What is Left
You know how it is--you are worried about something potentially life threatening. You may or may not have something wrong with you physically--or you are on a plane that is making an emergency landing, traveling from Oakland to San Francisco at low elevation instead of heading down to LA, until the flight attendant tells you to assume the brace position (hold those ankles).
At that time, you know that you want to live your life differently. Or you realize that there is something you need to do in your life, something unfinished. Maybe you see clearly who is important to you and know you need to spend more time with these people. You know you need to apologize for everything you’ve ever done wrong in your life. Or you want to stop complaining about stupid things (how people act in gyms or how your students need to pay more attention, for two) and focus on the really important stuff in life. Or you know you need to be more detached (like right now as the plane is trying to land with a broken landing gear) and not take every damn thing so seriously. It's not all about you!
Not too long ago, I was diagnosed with uterine fibroids, a condition that shares many similar symptoms with ovarian cancer. Let me make it clear now that I am fine, that fibroids are very treatable and common, and the treatment is an outpatient kind of thing with very low risk. Before the diagnosis, however, I had already killed myself off. I had folded up the tent, sure that there was no hope.
The worst day was one before my diagnostic ultrasound. I was shopping, my uterus in pulsing, continual throb, and I looked down at the counter top by the register as I waited for the salesperson to wrap my purchase. I noticed a flyer, the title of which read “Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer."
I read through the entire list of symptoms, all of which I did have but one, put it down, picked up my purchases, and wandered out into the day, stunned. Was the flyer a sign? Was the universe trying to tell me something? Would I make it? I wasn’t going to, was I? I was going to die.
Later that week, the doctor informed me that yes, I would make it past the fibroids, as did the ultrasound tech earlier, even though she shouldn’t have given me a clue. But for a couple of days, I was trying to figure out what I should do before dying: where had I hidden all those embarrassing journals I’d written in college? I needed to redo my will. I needed to call my mother.
After my doctor reassured me and prescribed treatment, I counted up the important things I learned during my almost bout with cancer. One is that I knew a number of life changes I've made in the past few years were the right choices. As I was mulling my soon- to- be demise, I knew that if I had not made those choices, I would have regretted them all, pissed that I had been too scared to move or do anything with my desires. All of the changes had involved pain for me and my family, but at the moment of thinking it was all going to end soon, I was all right with what I’d done. Glad. Happy.
I also learned that what gave me pleasure and what made me stronger was spending more time with my boyfriend, children, my mother, my friends. We always say that “life is too short,” and it is, and it can get shorter very fast. During my separation and divorce, I’d cut myself off from a number of people for bits of time as I was in self preservation mode. But I needed to draw back those I’d let drift away, pull in the people who had sustained me for years.
And amongst the smaller and potentially ridiculous epiphanies I had during my health scare, I again decided I needed to learn French. I mean fluently, the kind of French that doesn't make me turn red in the face at the supermarche check out. And more travel. To Italy and France, spending more time in Paris. I don't need the pyramids or the outback, but give me a café, a espresso, and a view of the Seine.
That's what popped up for me. That's what seemed to matter. And I felt grateful to myself for all the work I've done in this life already--many poems, short stories, and novels written, teaching done, children had, friendships made. I've left one relationship to explore the universe as a single woman and come back to another relationship that fits. For twenty years, I've taught a lot of people what I know to the best of my ability--I've had a pretty good go.
However, it's hard to keep this kind of appreciation for oneself and this type of focus on what's left to do after the diagnosis comes in. And I actually don’t want to constantly harken back to the idea that I have cancer. So instead, I think about that airplane Michael and I had one September, the ride where we were indeed asked to grab our ankles and keep our heads down as the plane wobbled and shook itself to a stop on an evacuated SFO runway full of emergency vehicles.
I had grabbed one of his ankles instead of my right one, liking the feel of his sturdy self. I was crying, thinking that I had seen my mother than day, hugged her, kissed her. My boys had just left for the Northwest, and they knew how I felt about them. My love was next to me, going into this with me, whatever it was.
There, I thought as I grabbed Michael’s ankle. There. That's real. That's the feeling you need to remember to get through traffic and weirdness at work and delays with publishers. This is what to think about when you are bored or listless or angry with someone. This is what you think about when staring at your face in the mirror, wondering what to do with those crevasse-like nasolabial folds. This is what you need to think about when a student walks into class wearing headphones, texting on his cell, and eating a deli sandwich. Just before the plane lands (or the diagnosis comes in) think of that sturdy ankle. Being alive. Nothing yet decided, everything still possible. Life, right there, to do with whatever you want.
Causes Jessica Inclán Supports
Women for Women International Goodwill Industries Lindsey Wildlife Museum Freecycle.org