Is this normal? That my initial reaction to “cure” or “remission” is sadness? I think some of the reaction could lie in that ambiguity about cure or remission. But that’s only part of it. There seems to be a sort of depression setting in that was not on the agenda for the end of treatment. Well, maybe I’m a bit hasty in calling it depression; it’s more like snippets of malaise. It happens, for instance, when I glance at the piano and realize I haven’t been practicing, or when I look at the hillsides and notice the new foxtail seed heads growing on shafts that Marc has already cut, or when I realize the dishwasher needs emptying or the bills need to be paid or it’s the end of the day and I haven’t finished whatever unfeasible number of tasks I’ve set out to do. Or when I get a glimpse of my shiny pate, almost as reflective as the mirror from which it glares helplessly. The hoary glow of fuzz that my hair has achieved in the past few months hasn’t been helping. It’s more like an aura of wishful thinking than a head of hair.
Perhaps my transient moodiness has to do with getting back to the prosaic realities of life, the awareness of day-to-day limitations and duties as opposed to life-altering challenges and triumphs. There is the issue of secondary gain, I suppose, in illness of any kind. I was repeatedly let off the social hook and was given a reprieve from normal household responsibilities. I was expected to be an irresponsible, self-serving adult and yet I was taken seriously as a patient: was poked, prodded and pampered as if my life depended on it. And it did. I had an unrivaled objective: to submit to the dictates and ministrations of the medical team and do my best to live through it all. Now I’m on my own except for periodic blood tests and checkups, back to the mission of motoring on through my life.
As for those checkups. I thought I’d be able to keep going back to the gynecologic oncologist (my surgeon), who knows what to look for. As it turns out, he’s retiring, and although there’s a nurse practitioner in his office who’s trained to look for the same things he’d be looking for, I was told at my last appointment that what they do at the Gynecologic Centers of Excellence is really surgery, and if I had a gynecologist I liked I might want to go there for my checkups. That would be the gynecologist I’ve only seen once, the one who didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary when she examined me two weeks before a CT scan showed wall-to-wall masses in my abdominal cavity. I’m not blaming her; after all I was seeing her for another reason and hadn’t even mentioned the stomach aches and bloating, not thinking it had anything to do with a gynecological issue, and told her I thought the occasional throb in my lower right side was probably the fibroid tumor that was diagnosed years ago, so she wasn’t really primed to look for cancer. And I have received a lot of nice, supportive e-mails from her throughout my treatments. But I’m just not sure she really knows what to look for. And she herself agreed that it would be good for me to continue seeing the gynecologic oncologist, at least until he said I had “graduated”.
Well, maybe that’s in essence what he was saying to me. The suggestion that I go back to my regular gynecologist was made along with highly-valued validation and acknowledgment to the effect that I have cause to celebrate, and that I can do it by (if I recall correctly) “being grateful, appreciating life, and being helpful to someone every day.” I suppose part of the letdown is knowing I’ll miss that validation and acknowledgment from the person who was responsible for removing the cancer piece by piece. If that’s the case, I guess I should just graduate and move on. I’m there with gratitude, and I’m happy to be helpful (although it tends to scatter randomly rather than fall into a daily pattern). But appreciating my life in all its aspects – the mundane and the novel and the difficult – is where the doldrums lie.
I’ve recently come up with a small, simple objective designed to lift my life appreciation quotient, though I haven’t hit on a perfect approach just yet. I was describing to my friend Lisa our cats’ gesture of excitement when they meet us outside or come up to rub against our legs. They raise their tails straight up and vibrate the tips, as if happy to see us. I’ve called it “quiver tail”; my friend Micaela called it “giggle tail”.* It's apparently somewhat rare in felines as body language, but is said by those who know cats to indicate anticipation, apprehension, excitement or joy. It seems to me a little like the nicker (a sort of chuckle) of a horse anticipating being fed. (In the case of our horse Dante, the nicker was also a request for a belly scratch and an expression of relief when a rider dismounted or the farrier let his hoof down after holding it in an uncomfortable position for much too long a time.) It may sometimes be like the thrill of fear felt by children scaring themselves with chilling stories on a dark night. The most apt explanation I found in looking it up online was that cats vibrate the tips of their tails when they’re feeling giddy.
Giddy. That feels like the right antidote to loss of secondary gains from my ordeal with cancer. I need to put meaning back into my life, and giddy, as I recall from my youth and a few subsequent occasions, is especially meaningful. The truth is, that’s exactly what I feel when I meet up with the cats and see their tails vibrate. Like giggling, cat giddiness is contagious.
So the next step would be, I suppose, to submit to giddy. Let my fancy be tickled, and giggle until the people I’m with, especially those reticent few, start quivering their tails in appreciation. Permit unrestrained bursts of laughter when watching movies that stimulate my repressed chuckle. See more comedians. Play the piano and riff on my mistakes. Get a goat to eat the weeds and delight in its frolic. Enjoy the ironies as well as the sandwiches of life and maneuver my little lifeboat into that playful current that sweeps my cats’ tails up into dizzying vibrations of joy and appreciation.
And then, keep on keepin’ on.
* "Quiver tail" is a very subtle gesture, rapid and short-lived. There are some videos on line that show cats vibrating their tails, but none as good as the one I just made, which I'm unable to insert because it's not on YouTube. Oh well; another day, another challenge.