Toward the end of another unexpected year of existence, outliving a poor prognosis of late-stage cancer rouses me in the dark. Such an awakening is quite different from the fretful insomnia that accompanied the dire diagnosis. Especially in this season of celebrated miracles, it somehow thrills me to be stirring at 2 or 3 a.m. Trepidation and grief dissolve in the weird awareness (can it possibly be true?) of still being alive.
Back in 2008, I was informed by a brilliant and dismayed oncologist that I would probably die before 2013. Do those of us in extended treatment become revenants? Although like many patients I continue to curse the disease, there may be one transient byproduct of even a brief reprieve for some lucky few: Cognizance of limited time can paradoxically expand time.
In my case, this oddly gratifying wakefulness seems to have little to do with meditation, handbooks, support groups, yoga classes, breathing exercises, massage, acupuncture, flax seeds, carrot juice, green tea or vitamin C. Has hardly anything to do with being responsible, not complaining, making a nutritious supper, washing the dishes, swabbing the surfaces, taking out the garbage. Or with phoning the relatives, telling stories, not complaining, listening to their fears and wishes.
Has little to do with belief in any god or gods, with redemption or resurrection, with going to heaven or, for that matter, elsewhere. Even less to do with researchers, physicians, radiologists, surgeons, nurses or technicians — the noble professionals who must be thanked — or with scans, blood tests, with living longer or better, procedures or trials or drugs, no, not at all.
The eerie quickening might have something to do with a storm passing, tossing the trees and lighting up the night sky, and then booming farther off in the distance. But, I concede as I get up out of the bed, it might not. It could be related to a partner snoring rhythmically in the abandoned bedroom or a tune in my head, bringing back memories of twirling around on a rug when I was young, spinning so rapidly that the pattern began to whirl round and round.
In other words, it may have to do with William Carlos Williams’s poem “Danse Russe.” But not exactly because I don’t take off my clothes to dance in front of a mirror, waving my shirt above my head, though I am reveling at being vertical, wide-awake, and the spirit of the household while everyone else, here and in the neighborhood, is fast asleep. At this point, I’m not much drawn to mirrors or nakedness.
It probably is connected to the prospect of beaded bubbles winking at the brim of a glass of wine, but not necessarily. Because it can descend so oddly, with simply donning slippers as the moon silvers a shade or a tremulous tree limb shivers on a window — and I am roaming in the shadowy house, savoring the bliss, the animation and vibrancy of life, how inexplicable it is, how thoroughly meaningless and incommunicable and incommensurate.
There I am, then, my body seeded with cancer that has recurred and may return, whereas now the air is sweet and quiet, with only me conscious, and I can inch forward into futures I weave for the ones I must leave behind. May they prosper and thrive through a series of tomorrows I will not experience but cherish envisioning. For they need to find — oh, please let them find! — love elsewhere and abundantly.
Yes, here I am, not the object of concern or pity that I will become later again, as before. But at this hour — because of a shivering or a silvering — alight with the frisson of being unknown in the night’s oasis, hugging my captivated self so as to capture a sliver of exhilaration and bring back a swatch for those circumstances when I will need to remember what it was all for.
Alone but not lonely, I creep down the dim hall to study photos on a shelf: friends, children, cousins, grandchildren. All of them at various stages of evolution with their unique expressions of expectation or anxiety, curiosity or self-consciousness — standing still for the intrusive camera. Each requires a long stare. Where are they going? Will they be happy? Each elicits a smile; tears flow, but tears of joy.
There are throngs of hard to visualize faces as well, strangers who have testified. Men and women whom I have read or who have read me and found the strength to comment with wisdom, irony, grit, caveats, quibbles, disputes, rants, confessions, jokes: lusciously swirling words. Editors and copy editors, too: the scrupulous sensibilities behind the outpouring. And countless storytellers, memoirists, filmmakers, poets, photographers, singers, scholars, activists setting the record straight, working for a cure, churning up insights.
What is this inebriated euphoria? Immortality at midnight! An intuition of the rightness and beauty and uniqueness of those I know and those I do not know but reverence from afar in my singular ecstasy of simply feeling fine, feeling good, staying in that sense that here is the genius of truth and the truth of genius because pleasure and exultation pulse now in this contingent place, inside just this illumined moment of being.
Susan Gubar writes about life with ovarian cancer.