What am I really made of?
I Am Cerium
Today is my 58th birthday, and I am Cerium, a chemical element with an atomic number of fifty-eight. Cerium is soft and silvery-white, tarnishing easily when exposed to air.
After being exposed to air for 58 years, the tarnishing process has settled deep into my bones. And today — my birthday — I can almost feel the weight of more than a half-century as it softens its silvery-white dullness around my being. It seems like yesterday I’d just begun to live—only to realize today that there is less life ahead than behind. Deterioration from the elements is inevitable.
Thanks to the agony of insight, this isn’t the first birthday to disturb the delicate join of life and death.
A Birthday Passed
On a crisp January 9th morning — a few birthdays ago — I spun my way through the countless hallways of the extended-care facility until I came to Ray’s apartment. As the Admission’s Coordinator for a small home health company, I was the first nurse Ray would meet after being discharged from the hospital.
I was careful to address him as Mr. Kendall and respectfully requested permission to call him Ray. However, I quickly discovered that although he gave me permission to address him as Ray, this did not mean we were on a first-name basis.
Five months ago he moved from the home he had shared with his wife of 49 years. After her passing, his health declined swiftly and a swollen prostate condemned him to monthly catheter changes which required him to sell his home and move into this facility.
There he sat in his brown recliner, in the center of a white-walled room cocooned by everything that had ever meant anything to him — an oversized curio cabinet with delicate glassware, unopened boxes stacked in piles of threes and fours, two coffee tables scattered with magazines, papers, and photo albums.
Against the wall on the other side of the room was a small countertop with one sink, a tiny refrigerator, and a windowless corner that housed his bed. A closet with a door that wouldn’t latch and a miniature bathroom completed his new home.
Ray was not happy about living in this room. Not happy about being alone. Not happy about having his catheter changed.
The Radon Part of Ray
At 86 years old, Ray was Radon, a chemical element with an atomic number of eight-six. Radon is colorless, odorless, and tasteless. It is radioactive, occurring naturally within a chain-like breakdown of other radioactive elements. Radon itself is the immediate decay product of radium.
Radon is a noble gas with the ability to heal or kill depending on how it’s used. Micro doses were used as part of cancer treatments for many years, but small amounts can cause headaches, lung cancer, or death.
Ray was a US Veteran who worked as a union pipefitter for most of his life. He had married his high school sweetheart and, together, they raised three sons. Although he had his kids late in life, he didn’t retire until all three sons finished college with tuition paid in full, he told me. I could see in his eyes Ray was all too aware that the life he once treasured had come down to this colorless room, these noble items, and this painful monthly event.
“It hurts every time they change this dang thing. And it won’t be any different with you,” he snapped as we discussed changing out the catheter.
Unfortunately, he was right. Getting a catheter past a swollen prostate is awful. He moaned, even screamed at the pain. I observed his suffering with the realization that less than a year ago, he had been in relatively good health, living in his own home with his wife.
But suddenly, at 86, his life blurred into a colorless, tasteless, and odorless existence. Like Radon, life now seemed like the leftover decay of a larger, decaying life that can never be rebuilt. And from the looks of it, things would only corrode further.
Fear: The Nobel Gas of Life
I cannot say I’ve never felt my own life disintegrate into a million radioactive pieces. In my late 40’s, I thought I might die. A cancer diagnosis and a long tussle with radical surgery and radiation produced a mental trauma so thorough that I could paper the walls of my office with the fear fallout.
I wish I could say the fear merely pinpointed holes in the “happy to have lived at all” quilt, but that’s just not me. Fear can taint life, turning a noble gas deadly. As I remembered the horror of that time, I felt I knew a bit of the substance Ray was made of at that moment.
Before leaving Ray alone in his crowded room, I inquired about his sons. He showed me pictures of them and his grandchildren, all of whom lived out of state. When his face softened, I asked quietly about his fears as he saw them that day.
“I have no past regrets,” he boasted. He had no stories of remorse, nothing he had left undone that haunted him at night.
He fell quiet, then shook his head, explaining that most days his mind would dwell on the countdown to the day of the catheter change. He dreaded the pain.
“But worse than that,” he looked up at me, “is the loneliness.”
I held his hand in silence, grateful for a chance to pinch back at the biting loneliness emanating from this chamber.
The Substances We’re Made Of
Before our goodbye, he pulled from his shirt pocket his most prized possession: a picture of his beautiful wife, taken the day he married her.
His eyes twinkled. As he clutched the snapshot, a splendid display of his true element surfaced. Reflected there on his face was no evidence at all of decayed love or declining tenderness. There were no micro pieces of emotion decomposing into deadly sentiments. Just a simple flurry of youthful devotion punctuated with a passing fancy that, for him, had never passed.
Perhaps, regardless of which elements we are made of — Cerium or Radon — it is the very nature of humans to tarnish easily when exposed to long life. But that doesn’t mean the best parts of us — the polished and pleated portions of who we really are— will ever truly deteriorate.
Fifty-eight! I can hardly wait to see what I’m really made of!
It’s My Cancer and I’ll Cry if I Want To
Cancer is not the best thing that ever happened to me.