Now that it’s been several days of no longer feeling like I’m actually knock-knock-knocking on heaven’s door, I think it’s time to admit that for a while last week the general consensus around here was that I was a goner. That I was on my way out, making my grand exit, rolling the credits. That I was dying.
I’m wary of tempting fate by talking about it in the past tense, since we’re by no means in the clear, and I am still spending the better part of my days in bed. But the difference between how I was last week and how I am now is enormous. I just feel that how close I actually came to the Big Finish needs to be acknowledged because all of us – me, my mother, my husband, my brother and the friends who had rallied around and tried to hold me to this side of the mystic curtain – are just shaking our heads in wonder at my apparent Return From the Brink.
It is hard to say this without it sounding like an exaggeration, but just a week ago I was literally thinking that I had maybe a few weeks at best, and probably not many of them lucid, given the pain and the difficulty I was having breathing. This fear was of course confirmed by the solemn words of various medical professionals, including my dear cancer shrink. I remember panicking that it wasn’t enough time; that it had come upon me too soon. I couldn’t look at Georgia without wanting to hold her little body close enough to mine to feel her breathing (which she is able to tolerate for about four seconds.) My husband and I said “I love you” as we always do, but the words got bigger and heavier, sweeter and sadder. My mom would put her hands on my forehead to ease my headache and I could feel her trying to pull the cancer right out of my body, trying to draw it away from me and make it stop killing me. So, even as I got ready to go to Detroit, I wasn’t convinced there was a point.
There were other, less emotional responses too. I remember wondering if this blog might get published as a book posthumously, and thinking how unfair it would be to not get to be around when it happens. (Who will get to sit on Oprah’s couch?? Will all of you give your permission to publish your comments along with my posts??)
I also began mentally composing my own eulogy, or a kind of farewell speech for my funeral. I know that’s macabre and a little egomaniacal, but being a writer and a control freak I’ve been drafting some version of it since I was a teenager. Besides, I reason it’s a lot easier to make jokes about a dead person when you’re the dead person.
I also became philosophical, wondering if I were granted a reprieve, or a second chance at life, how long it would take for me to start complaining about things like wrinkles or gaining weight. Whether I would eventually start taking for granted in little ways the people I love and who love me. I wondered whether I would really be able to sustain wanting and appreciating every single day that was given back to me; if I would be capable of holding on to the concept that each day was a thing once taken and then returned to me, to be treasured, to be grateful for. To want life that much, continuously – is it even possible to function when you have that profound an awareness of your mortality?
(I swore that I would try. I’d love to face the wonderful problem of not functioning properly in society due to an excess of awareness and gratitude for being alive.)
Anyway, it is a strange and terrifying thing to get so close to death, and stranger still to be reflecting on it when I don’t actually feel like I’m a comfortable distance from it. Around here we’ve all begun to tentatively and somewhat incredulously talk about it, like survivors of a car crash or a house fire, still in shock, mere meters from the burning shell of a once-recognizable thing, but starting to believe that we’re safe from immediate danger now. We’ve started to admit to each other that it really looked like I was going to die, that it could have been days or weeks, that we were all so scared – and that just as suddenly it doesn’t look so much like that anymore. It’s as though on a cellular level, or maybe somewhere near the seat of the soul, we’re all still reverberating from the enormity of it.
And yet we’re also calmer than before. This comes partly from our new-found hope about the future (because now we believe that there could be a future for me!) and partly from walking so close to the edge, but not going over. Having approached it, sidled up to it, we’re perhaps more at peace with the possibility of my death, but also hanging on even tighter to my life, and to each other.
Anyway, for now, even in the shadow of the Brink, it feels immeasurably good to be able to be out of bed for a few hours a day, to enjoy the sunshine and fresh air, sit at the kitchen counter, boss people around my kitchen, laugh and eat and talk. And so far I’m not complaining about wrinkles or starting to take anyone for granted, though I did notice with some alarm that I’m in desperate need of an eyebrow wax.