Friday, August 6, 2010

"You could pick up a chick in an all-male prison." -To Remain Anonymous

"Who's that?" I asked, mesmerized by the pretty girl who had just walked into the room.

It was my last round of chemo, so I had accepted without much of a fight being put in a 4-bed room, even for five straight days.

"Oh, that's Laci, don't you know her?" responded my fun, friendly, amazingly wonderful caregiver, who certainly knows to whom I am referring.

"No, I don't think so," I said, still gazing at the doorway through which she had come before disappearing to the other side of the room and out of sight, yet through which she would once again have to pass in order to leave.

"She has a boyfriend," warned my informative friend.

"Oh, that's cool," I said, clearly trying to downplay my interest (i.e. play it cool). "I--I-- just thought she had a nice butt, that's all," I continued, immediately regretting my words as soon as I heard them leave my mouth. "Please don't say anything," I told my friend, trying to avoid the impending embarrassment.

I guess I should have known that my friend was about to go tell this Laci what I had said, anyway. I was fully prepared to face the consequences, and I have no problem telling a pretty girl when I think she's pretty. It's just that if I'm going to lead with a compliment, I try to come up with something more flattering than a comment on her butt. I like to at least offer the illusion that there lies some depth within me, beneath the bursting layers of charm and cynicism.

It wasn't until a later date that I learned of my ever-so-flattering comment reaching Laci's ears, and it came as a surprise to me when she told me herself that it had made her smile.

By this fourteenth round of chemo, I had developed somewhat of a nightly routine. First and foremost, being cooped up in a hospital room for five straight days, I liked to lighten the mood with some pain meds. I know, I know, it's a touchy subject for some, but then again so is cancer. I would then unplug my I.V. pole from the wall and drag it alongside me as I would begin to pace the hall indefinitely; my "nightly rounds."

If I were to have visitors, many times they might walk with me. On this night, my friendly caregiver was my walking buddy, and we did laps around the floor until she had to go fulfill her responsibilities to other patients.

Alone now, I noticed Laci sitting at one of the nurse's stations, and asked her if she would like to walk with me. As I expected, she told me she was busy, and I walked on by myself.

Hoping to be entertained, I began to treat the legs of the I.V. pole as a skateboard, pushing off the ground and jumping onto the legs of the pole to ride them down the hall. I kept myself amused for a while, until I pushed too hard and rolled too fast, losing the I.V. pole which almost ripped the line out of my chest as it went crashing to the floor.

"I'm alright," I announced, having maintained my balance and stayed on my feet, though nobody had seen my stunt.

Having flirted with danger long enough, I thought it was time to make my way back towards my room. Ironically, the only person I would find along the way was that same Laci.

"You didn't hear that, did you?" I asked, dreading her answer.

"Yes, I did," she said, clearly trying not to laugh. "It sounded kind of bad. Are you alright?"

"Yeah, I'm fine," I said. "Just trying to keep myself occupied."

"Well, just try not to get hurt. It is your last night tonight, isn't it?"

It wasn't long before I was sitting at the nurse's station with my friend and Laci, my new friend, having been formally introduced for the first time.

I had made it a habit to sit at the nurse's stations late at night, where they took their breaks, as I was comparable in age to many of them despite being treated on a pediatric ward. A night in the hospital can feel like an eternity with nobody to talk to, and I like to think, or at least tell myself, that those I would call my friends enjoyed my company as I did theirs.

"Do you want to hear some of my music?" I asked Laci.

"Sure," she said, "I just have to check up on my patients, first."

I walked back to my room with no expectations that the pretty nurse would ever show up at my hospital bed to hear my band's music about which she knew nothing. But, as luck would have it, she did appear before long, accompanied by another nurse I had not previously met.

I did my best to entertain them, play my music and make them laugh without being overly flirtatious and entirely obvious about my interests.

The night passed as did every other, and I was discharged the next day as I was at the end of every other round. I left as I always left, though this time with a little more fanfare, as I've already shared, and a smile for the girl who had made me smile, though unaccompanied by expectation.

I didn't know what to expect after the first contact, the first response, the first time I heard her voice outside the hospital. I knew that people like to say "good things happen when you least expect them," but I could never have expected anything to be this good.

I don't like to get my hopes up. I don't like to be let down. I don't like to build my expectations for many things other than myself. I like to think it's better that way when something, or someone, unexpectedly exceeds them.

I like when people surprise me. She surprised me. She hasn't stopped.

Monday, August 2, 2010

A Moment of Truth

My back hurts. My stomach hurts. My head hurts. I'm nauseous. I'm tired, and I don't want to feel this way anymore. But the thing about it that makes it all feel even worse is that I'm used to it. I can't remember the last day or time I felt anywhere close to what I would call normal. Sure, I feel more like myself now than I have at any point in the past year. My hair is back, sideburns and eyebrows included. I've shed the weight I put on in the places I didn't want it over those eight plus months of inactivity, and I'm slowly beginning to recognize the old form I so dearly valued in my shallow, unrelenting vanity.

I'm tired of people asking me "how I feel today," or if "today is a good day," though I know most of them ask because they care. I'm even more tired of telling them I'm "pretty good" or that I'm "alright" when the truth is that I feel awful, but I'd rather put on a happy face and tell them everything's okay. I hide my feelings from my family and from my friends, but mostly I just want to hide my pain. I really don't want anyone to try and share it with me. I have enough of it; I don't need to impart it on the people I care about, and that care about me, the way I probably am right now.

For so long, I eagerly awaited my chance to resume normal life; to loosen the reins that had become so suffocating. I ignored the impending responsibility and demands that accompany "real life," and all of a sudden I'm more afraid of going out and living than I am of the persistent uncertainty that I'll be around to do it.

I'm the first to acknowledge the constant uncertainty in our lives. Things are always changing, and I don't know how anyone can promise anything to anyone else when they can't guarantee tomorrow for themselves.

I hit ruts and rough patches; I think everyone does. I think maybe mine last longer than those of others because of cancer. A few months ago, I didn't think it was possible for me to be happy. A lot of the time, I'm not sure it is possible for me to be happy with the way things are right now. It's hard for me to accept that it's okay to feel that way.

People like to say that good things happen when you least expect them. Maybe they just like to maintain hope that something good might happen at any moment. I say it's a cliche. Then I realize that cliches are cliches because they hold true enough of the time for enough people to believe them in order to become cliches.

I will not believe that things happen for a reason. I will not budge on that point. But I will bend on the idea that good things happen when you least expect them. Maybe, for instance, on the last night of the last round of high dose chemo, when, on any normal occasion, I would not remember. And maybe by "good" I really mean "great," or "amazing." Maybe it's hard to let myself believe something like that could really be as great as it is, because this time it could actually be real. This time, it's not some impossible dream that I'll never touch. Now I dream while I'm awake.

I guess it's still hard for me to believe that someone could make me happy when I didn't think it was possible to be happy. I didn't know someone could know what I'm going through, see the question marks, and still want to love me. And though she can't heal my pain, or keep my stomach from gurgling like a water cooler, or keep me from falling into the occasional funk, she can remind me that everything will be alright just by existing in my life. I guess that's what people mean when they talk about the "healing power of love." That's if you believe cliches, of course.

When I hurt, she makes me hurt less. When I laugh, she makes me laugh harder. When I sleep, she helps me sleep better. When I can't get out of bed, she doesn't either. And by "can't" I really mean "don't want to," but I still mean she doesn't, either.

Before I got sick, I believed in the value of the journey as well as the destination. Since I was diagnosed, I've wished countless times that I could fall asleep and wake up when it's all over. I didn't care how I got there, I just wanted to be better. And, to a large extent, I still feel that way. But at least now I feel like part of the journey is worth being awake for.

I still have a long way to go. I have another round of low dose chemo before my next scan, and I'm not under the delusion that this will be the end. I don't like to get my hopes up. I know I'll reach the end of treatment, and I know that each passing day brings me closer to it. But I no longer feel like I'm in such a rush, and I once again feel like I can have everything there is to have in this life. I thought I had lost that. I've been reminded. I don't know what to call it... peace of mind, I guess.