny car. I had been having yearly mammograms and nothing had shown up, so finding the lump was like discovering that G. had been having a long-term affair. Last year? I thought. When I was working out at the Y three times a week, and feeling so good? Two years ago? When I’d just gotten tenure, and felt relaxed, for the first time, in my career? There had been no signs, no dead giveaways. It all felt like such a betrayal.
And it was. No doubt. My own body sabotaging itself, with maniacal disregard for its ultimate longevity. I visualized the cancer as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, skulking among the flock. Deception and guile are the hallmarks of the disease. Picture Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan Kenobi, using his Jedi mind trick. These are not the droids you are looking for.
I can’t remember much else about that day. I went to lunch with my student, ran errands, kept appointments, but in my head, a chorus from Greek tragedy kept intoning, in unison, “Lump, lump, lump.”
Worser and Worser
It took two weeks and several tests to confirm what I already knew. A year went by, a year of baldness and mouth sores, bone pain, and loss of appetite, of nausea, neuropathy, and neutropenia, acid reflux, diarrhea, muscle pain, cutting, scarring, radiation burn, and fatigue. At the end of the year, my energy returned. I went back to work. My hair grew to a sufficient length to be rightly called a style and not an affliction; a 3-D mammogram came back clear. I was two days away from getting my port taken out, and I was looking forward to having my life back.
But first there was a CT scan.
Later, neither my oncologist, nor myself, could remember why she’d ordered it. She said she didn’t normally. And this is how stupid I was, when she told me they had found nodes in my lungs, I didn’t know what she meant.
Four months and five rounds of chemo later, I have another scan. A new semester has begun, and I am teaching my classes in little scarf-y caps, to cover my baldness, and a compression sleeve, with a henna tattoo pattern, for my lymphedema. I feel vulnerable and self-conscious—also, like a pirate. Argh.
The news is good. The nodes in my lungs have shrunk by 30 to 50 percent. The largest one is now only about nine by seven millimeters. My oncologist tells me I can go off chemo, though I will continue to get two targeted drugs every three weeks. I am elated. No chemo means my hair will grow back. It means more energy, hopefully less dopiness. Most importantly, it means no more cytotoxins pumped into my body.
Then, in the midst of my relief and celebration, it dawns on me, (though it feels more mushroom cloud, than daylight), that this is the new routine. My life will be measured out in three month intervals, punctuated by scans, and scan results. If I’m lucky, the scan will signal the status quo, and I can go merrily on my way for three more months; if the scan is bad, I will most likely go back on some formulation of chemo.
I don’t know what to do with this stark knowledge, this sudden awareness of a future doled out four beats to a measure. Can I count on chemo brain to make me forget? My whole life I have had trouble with anxiety, with looking back on past gaffes, and forward to certain doom—but pessimism is a luxury I can no longer afford. Somehow, I’m going to have to learn to live between the scans, and beyond them, to breathe in the intervals, and through to the other side.
Two weeks before the scan, it is summer. I am on the Big Island of Hawaii, celebrating my mother’s 80th birthday. My brother treats us to a day cruise, where we snorkel off rocky coves, amid neon fish made up like clowns and movie actresses. On the way back, we encounter a pod of dolphins. There are at least thirty or more, some of them babies, playing, jumping, swimming all around our boat. I have never seen dolphins up close, and I can’t believe how magnificent they are, how seemingly delighted to share our company. One of them, quite nearby, leaps up, its sleek, gray back streaming water in sunlight. It corkscrews around to face me, grinning, quite obviously pleased with itself, before plunging back into the depths. We humans laugh like children. It lasts only a few seconds, but it’s a gorgeous display of pure joy, and it feels to me like benediction.
There are many ways to fall. This is how it happened to me. I fell once, from a certain height, and landed with some injury, but I was not broken. I was just recovering, when I fell a second time, (it turns out what I thought was the ground was a trap door), and I have yet to land again, so I am still falling, and will continue to fall—sometimes in darkness, recalcitrant, with a heart like a closed fist, and sometimes in delight, with aplomb, or in full view—until I fall still.