Credit Camilla Engman
At midnight, the ice cube dispenser on the refrigerator is not merely dripping. Water pours onto the floor. I drop down towels, empty the accumulated cubes from their plastic container and pop it back inside the freezer.
“Was that the right thing to do?” I ask my husband, who is trying to sleep. “For goodness sakes,” Don says, getting out of bed. We must leave for my monthly cancer blood test at 8 a.m. tomorrow.
Don pulls out the tray, puts it in the sink, and props up a little stick in the freezer, pushing up the ice maker’s metal wand in an attempt to stop the leak. Might work, might not… I’ll stay awake to see whether the deluge stops. When an unexpected disaster arises, I diminish its significance by comparing it to the worst of my cancer treatments a few years ago. I can do this because my current condition remains stable with an experimental drug.
Yet as I contemplate all the chairs and sofas and rugs that have to be donated to Goodwill, the mattresses and box springs to be given to the St. Vincent de Paul society, my late mother’s files and cabinets, Don’s late wife’s luggage and papers, his massive collection of 78 r.p.m. records, the yards of books on the shelves in the studies, our daughters’ stored memorabilia and their children’s baby equipment, the sheer volume of stuff seems daunting.
We are moving from a house of 4,000 square feet to an apartment less than half that size. One reason for our relocation: Don and I want to release our girls from the responsibility of dealing with the detritus accumulated over decades. We also have to leave because he cannot negotiate the stairs and both of us together cannot manage the upkeep.
Throughout the weeks and then the months when our beloved but aging house has to be repaired so we can sell it, workers arrive to shore up the porch, to fix the bowed ceiling supports in the garage, the cracks over the foyer doorway, a foundation that needs to be anchored to keep the structure from shifting, broken screen doors, mold in basement closets, chipped kitchen cabinets, and (oh!) a tree appears to be growing out of the chimney, and (yup!) an inspector found clogged drains — which suggest there might be trouble with the septic tank.
People tell me that moving ranks high up there on the stress index. But the commotion comes nowhere close to the terrifying havoc of cancer and its traditional treatments. Throughout the weeks and then the months of removals and renovations, the rhythms seem downright soothing, if measured against the ghastly tempos of surgeries, radiological interventions and chemotherapies.
The magnitude of cancer provides a scale against which everything else falls happily short. Cancer can be so bad that it imparts a sense of proportion. The poet Jane Kenyon once said that leukemia and a bone marrow transplant dispelled her fear of flying.
In the midst of all this chaos, I will postpone treating my recently diagnosed osteoporosis — I’m not clear yet about the efficacy of various remedies — but what about the cataract surgery? With or without glasses, I cannot see clearly and I have become the designated driver. Given the boxes mounting everywhere as well as the appointments of various people who are coming to take away the piano and the records and some paintings we won’t have room for, should I cancel? No way, I decide: a piece of cake, in contrast to cancer.
Ever shifting, the cancer terrain is treacherous to negotiate, its perilous landscape always unstable. There are roadmaps, but they often seem indecipherable. With surgeons, radiologists, and oncologists, I advance without a clear sense of how I will end up where and when.
As a cancer patient, I feel like an immigrant in a strange land. The customs of the country bewilder me. Dazed by unfamiliar sounds, sights, tastes, and touches, I had to learn a whole new language quite distinct from the idioms of every day discourse. I will never master it.
I speak of genetic mutations, chemicals and my anatomy in a grammar so simple that it resembles a 2-year-old’s. Terms must be adopted — debulking, PICC, port, PARP inhibitor — for processes I cannot really conceptualize. Frequently, physicians and nurses have to write down or spell out their prescriptions or directions. I mispronounce or stumble over words — anastomosis, extravasation, Gastrografin — that seem foreign.
So even this unsettling removal from a country house to an apartment strikes me as a change I can take in stride. After all, I know the address of my destination, the date of my prospective arrival, the route the truck will take and the neighbors speak my native tongue.
I’m staying up very late and can attest to the fact that the kitchen floor has remained dry. Don and I will travel to the hospital tomorrow and return. I will have cataract surgery and we will reside in a town whose byways may be easier to navigate with improved vision.
When you have cancer, you don’t just have cancer: You might have a broken refrigerator and cataracts and osteoporosis and loads of other issues. But you also have a unique perspective which, in a curious way, helps me keep on moving on.
Susan Gubar is the author of the new book “Reading and Writing Cancer: How Words Heal.”