Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Ghost in the Room

A few weeks after my surgery, when I was busy shopping for an oncologist, is about the time I started making regular, unannounced appearances in an old lover’s living room. This would not necessarily be unusual except that we had not spoken for a very long time. Also, I was shopping in Philadelphia and he lives in the Midwest.

He does not believe in the supernatural but knows I do and so he, somewhat haltingly, told me the story, perhaps not quite believing all the details himself, of how one day, there I was in his house out there on the prairie. “A presence” is how he described it. I wasn’t an apparition, and I didn’t speak, I was simply, on more than one occasion, there.

“I must have been waiting for you to call me,” I said.

When, a month later, he got a new job, moved to another state, and I started showing up in his living room there as well, he figured it was time to do just that. Our volatile relationship didn’t survive its torrid highs and destructive lows, but there was no denying we had some kind of cosmic connection from the moment we met, almost 15 years ago. Since this was also the day we both met Beyoncé (all three of us started working at the same television station on the same day), it was, metaphysically speaking, inevitable that the call would come the very day Beyoncé and I were together in New York, shopping for wigs and savoring our first face-to face gossip lunch in years.

“God has a funny sense of humor,” said Beyoncé.

My atheist ex, however, doesn’t get the joke, which is how we ended up this past Sunday night, a few weeks after our initial contact, having a conversation that started like this:

Me:   How come you haven’t said anything about my blog?

Atheist Lover:   I haven’t been able to read all of it.

Me:   So you don’t like my writing.

Atheist Lover:   I’m not even going to respond to that.

Me:   What then?

Atheist Lover:   It’s the subject matter. It’s difficult.

Me:   So you don’t think it’s any good.

Atheist Lover:   That’s not what I said.

Those are not direct quotes but you get the idea, not only about the dialogue, but also about why things didn’t work out between us. Well, that and something about me being fickle and noncommittal, but that’s another story.

Being a tough-edged newsman who recently lost his best friend to breast cancer, he got straight to the point, no softball warm-ups: What if? What if you’re not in the 80% who make it? Do you really think this is routine?  Are you scared? Leave it to somebody whose last words to you were “please don’t call me again” to resurface out of the blue and bring up the tough stuff. Do people besides reporters do this?

After my January “this is not a death sentence” diagnosis/prognosis and the handing over of a pamphlet on how to execute a living will, death left the room for awhile. 

Most people are happy to tow Dr. Genius’s Hodgkin’s-is-CURABLE!-LET’S-GET-YOU-CURED! party line and the few people—mostly family and close friends—who were more upset than I was at the beginning of all this, I had effectively shut down by yelling at them for crying. Who had time to cry? There’s no crying in this cancer!

I had to laugh so I wouldn’t lose it. I get that making fun of this is not for everyone. It’s not meant to be. I started writing because it was cathartic.  It still is. I like that people read me and thrive on feedback. I am flattered when someone says they think what I write might help somebody else, but make no mistake: This is not altruistic. This is my therapy.

Atheist Lover, for one, is not buying my hilarious cancer crap. This is somewhat puzzling because he is a funny guy. I also believe I inherited irreverence from him and attribute much of my no-holds-barred ability to talk about damn near anything—in public—to the years we worked together. I don’t know if everyone would consider those traits valuable parting gifts from a love affair, but I do. (To be fair, I also walked away with a fine appreciation for art collecting, a really good recipe for swordfish and vivid, steamy memories of long weekends where we never left the bedroom, but that’s definitely another story…) It’s okay, though, that we don't see eye to eye on this.  The Universe knows when you need to be challenged.

“It’s really not necessary to sound so chipper all the time,” wrote another skeptic in an e-mail.

Okay, yes, I give!  I confess!  It's exhausting being upbeat. But dwelling on the negative is even more work. People die from cancer, yes. They also die from heart attacks, drunk drivers and freak accidents. When people asked if I was afraid of drowning at sea while sailing across the Atlantic, I told them the odds were greater of dying in a traffic accident on the Schuylkill. To this day, I worry about meeting my demise on that expressway (maybe while driving into Center City for chemo).  If nothing else, the Zen-meets-fun philosophy I’ve honed during a couple years of island life and unstructured travel has taught me not to waste precious time fretting about things I can’t change.

I have had my meltdowns, yes—but not since I started chemotherapy. I am conserving energy by not dealing with anything I don’t absolutely have to deal with right now this minute. The other day, another 40-something single girlfriend asked if I harvested my eggs before beginning. (I did not.) Her tentative question made me realize I had completely stopped talking about an issue that consumed me in the early weeks of this whole mess. I did what I had to do—cried, researched, weighed my options, cried some more, and made the most thorough and thoughtful decision I was capable of in the brief time allotted to consider my future fertility without perilously delaying life-saving treatment—and locked the ramifications away in a box to be opened…later, after this is all over, preferably in a nice exotic locale where the fate of not having children might be equated with freedom instead of loss.

This is not denial; it is a practical approach that works for me. It lets me live my life as normally as possible while my doppelganger—the one with cancer—goes to chemo biweekly and spends her free time flirting with the other side, making spectral house calls to unwitting ex-boyfriends.

Am I going to die? Yes. But most likely not from this. The fact that cancer could potentially kill me is, for now, stowed away in the box with the baby. If I go through six months of chemo and radiation and the tests show it didn’t work, then it’ll be time to think about it. Either way, I’m pretty sure I’ll be glad I didn’t spend the next/last six months of my life obsessing about dying.

Am I scared? I am probably about as scared of death as your average person, which is to say even though I believe there is some kind of afterlife, and sometimes can consider this peacefully and in a semi-enlightened way, I am often utterly gripped by fear. The fear is manageable when death is back there in its place, lurking in the shadows with the rest of the ghosts, but sometimes it insists on getting all up in your face, like it did on Sunday, and not just long-distance at the end of the day, but at the start of the day as well, at brunch with Ellen.

Ellen’s dad has been gravely ill, in and out of the hospital, for months now. Our conversations always start with an update on how he’s doing. On Sunday morning, however, Ellen’s sad news was that another friend’s father, believed to be in perfect health, had died suddenly, apparently suffering a heart attack while snorkeling in Martinique.

I told Ellen about one of the cancer books I’m reading in which the author describes a workshop on dying she attended at a Buddhist retreat. The first exercise goes something like this: What is the best-case scenario for your death? (Ellen and I looked at each other over our Bloody Marys and mimosas. Our grieving friend couldn’t be ready to hear this, but passing in a blissful, underwater heaven in some idyllic tropical setting with your spouse at your side had to be the right answer.) What is the worst-case scenario? What do you have to do to make the best-case scenario happen?

Maybe the dying exercise is macabre. But the point, I think, is that in the end, the questions about how you die become a lesson in how to live which, barring suicide, is the only part we have any control over anyway.

Exactly one year ago, I was in Antigua, racing in a classic boat regatta with my friend, Captain Kid. He had been debating whether to keep sailing on toward the Pacific or do the practical thing and head home to Cape Cod, get a real job and sock away some money. At a rum party one night, he announced he had decided to sail the Pacific.

“If I only had a year to live, that’s what I would do,” I remember him telling me. “That seems like a good enough reason to do it now.”

Two days ago, he and his girlfriend took their 30-foot sailboat through the Panama Canal. Next stop: the Marquesas, smack in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Not too long ago, I was on a plane with my St. John friend Fun Kim. We had just spent two weeks in Venice. Prior to that, I had made my first trans-Atlantic crossing, sailed around the Mediterranean with a crew from Malta and traveled solo through central Italy. Fun Kim had been sailing the Aegean and cavorting around Istanbul. Before all that, we were both living and working in the Virgin Islands. We were on our way to Palma de Mallorca to look for yachting jobs.

Security was especially tight as there had been another terrorist bombing scare in London the day before. We decided to fly anyway and, while sitting there waiting for take-off, agreed that if the plane went down, well, we couldn't complain too much about how things turned out.  We had done more in the previous few years than many people do in a lifetime.  And we had both called our mothers to tell them we loved them.

That doesn’t mean I want to die, and I know Fun Kim doesn’t want to either (even on the days when working full time and getting her masters back home in Oregon is so bo-ring). That plane conversation happened in 2006, a full year before the summer in Spain when we saw the running of the bulls in Pamplona, sailed to the America’s Cup, and discovered the vending machine on a dock in Valencia that dispenses the coldest Heinekens on the planet for only one euro. Clearly there is more life to be lived.

I do, however, like to think I contemplated What If? three years ago when I first quit my city job and moved to paradise in search of…more. There were many good reasons the timing was right to make the move--I was healthy, my parents were healthy, I had money in the bank and no major responsibilities--but the final motivator, the real kick in the ass was…What if? What if a year (or three) from now, something happens and I’m no longer in a position to do it?

I thank God every day I did not fail to seize the moment. Having that regret in this moment would truly be haunting.



Anonymous said...

I just love it when I am in your stories! Living is good!!!! Live it up! love you.

Anonymous said...

As I was reading this post I was a little worried you were getting too serious on us, but you have it all sorted. A very close high school friend died suddenly of a heart attack at 38, but, unlike the rest of us, he lived his life to the fullest. As you, he shed the corporate life (actually he never joined it) and paid for his golf habit by tending bar. Margie, continue having fun and inspiring the rest us.

CityFood said...

I think that - since I know I'm dying and now get to choose the scenario - is while having a bloody mary during a really good brunch contemplating all the other exotic ways I might die. If somebody can say: she died while having her eggs benedict and bloody mary, it will be the perfect obituary. I'm just saying....

CityFood said...

One more thing: Your blog has been inspirational to me as well. I can now dream that all of my ex-lovers' living rooms are haunted by my ghost.

Mrs. Jagger said...

Shopping for an ONCOLOGIST and reading CANCER books?? We need to do our shopping at the MALL where we can say howdy to some french fries while we peruse the racy summer beach novels. By the way, what is a doppelganger? I'm thinking we heard that term in High School English (Bakeroo's class?) and I was probably napping or passing a note to you rather than paying attention. Oh well, at least YOU know how to pay attention to the important things. Thank you for seizing the moment and providing us all with lessons in how to live. I'll have to actually follow these lessons so I can change my name to Fun Cyn.

Anonymous said...

I always knew I liked that ex. Kids are great' but per our conversation the other night, a bit over rated. No worries.

Evelyn said...

It's not at all lost on me that my father died in what might have been THE most perfect way. It's a huge comfort to me (and to his wife, my stepmom), and has helped get us through the pain. I'm glad you used him as an example. By the way, for the record, it was St. Martin, not Martinique. Not quite as exotic, but Utopian just the same.

Anonymous said...

Carpe diem all the way! Having read several of your posts tonight, it strikes me that you are living this slogan even in the infusion room--siezing the opportunity to observe, reflect, and participate in life. Thank you for continuing to be a role model for me. Love you, MM.