How to Die Like I Am Living.

When the doctor said, “Now, I don’t want this to throw you into a tailspin,” my reaction was delayed. I said, “Okay,” to her, and thought, Why would I be thrown into a tailspin?

I went back to the front desk and handed over my credit card and listened patiently as the receptionist explained the next steps in getting the necessary biopsy. I nodded along, thanking her excessively, while thinking about what the difference is between something looking like cancer and something being cancer. By the time I got into the truck, I had begun to breathe more heavily, so I took off my mask while I stared at my steering wheel. I imagined my cervix, or rather the illustrated drawing of someone’s cervix that hung on the wall of the examination room, with little white faces popping up like zits, scowling like a Mr. Yuck sticker staring back at my doctor. That would look like cancer to me. Or maybe she just caught them at a bad time. My brain left the cartoon and started stretching forward to all of the words I knew to be related to cancer. Chemo was the only one that came to mind. And bills. By the time I called my Someone, I was in a tailspin, as the doctor had specifically not ordered.

I was surprised to find myself this alarmed. Of the two of us, I keep a level head, often waiting far too long to go to a doctor when I know that I should. But my impending feeling of doom that had landed two weeks ago seemed to have some legitimacy, and I was painfully sobered by the possibility.

“What do you mean, ‘they found something that looks like cancer’?” he asked me. I thought of the Mr. Yucks hanging out inside of me, unwilling to say one way or another. I felt heavy, dirty, and panicked.

“I guess just what they said. We are not supposed to be in a tailspin.” And then, as I stayed steady, the world spun.

I spent a lot of my early 20’s in Asheville, and even while it isn’t the town I remember now, the streets are mostly the same. My body made the wise choice of auto-piloting me to the parking garage I used for work at the art gallery downtown. I called my Someone again once I’d parked, just to hear the air on the line, hanging up again to walk. Everything became so serious. Everything became time. My life and the entire world were picked up like a piece of paper, curled and full of everything and everyone I knew so far, and was tilting toward a giant, ominous black trash can. In its new form, I assessed by responsibility.

A hot cup of tea to-go: Good. Will consume within one hour. I definitely have an hour.

The $12 tea mug bought by the register as a panic purchase: Medium. May use a few times, but then will only be clutter for my Someone later, causing him to ask the question “When did she even get this mug?” May also be a point of compassion, “She believed she would make it.”

A chocolate truffle: Great. Eaten within seconds. Second truffle, also great. Helps one forget that she is eating time itself.

A book about bookbinding: Poor. Who has time to get better at a new craft when one is no longer good at living?

Animal, vegetable, mineral were just time, moving around me, avoiding me, crashing into me. I called my Someone again. I don’t remember if we said anything. Hung up. I ran into Megan at the parking garage. She’ll be due in January. She is holding time still within her, and I am letting it eat me away. She is a perfect human, I remember, making a perfect human. We are all perfect humans. And then, there is time.

I picked my littlest dog up from Kristie’s house, who let me stay as I had doctor appointments and online classes. I helped my dog into the back seat and sat in the parking lot of the apartment complex. I called my Someone again, we said something, and I hung up again. I began driving toward Black Mountain, the town I lived in right out of college. Some of the best friends I have came from that time. I was going to pick up vegetables from a community based program that asks no questions and offers anyone and everyone a box of vegetables for showing up. I waited in line in my car for forty minutes, picking up my phone and putting it down, until I finally did what everyone says not to do. The results were strangely comforting. Almost 100% recovery rate. Hysterectomy. Survival. 

Easy, I thought. Then, said aloud, “It could be nothing.” My dog looked at me. I looked at her and watched her turn into time, a puppy turned into a middle aged dog with a limp in her back right foot, to a time when she would be here and I would not. I looked back at my phone and remembered the recovery rate. I put my phone down and forgot again. When it was my turn, a kind woman in a flowered mask said, “Lots of great veggies this week! Glad you made it!” I said, “Thank you.” She said, “We have one orchid left, and I think it belongs to you.” I thought, It does belong to me, and said “This feels like a metaphor to me, but okay.” They put a box of vegetables on the passengers seat and the orchid next to it. I looked at the orchid and watched it turn into time as I imagined myself feeding it two ice cubes a week. I imagined the orchid as a soul for my cervix. I imagined it looking up at me and saying, “You live if I do, lady.” I patted the moss on the bottom of the planter and said, “Okay.”

Orchid: Bad. Definitely a burden to someone else when I am gone. Definitely not rooting for me. 

I drove my truck and my vegetables and my orchid to Lake Tomahawk, a small little pond that has a full view of the Seven Sisters mountains. I walked my dog around the 3/4 mile pond. I recognized someone. I said hello. We talked. I wanted to ask her about cancer, but instead I asked how she was doing. I praised myself for being so put together, then I felt sick as I saw the sun on the mountains. It’s all just so fucking beautiful, I thought. I said, “Okay, let’s go” to my dog, and we climbed into the truck and drove my vegetables and my orchid back to Kristie’s. 

I tried to pawn my orchid off on Kristie.

It didn’t take.

I sat around a fire with four women I love. Most of them I met in Black Mountain. Before we opened the wine, Annie said, “How was your appointment today?” I cried. I told them. I asked if anyone wanted an orchid. I made a joke and everyone laughed. When I drove away, I felt more sure. Everything was going to be okay. 

I did not think: They will think I’m a fool if I don’t have cancer.

I did not think: I should not have told anyone.

I thought: I hope we can celebrate later when me and my orchid are cancer free.

I called my Someone and said something and ate the caramel truffle I was saving for him. I hung up. Later in my bed, the first time I’ve slept alone in five years, I was awake. I let the sadness take me so I could fall asleep like the horse in the swamp in my favorite childhood movie. No one was there to yell “Don’t let the sadness take you!” and it was more comfortable this way, and so the sadness became sleep. My dog and I didn’t move the entire night. When I woke up early, very early, I thought, I am wasting time. Then I got out of bed.

The world did not shift back like I’d anticipated. Not even after 6 sleeps. I told more people. I am not ashamed of being wrong, but I am terribly ashamed of being alone. Ann said to not panic, yet. We don’t know anything. But then she said, “But when you do panic, let me know, and I can take it from there. I’ll panic for you, so you can relax.”

I let Ann panic for me for five days. I worried that she’d grown tired from the marathon of panic, but instead, she called me and sounded cheerful and let me say things I thought might be true and could also be false, and also things that were definitely true like, “I’m scared.” I did not say, “I wish I had not said anything at all.” 

I fed my orchid two ice cubes on Sunday.

The biopsy was horrible.

There’s not a way around that.

But at least it was the next thing.

Bryan said, “That’s a thing. Now we wait.”

I thought, I want the next thing to be now. I said, “Yes. That thing is over. Now we wait.”

I like Bryan and the way he speaks in present “we” tense. I put him in a column of “People Who May Enjoy a Dead Lady’s Orchid” while I finished off the cookies Amanda had made and sent Steve to drop off for me in the parking lot of my biopsy. I was glad to have told Amanda because her baking is some of the best I know. And also, because eating her cookies made me feel less alone.

The day after my biopsy, I tried to get Jessica to take my orchid again. She did not. When I texted her and said “Your forgot your orchid,” she texted back “hahahaha.”

I suspected she also thinks it is the soul of my cervix. If she’s right, probably no one else should be in charge of it but me.

On Sunday, I fed it two more ice cubes.

It was only two weeks between the doctor saying “Do no let this throw you into a tailspin” and the second doctor calling with my biopsy results. Half of a month. In that time, I spent my time unusually. I could hardly read my books because the stillness made my thoughts more active. At the same time, I was trying so desperately to finish the four books I had started. I did not want my Someone to see a bookmark in them later and be overcome with grief that I didn’t even get finish my books. Then, I would scan the long shelf of books and bemoan the books I never read.

I watched the leaves fall from the trees outside in long episodes, like binging a TV show, and got trapped in my thought rotation of what-if’s-or-it-could-be-nothing’s. Another leaf would fall and I’d become overwhelmed by its beauty, swooning and desperately thinking– how? How can we ask for more than this? How can we get anything done for all of the beauty? But I would say nothing, even as the movement of the wind in the trees made my chest and throat feel like they were filling up with water and I could hardly breathe to keep from weeping.

When I would nearly explode, a call would come, or a text, or my Someone would remind me that it was time to eat. I was grateful for the distraction, even as I prized myself as someone who could face myself no matter the circumstances. But I had never been in this circumstance before. I’d imagined myself, in those dark daydreams, as someone who would quietly warrior her way through, silent and strong and stoic. It turns out, as I lived, so I was fake dying. I was greedy for life. I could not get enough. 

I said to my Someone, “I will not go gracefully.”

He said, “I know.”

I said, “We may find out. I will be kicking and screaming before I let them take me out of this perfect beautiful fucking place.”

And he would squish my head in his arms and be silent and strong and stoic before he would cry and I would try out a new cancer joke I’d been working on through the afternoon while I watched the leaves fall. 

He thought they were very funny, but not appropriate for the general audience.

For three days, we pretended that the election results were the only news we were waiting on. 

It was my first time being grateful to our president.

So, that was new.

The worst part about it is that I’ve already forgotten. But we aren’t there yet. First, the celebration. It went like this:

“Hello, hello, yes, it’s me.”

“Yes, I just want to tell you that we got the results of the biopsy back, and you do not have cancer.”

“Ohmygodthankyouwhatisitthenitdoesn’tmatterwhatisitIdon’thaveitthankyousomuch.”

“Yeah, this is definitely a time to celebrate! Go ahead and take the time to let the news sink in! We will figure out the rest later,” the doctor continued. “I’m so happy this is good news. We did not think that’s where this was headed.”

“Youdidn’tThankyoumetooIhadnoideawhatIwasgoingtodothat’snotreallyyourjobI’mjustsogladitworkedoutIwassoscaredit’snotcancer!ohmygodthatissogreat. What happens next?”

“Take some time. This is big. We will talk later.”

I ran inside where my Someone waited, staring at the front door.

“BENIIIIIIIIIGN!” I yelled.

“BENIIIIGN!” he yelled. 

Text after text after text after text– benign, benign, benign, benign.

We drank wine that night and made something spectacular to eat, though it doesn’t register now what it was. That’s where the forgetting begins. As I hung up with the doctor, so the world snapped back. I was no longer clammering my way up the slick sheet of paper, watching everything I’d accumulated tumbling past into the eternal trash. I was upright. Still. Full. 

As painful as was the waiting, so was it terribly tender. Everything mattered. I’ve known those moments briefly before this, and I will know them briefly again. But the cocoon of meaning, the nestling of every word and moment and kindness– just as I can’t live with that amount of worry, so I can’t live with all the sweetness. How could I get anything done? How could I enjoy my life while also recognizing the fullness of it? The beauty of the light in a room in the afternoon would be enough to paralyze me for days. 

I am turned, though, with my face toward empathy and my hands in the now. Death may be the end of life, but it is also life’s expansion. While I am not so sensitive to every falling leaf for the sake of getting emails out on time, I’m not immune to the sacred expansion as I wake up before the sun and walk the woods alone on a cold November morning. Or when I catch my Someone through the window tripping over our big dumb dog. Or as I feed my orchid two more ice cubes on Sundays.

10 comments

  1. I understand this very well. So glad for the end result, but that time between the possibility and learning the diagnosis is unsettling. I found it interesting (in my own situation) how I responded to my own mortality and what I chose to do in those 9 days before I had results. It sounds like Scott offered just the right mix of strength and vulnerability to bring you comfort, as much as one can in such a scenario. Now…back to making music!

  2. Sometimes I think I can write, but not right now. I’m paralyzed with wonder at your ability to express so much so well. And so glad it had a happy ending.

    Long, long ago I experienced Someone’s view of the story. Helpless, so helpless, and trying through sheer force of will to make it all come out right and somehow it does.

    Thank you for this pause in time and contemplating again how the hell it is I’m still here.

  3. What a powerful story, so beautifully written. It left me with the impression that this crisis, and the good news that followed, and the new perspective that followed that, were gifts. Gifts? Maybe so. I’m happy for your someone, and the friends with whom you surround yourself and shared in your fear and your celebration. How’s the orchid (real, not metaphorical)?

    1. Gifts are exactly how I’d describe them! Thank you, Howard. The orchid? Still alive, which is a good sign on all fronts. Gets its ice cubes every Sunday. Though it looks a long way from blooming.

  4. I know how you felt and what you went through. you are tough. you aare brave. take care of yourself. you are in my thoughts and prayers. love, Karen newman

  5. So happy your news was good. As a nurse, knowing too much can panic the hell out of you when you are the one waiting for that call. Because of that, I always tried to be mindful of my patient’s anxiety. I always looked at them in the eye and touched their hand or their shoulder and said” I am going to take really good care of you, I promise” before I wheeled them to the OR. We must all walk in those shoes sometimes and I am so happy that your outcome was the good news we all want to hear.

    1. Oh my goodness, I kept thinking I would only want you as a nurse! All of the folks were so kind, for sure. But it’s hard not to feel alone. It was a consolation that you came up first in my mind, Carol. That speaks volumes to how much you’ve already been a steady person to me.

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