March wasn’t a great month. It marked a significant change in my life that I’m still trying to understand.
And two of my former co-workers died within weeks of each other. Cancer.
I hadn’t worked with them in a few years so it didn’t hurt as much as I thought it might. I guess I hadn’t worked with them or even seen them in several years and didn’t think I’d be seeing much of them again anyway. In some ways, I’d already made peace with it. It did give me pause, though. Especially for one of them. Very sweet lady. Never married. No children. Didn’t have much going on except for being active in her church and taking care of her ill parents. And by the time they passed and she was able to live her own life, she got breast cancer. So then she had to put her pursuits on hold to take care of that. And she sought treatment and wanted to continue it all the way up until the end. Died a few days after her birthday.
I looked up her obituary and it was little more than just a paragraph: she passed, her funeral was the next day, and the names of family members she left behind. A life summed up in three sentences.
People say she lost her battle with cancer. But I don’t like that phrasing. To me, people don’t ever lose to disease or depression. Because both are deadly and death cannot be defeated.
Why is it with any other form of death, it’s not a win/lose situation? You wouldn’t say someone lost their battle with a bullet or barreling bus.
Maybe it’s just me but when someone says “lost” there’s an implication of weakness. And we often equate losing with failure. But there’s nothing weak about dealing with cancer. I can’t imagine anyone stronger. In fact, as I was writing this entry, I came across an article in my local newspaper about a woman who has had cancer 3 separate times in 21 years and has managed to get rid of it every time. Think of the toll it takes on your body, your time, your energy, your mental and emotional state, and your relationships with others. Now think about having to endure that 3 separate times. No matter the outcome of that diagnosis, that requires strength.
Because, to me, life and death is not how you measure strength. Cancer will kill you. It doesn’t clear up on its own. You can’t dissolve it away by will. It requires medical intervention. You basically have to douse your whole body in poison and hope it kills enough of the bad stuff and not too much of the good stuff. No, the real strength comes from enduring those painful treatments, the drives to the hospital, the waiting rooms, the vending machine foods, the worry of it going away, of it coming back, medical bills, puking, losing all your hair and the contents of your stomach. The pain, the radiating suffering. The surgery. The hospital stays. The antiseptic smell. The needles and gluey cafeteria mashed potatoes. The tears in your family’s eyes. The chemicals leaving traces of themselves in your skin, the sadness written across the faces of those you love. And knowing all this and picking up and carrying on for another day anyway.
And even if you don’t carry on, even if you let the disease take your body, that’s not losing either. I also recently read an article about a young woman who was diagnosed with cancer and chose to travel the world with the time she had left instead of spending it in a hospital room. She chose not to seek treatment and let her cancer run its course. It’s all a personal choice and one that should be respected. You wanna fight this head on or you wanna let nature take over? Either way, it’s a tough choice. And accepting the inevitable requires a certain strength and resolve as well.
I think about my former coworker lying in a hospice bed. The last thing she said to her caretaker was she wanted to get out of that bad and back to a hospital for treatment. She knew if she could just get more treatment, she would be okay. She was always stubborn like that. Refused assistance. Determined to take care of her parents, and eventually herself, all on her own. But she was beyond treatment. And she lay there and she closed her eyes and her mouth and a few days later, she died. But she didn’t lose.
Last month, my mom asked me what my plans were for my birthday.
“I get off work at 3 and then I’m headed out of town to grab a pizza and cake,” I said.
“What?” I asked.
“Nothing. It’s just pitiful you’ll be by yourself and picking up your birthday dinner.”
“Well, I don’t have any friends, so…”
And that was the end of that conversation.
I know my family isn’t the closest but that small exchange really brought home how emotionally cold we can be toward each other. She didn’t offer a sympathetic look or any word of condolence for my loneliness.
I suppose it could have been because she has a lot on her mind. My grandmother had to have another doctor’s appointment on my birthday. Another 3.5-hour drive. And maybe I’m being selfish for feeling a little neglected but I still left the room feeling like the various hints at hurt I give her go ignored.
It wasn’t the first time I’d given her a heads up on my heart. It’s hard in general for me to open up to her because any time I do, she criticizes me, makes it seem as if my feelings are invalid. So instead of outright letting her know how I feel, I wait for her to initiate an inquiry into my feelings or I’ll throw out a random comment on my discontentment and see if she responds. She never does.
I woke up on my birthday (three weeks ago) and had to get ready for work. The work day was kind of long but fortunately, I didn’t have too many rude customers or any complications. The lunch was catered and we were allowed to wear tacky Christmas sweaters and jeans so I was well-fed and comfortable.
I got off work and went home to open up my birthday cards. I was tired and didn’t want to go out of town but my favorite pizza place is located out of town. I’d been dieting and exercising and had done so well and I wait all year long to eat this pizza. It’s so good that I only want to have it on my birthday to make both the pizza and my birthday all the more special. God, what a loser, eh? So, despite my fatigue, I freshened up and got back on the road.
I thought about finding a place to sit and write once I got into the city. I don’t go out of town often and when I do, I want to explore, to visit the various shops and find a nice, chill place to write. The change of atmosphere really helps boost my creativity and productivity. The problem with that is I was tired and just wanted to pick up my pizza and go back home. It was already dark by the time I reached the pizza place and when I factored in the writing time, pizza eating time, picking up my cake, and the long-ish drive back home, it would be well past midnight before I made it back to my bed.
I thought about writing at the pizza place. That way I could eat the pizza fresh and get in some writing time but when I pulled into the parking lot, the place was packed. I knew I didn’t want to be the sole stranger surrounded by friends and family. Especially not on my birthday, especially when it would have been nice to be surrounded by my own friends and family. So, scratched the writing plan, grabbed the pizza and ate a slice in my car before it got cold.
You know how, when you’re in a zombie apocalypse, you’re always struggling just to make it through the day? Sometimes you run out of food and fresh water and you watch the sun set with a pain in your stomach. Or sometimes you make friends and you think you’re safe, that you’ve finally found a family but they steal all your supplies while you’re back is turned or they leave you in the middle of the night because you’re just slowing them down.
But you press on because that’s what humans do. You’ve got to make some sense of this mess made of the world. You find an abandoned gun and gather up some bullets and you scrape by. It’s tough but you make due with what little you have.
And your days are spent as the tension tightens in your body and stress exhausts your limbs. You spend the day looking for edible food and sleep to pass the time. You daydream and wonder while you wander. Your mind is a nomad. You think of strategies to make it through the cruel world, worry your gun won’t last long enough or if you could beat off a group of ghouls with a dented baseball bat. Where’s the next meal going to come from? You hope you find someone to save you, someone to make you feel less alone in a world of monsters.
And sometimes when the thought of another grueling day of hiding and fighting brings you to tears, you wonder what would happen if you just stopped. What if you sat down and pressed your face to the dirt and melted into the ground? But you can’t bring yourself to give up so you go forward.
And then one day you’re lying down in an unprotected shed and a zombie shuffles in. With an unholy grunt, you’re startled awake to see the rotting corpse rip into your chest with its skeletal hands. Its serrated fingernails slice through your skin, pressing further into the meat of you. Is knuckles get caught in your rib cage as it squirms its fingers further down, nicking your heart with each grasp.
The pain grips your senses like a bear trap, a concentrated fire so deep and intense it chokes you. You can’t speak or scream. The strength gushes out of you like a broken dam and you lie there paralyzed. The burning is so great your soul screams to God to end you but the zombie doesn’t bite into your brains. Through the holes in the boarded up window of the shed, it spots a sprinting survivor and sets its milky eyes on a fresh kill.
The taste of copper covers your tongue and you hope a less sportsman-like zombie will shuffle over to you and finish you off or a random survivor will find you and put you out of your misery. But no one comes with a bite or a bullet.
Blood and saline pool around your body as the pain spreads to your limbs, tingling your fingers and circulating away from your body.
The moans outside are muffled by the sound of your heart beating, growing louder, the blood rushing in your ears in crashing waves. Your eyes are blurred by tears you cannot wipe away, only light and shadows dancing across your face. You turn tiny, shriveling inside yourself. You gasp and find no air. The nerves blow out and leave a numbness that spreads like ice water in your lungs.
You grasp at the grass and dirt and still no one comes.
And no one cares. The living sprint toward safety. All around you the world is still alive. But you’re beyond help.
You close your eyes as you give in to the gaping wound. You press your face into the dirt. You melt into the ground.
The beating eventually stops.