Really. Half the time I don’t know what pain is mine and what is someone else’s. The technical term is ‘body empath’, which means I feel other people’s emotions in my own body – especially the ones they’re not aware of.
It’s a blessing and a curse. It made me really good at my job, but it also gave me more sad wrinkles than happy wrinkles and probably contributed to my disease (but don’t quote me on that to the scientists).
Now I seem to have had a homeopathic dose of joie de vivre. I don’t know what’s gotten into me. Oh yes. Cancer. Who knew? It’s like taking a happy pill. Help! Identity crisis! Who am I? Where did I go? Who is this perky person with positivity oozing out of her pores like unrefined honey? It’s really very disturbing. I need therapy. Except I’m already having that. And my therapist keeps making me hoot with laughter too.
I thought the least he could do was engage with the dark, heavy, fearful, morbid ghastliness of having late stage cancer, but he just tickles my psyche instead. When I first met him I told him I had stabilised physically and was now ready to “track down the emotional and psychological roots of my cancer” (which I happen to believe are as relevant as the physical and environmental ones). He listened for a while, as all good therapists do, and then replied,
“No. Let’s not do that. I think you’ve done quite enough tracking down the psychological roots of whatever is going on in your life and you’re clearly very good at it. So let’s cut across the grass and discover the divine purpose of your cancer instead.”
OMG. I loved him immediately. A psychotherapist who doesn’t want to psycho-analyse, psycho-scrutinise, psycho navel-gaze, psycho-fine-tooth-comb my terrible, tragic, gut-wrenching, devastating, deeply unfair, facing-premature-death-when-I-have-so-much-to-live-for situation! How cool is that? No, let’s cut across the grass instead!
I’m doing my best to stay loyal to the dark side but what can you do? I could vent. I could share my top ten shitty features of living with terminal cancer (or BFC – bloody fucking cancer – as my brilliant Kiwi cousin Kate calls it). Trust me, it would be an impressive list.
This stuff happens quite a lot. My friend Catherine calls it ‘the burden of carelessness’. Sometimes I wish more people could walk a mile in my moccasins as easily as I can walk in theirs. But who wants to try terminal cancer on for size, even figuratively? So I do my best not to punch people’s lights out when they percolate deliciously aromatic coffee in my kitchen and drink champagne in my presence as if I wouldn’t ferment with envy or dissolve into a pool of heartache for every once-cherished pleasure I have relinquished in order to stay alive.
But these matters are small. The big stuff is fending off the fear my friend from Alabama forced me to look at once again; longing to wake up in complete remission and relax into a more probable future; hitting fever pitch in the hyperthermia bed where they cook me like a lobster (tumours shrink in heat) until I am begging them to sedate me; hearing Gabriella ask, “How many more big sleeps (’til you’re home) Mummy?” because separation from her cuts like a blade when time is so tenuous; being infused with tributaries of grief that stream from origins older than my ancestors and merge into a river that, just like love, will not leave once it is found.
Even then I can’t pull off a top ten whinge list. I want to. I really do. I miss my inner whinger. She’s plucky and funny and searingly articulate at her most cynical best. But this chirpy chick has gone and knocked her of her perch, like one of those sickeningly shallow everything-is-wonderful deniers of the darkness whose hair you want to make a mess of and whose body odour you want to point out.
Yet she is becoming irresistible. I can’t reason with her or outwit her or talk her down. I think I’ve been afraid of turning into her all my life. Perhaps that’s why Life gave me cancer. To give her birth. To bring forth the me I have thus far refused to be.
I recently told my therapist how grateful I am to him after only three sessions because he lifts my spirit every time I see him.
“You have a spirit that’s worthy of being lifted Sophie,” he replied. “It is out of kilter with the dark heavy stuff. Especially now.”
“Perhaps we are marching our way towards the divine purpose of my cancer then,” I responded, “because the heaviest thing that has ever happened to me has massively lightened me up.”
“Indeed,” he confirmed with a presence, gravitas and slightly disarming Buddha-smile that reminds me of my much missed teacher Brad.
Terminal illness is more than a theatre for human forbearance. It is a chance to love well what you are now seeing the end of, to live as if you’ve been entrusted with something sacred and inestimable, to find implausible joy in what seems flawlessly catastrophic and cruel.
Two patients have died at the Oasis hospital this week. One was a young Korean man whose father has now taken his place in history’s caravan of parched sorrows for lost children. The other was a woman from Kazakhstan who we witnessed fighting for life with her frail, skeletal frame, as devastated by chemo, radiation and surgery as it was by cancer. She leaves behind three children, the youngest of whom is just five – the same age as Gabriella.
These are sobering reminders to all of us about how steep this mountain is to climb and how many don’t make it. They all glisten like a blanket of countless stars just before morning’s elusive first light in which we awaken to the exuberant endowment of another day and our willingness to make of it a story worth telling and a memory worth leaving.
I think I’ve been concerned that shedding ‘dark and heavy’ would mean ditching ‘deep and penetrating’ too. I associated lightness of being with shallowness of living (which I am most definitely not up for). But now it seems I can be perky and perceptive, joyful and potent, curious and unblinking all at once.
Who was I kidding? I set out to post something cheerful and jaunty, but end up writing myself through the blue smoke to the edge of the fire on the rim of the forest bordering a vast landscape where I can feel the heavens overhead and the mercies underfoot.
This is who I am. Wide-eyed with wonder. Unwrapping Life’s mysteries. Shaking the rain from my feathers. Letting cancer free my spirit before it leaves my body. Cutting across the grass. And welcoming the unbidden convoy of wisdoms that continue to crowd my door.