What is it like to be 41 and meet the thing that will likely kill you sometime before you turn 45?
The first few days, weeks, months are like a hurricane. You see the devastation of your future plans and you want to die, right then and there, because you know you aren’t strong enough to handle what is coming. Then you spend those weeks and months starting chemo, healing from surgery, taking antidepressants so you no longer feel suicidal, and one day you realize that you are still you and you still have all your former interests, your former desires, your former YOU inside your head. You receive the amazing blessing of learning with certainty what you barely dared to suspect before: that you are loved by friends across the globe. They send you handmade quilts, they arrive at your house as soon as you’re able to have visitors, they invite you to vacations where you don’t have to lift a finger, and they fly from across the country just to spend a weekend with you. You hope that they know that you love them just as much.
You gradually regain some semblance of a normal life. You leave the house for hours each day to sit in coffee shops and write, to walk in parks catching Pokemon, to eat your favorite foods. You weigh every activity and purchase against how much time you have left. How many times do I need to wear these shoes before I die to justify the $35 I spent on them? Is a year of sleeping on uncomfortable mattresses enough penance to justify purchasing a new mattress that may only get used for another year? You buy a queen rather than a full because it will be easier for your family to use or resell after you are gone. You try not to count the things that cancer is taking from you. Your lighthearted spirit, your ability to walk two miles without overexerting yourself and breaking down in tears, your ability to greet the world with a smile and a joke instead of tears and rage. You imagine your favorite therapist from your old home town and ask her imaginary self what you’re supposed to do with all this anger. You know she wouldn’t have an answer.
You live somewhere between your old self that still wants to travel to Italy, to date and have sex, to buy a new car, and your current reality where you wake up more tired than when you went to sleep and are tethered to your parents’ guest bedroom by the need for bi-weekly chemo infusions. You take up a new hobby and write a piece of fiction for the first time since you were 12 years old. You sort through your former life that now lives in a storage locker near your parents’ house and get rid of all the books you’ve already read, because it’s not like you’re going to be needing them. You surprisingly have an easier time getting rid of books than the hodgepodge of funny mugs and cute glassware that you’ve picked up at thrift stores over the course of the last twenty years. Maybe because you’re a librarian and you know you can always get the books back, but giving up your rice cooker seems so irreversibly final.
You don’t regret many things about your life, and are filled with relief that you never had children so that you won’t be breaking someone’s heart in that particular way when you go. You buy a journal with 300 random questions and start answering them for your niece and nephew to read when they are grown up, because they might like to know the real you and you aren’t sure how much other people will get right about the way you think and feel when they are the ones telling your story. You wish that you had found the right person to love and marry you, but then you are glad that you’re not going to be breaking someone’s heart in that way either. You suspect that friends will cry when they think of you ten years, twenty years, thirty years from now, which is really all we can hope for: that there will be people who love us and miss us when we are gone. You wish you could be there in ten or twenty or thirty years with them.
While your friends go to their jobs and raise their children you write your own obituary and memorial instructions. You pick the soundtrack for your own wake. You shake your head in surprise because, of all the things that have surprised you about dying slowly, the greatest surprise is how much you still want all of the things you used to want. You feel alone a great majority of the time, because yes, you are dying, but probably not yet, and people don’t know what to do with you when you’re living in that liminal space. You regret that when you made a new friend years ago who was dying from a brain tumor you held back on doing things with him, because surely he wanted to spend time with people who were closer to him. Surely his mind was turned to things besides making new friends. You realize from this side of things that he was probably lonely a lot of the time too and just wanted to spend some time being normal for a while. You regret that you didn’t give him that.
Cancer is your full time job, but you don’t look sick, so you can pass unseen in the grocery store without pitying looks. You sit in coffee shops in the middle of the afternoon with students and others who are absent from the 9–5 working world. You find that hope persists in spite of all odds. You think of the people who were diagnosed with previously terminal illnesses just as new treatments became available and are still alive today. You wonder if that could be you, while feeling in your bones that it will not. You are not afraid to be gone. We all have to get off this train ride somewhere. But you are desperately afraid of the way you go being painful and lingering. You are glad you get to see that people love you and glad that you get time to think intentionally about what you leave behind, but not glad enough that you don’t sometimes wish you had been hit by the proverbial bus and just gotten this all over with. You still look forward to new movies and tv shows and wonder if you will still be here to see your favorites. You struggle with whether everything matters more now or nothing matters.
You write essays that, like your thoughts, come to no clear conclusion. You want more time. You have too much time. You wish someone could tell you what the final steps in this process will be like, but everyone you could ask is, by definition, already gone. You continue to be you in the face of the end of “you.” You watch and you wait. You are.
Until you are not.