The last few weeks of November have left me humbled.
For the whole of October, I would get up at five, list the things I wanted to do that day, and get on with it; write my novel, run my business, organize weekly writing meetups, and care for my wife, who was then halfway through intense cancer treatment. I managed relatively fine, kept a healthy diet, and even squeezed in some exercise every day or two to stay in shape.
You might think that all that activity was to keep me distracted from facing the reality of our situation. Cancer. Pandemic. Being cut off from our loved ones at a time when we needed them the most. That’s sure enough to get anyone down. However, I did the responsible thing and looked after my mental health too. Between practicing meditation, the study of stoicism, and seeing a therapist, I made sure I left no stone unturned; all so that the dubious pleasure that the year 2020 has been wouldn’t give me any final fuck you in the form of depression. Overall, I was fine if a little fatigued. And yes, I struggled, but who wouldn’t?
That is until the day Edyta called from the hospital to tell me the doctors had failed to harvest enough stem cells from her blood—a step crucial to the success of the treatment—and that she’d have to stay in the hospital for a couple of days more.
I saw her that evening. Pale, exhausted, with three tubes surgically inserted into her neck, dangling like cheese sticks. And I couldn’t even get close because of the strict visiting rules. Safe distance. Masks on.
Had you asked me then what I thought or felt, I would say probably not much, only that I had difficulty moving my legs. I wasn’t even sure why at the time. The train of reasoning hit me only on my way back home.
What if this was it? What if we just learned that the treatment was over and failed, only we couldn’t understand it yet?
A day before, I was pumping out 2,000 words a day, editing stories, and coping well. And then, suddenly, I found myself unable to touch the keyboard for two weeks straight. And I couldn’t understand why. After all, they attempted the procedure again, harvested all the stem cells they needed, removed the dangling tubes, and released Edyta home. I knew that. But a part of me stayed dumbstruck in the deserted, brightly lit corridor, staring out the window into a bluish November night.
This isn’t our first cancer together, you understand. We had practice. And yet, as the treatment ramped up in intensity, I found myself no more resilient than the day we first found out.
The situation turned us into people we are not; my wife into a cancer patient, me into a caretaker. Roles forced on us by blind chance. We’re both used to being more than this, and now we can barely recognize each other anymore.
I know there’s an element of rational sanity in this madness because once you move past denial—the stage where most of our loved ones have taken up residence—and you stare reality in the face, how can you not go slightly mad and become whatever the situation requires of you to survive it?
You suffer, because how can you not? And you want it to have meaning, but at the same time, you know that ultimately the only meaning or purpose it will ever have is the one you give it. And what if you choose the wrong one?
I had fought against this overbearing feeling, tried to find a mindset that would leave me stronger, less afflicted, but in the end—and this comes after a nearly three-year-long struggle—I concede. I had found no answer in any of the books I read, philosophies I studied, or the cognitive tricks I mastered. The answer, it seems, is merely living through this hardship and making sure it doesn’t cause any lasting damage.
I resent the fact that my energy, motivation, and productivity are tied to circumstances far beyond my control, but having searched for years, I fail to see any means of distancing myself from this harsh reality without giving up some of my humanity.
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