Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Five Years


I saw it written and I saw it say
Pink moon is on its way
And none of you stand so tall
Pink moon gonna get ye all

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When you hear the words, "It's cancer," your mind seems to burst open, as if every thought you've ever had is rushing back into your brain at once, each crowding for space until finally your head can't contain them all. That lasts for several seconds, followed by the arrival of an eerie tranquility: you've gone numb. I experience this first hand in October 2011. It's at that moment that my life is bisected into two halves: the years before and after cancer. I'm scheduled to have surgery to remove the tumor quickly, in just over a week. The next several days are surreal, I'm walking through my life but there's a giant, ever-expanding hole in it now. I can feel the vast blackness of it creeping closer to me every minute of every day. I only tell certain people what's going on, mostly because I have no idea how to talk about it. It still feels like it has to be happening to someone else, not me.

The night before surgery, my wife and I are trying to remain calm. We cry. A lot. We try to take our minds off of it, so we turn on the television. By some stoke of serendipity, You've Got Mail is on, which happens to be one of our favorite date movies, one we consider ours. We revel in the unabashed romanticism between two corny book lovers, and the way it captures the state of the book industry in the final years of the twentieth century. We've seen it dozens of times previously, and will see it several more times in the next five years. I'm acutely aware of how grateful I am to be in her arms, watching a movie that provides some small measure of comfort, on a night when we desperately need it.

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This blog goes live in the spring of 2015. I conceive of it as a form of therapy—I will dig deep and exorcise the demons of those last several years, while also looking farther back to my younger days, to the formative events and people that shaped me. A year and a half later I've done this to a degree, only often through various filters. This coincides with my writing for a few websites about pop culture. Writing directly about ourselves is difficult, but sometimes we can do it more truthfully when writing about something else. I subscribe to the belief that everything we write is in some small way about ourselves, making writing a fairly narcissistic but necessary act. It's a way to work through your personal issues within the context of broader issues. Still, on days when self-doubt creeps in, I think I'm building a wall by writing about myself in an essay about, say, a movie or a book. I'm keeping some emotional distance, almost like cheating. Other days, I think that it's an honest way to expose emotions that are buried deep down inside, or to allow the ones closer to the surface to bubble over and be free.

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The middle of 2013 is particularly brutal, beginning in June and lasting into the very start of October. Most of these days feel like an unending panic attack. It starts when my father falls out of bed, breaking his hip. After a surgery and a long stay in the hospital he's transferred to a rehabilitation center. That fall changes the entire course of my parents' lives and marriage. Those initial weeks in rehab are eye-opening, revealing to all me just how much his Parkinson's and Parkinson's-related dementia have eroded his physical and mental abilities to the point that no amount of rehab will bring him back to anything resembling normalcy. The dementia prevents him from remembering what he's worked on in rehab, so every day is like starting over, and progress is an impossibility.

A few weeks after my father's fall, my mother begins a months-long odyssey in another hospital after an ulcer requires emergency surgery. At one point while sitting in a hospital waiting room, all I can think of is the line from Yeats' The Second Coming: "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold." It starts to become a mantra, one of cold comfort. My wife and I spend these months driving around, visiting each parent in different hospitals and rehab facilities, barely eating, hardly functioning at all beyond the absolute bare minimum necessary just to get through it.

This being the latest in a series of stressful events in recent years, I'm losing patience. I'm tired of seeing in people's eyes what they see when they look at me: "Oh, poor Michael. He's had to face one thing after another." That sort of shit. You can tell me the sentiment is genuine, but I can also tell you that the people who get it still look at me like I'm more than just the sum of all of my problems. These are the people I need to be around right now, to help alleviate even a little of the pressure. Because there are days where I feel like the pressure is so intense, that I cannot possibly handle one more unhelpful conversation with a nurse or doctor or social worker. On those days I wan to be anywhere but here. I feel useless as a husband, son, friend. I'm a raw, frayed nerve, distant and emotionless most of the time except when I'm overreacting or breaking down.

If I fall will you catch me?
If I'm sorry, sorry enough
If I fall will you pity me?
Will you confuse my love for the cobwebs?
Will you confuse my love for the cobwebs?

For the cobwebs?

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After successful surgery in October 2011 I'm resting at home for several weeks into mid November. The doctors recommend radiation therapy treatment as a precautionary measure. That will need to be planned once I've had time to get back on my feet. I spend most days of my recovery camped out on the couch, with the cat for company while my wife works. My parents visit sometimes, bringing in food. I have little to no appetite but it's still much appreciated.

With so much time to think, I feel it best to read or watch something, to distract my mind and avoid thinking too hard about what has happened to me and what is yet to come with radiation. Normally I'd reach for a novel but I'm finding they require too much focus, which I lack right now. Instead, I read comic books and graphic novels. The balance of art and text is more conducive to my current mood. Comic books and the art inside their pages have been a lifelong inspiration. They're the reason I began drawing at such a young age. My generation is the first to have grown up on comics but not outgrown them; our fathers and grandfathers read them, but stopped when it was time to become adults. Not us, though. We've absorbed the stories and art into our DNA. I'm not sure this is a good thing, this perpetual adolescence that so many us seem stuck in, well into adulthood. As I pull another book off the stack next to the couch, I wonder about how healthy it is to find solace in the pulp and science fiction fantasies in these pages. Then again, how healthy is it to need a lifeline but ignore one that's right in front of you?

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In late September, 2015, my mother and I are sitting at my father's bed in the nursing home. He's unresponsive and it's becoming clear we won't have much more time with him. At one point when my mother is talking to him about me, my wife, and our kids, his eyes open briefly. For a split second, he looks right at me, then his lids close slowly. This is the last time my father and I will look each other in the eyes. I will continue to see his eyes in both my son's and my own eyes, as well as his smile in my daughter's similarly twinkling grin. But he and I will never look at one another again after this moment.

He always looked me in the eye when we talked, he always made me feel important and like I was worth listening to; he was devoted. In his room at the nursing home, I think of this and how fast it can all slip away, how fast it is slipping away. For years I've had a father to talk to and spend time with, and then one day I simply do not anymore. We assumed we had years left. That isn't the reality, though. As my mother and I sit by his side, the reality is he's being taken from us. Over the ensuing weeks and months I fight like hell to hold onto the moments and the memories, because I'll be damned if anyone's ever taking those away from me.

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We find out we're having twins in the late spring of 2014. After the initial shock subsides a bit (twins!), I'm ecstatic. Bolstered by this, I decide I'm finally ready to watch the movie 50/50. It came out the year I was diagnosed with cancer. I haven't been able to bring myself to watch it since; in fact I tend to avoid most mentions of cancer altogether. I'm still processing it but I tell my wife I think I'm finally ready, that the movie might be good therapy.

I cry so many times during the film that I lose count, but I have an especially intense reaction to the scene where Joseph Gordon-Levitt's character is being prepped for surgery. He's with his parents—his loving mother who's scared beyond belief for her son but trying to be strong for him, and his father, whose Alzheimer's keeps him from fully comprehending what his son is going through. As if all of that didn't hit close enough to home, watching Gordon-Levitt's performance feels like watching myself. Even though the movie is not an exact reflection of my experience—for instance, my tumor was caught early and I never needed chemotherapy—rarely have I felt this deeply, personally connected to a film and a character before. The movie perfectly portrays what it feels like when you have cancer. Just as they're about to wheel him into surgery, Gordon-Levitt starts to break down, choking out only the word "Mom." His mother holds him and tells him he'll be fine. He weeps, and my wife and I fall apart.

The experience is like looking back in time at myself from 2011. That's me on screen, all of my fear and panic and terror and uncertainty. I see everything I was before that moment, and everything I've become after it. I'm sorrowful for the man I was that's lost now, and appreciative for the man I've become, both in spite of and because of cancer. I don't feel emotionally healed, by any stretch, because that's a continual process that will last a lifetime. I feel changed, in positive and negative ways, and I feel more able to accept all of that now than I could before. 50/50 is life affirming for me: it validates my own experiences and emotions while giving me the strength to continue this process of acceptance of who I was and who I am now.

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One lingering effect of surviving cancer is occasional and irrational self-doubt. Perfect example: I begin to question what kind of friend I've been. This is prompted by the overwhelming kindness I receive from my friends—have I been as good to them?—and also by some old (yet new to me) news I hear in 2016 about one friend from way back. The news hurts to hear. I wonder how she dealt with it. How she's dealing now.

That summer when we hung out had a direct impact on who I became and she played a part. I'd been sort of sleepwalking for a while, not really connecting with anyone. Just by listening, she helped me feel anchored for the first time in, god, years. I listened to her concerns and my heart ached for what she faced at home. Mostly, we put it all aside and had fun. Still, what if I'd tried harder—or at all—to stay friends when we broke up? Would it have helped her later? Probably not. That time was just a stepping stone. She found new people to confide in, just like I did, just like we all hopefully do.

How can you spend a concentrated amount of time with someone and then its as if they never existed to you?

Memories recede a little farther back in our minds every year. It's hard to remember what made them or the people who populate them important. It's not nostalgia. The past wasn't better than the present. It's that life then was still relatively pure, untouched by cancer or loss or other tragic events. Things that changed us. We all lose something. What I'm feeling now, when I hear this news about a person I hadn't thought of in years, is the weight of that loss. It's a collective loss of innocence—hers, mine, yours, ours.

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My wife and I spend the last few months of 2013 and early 2014 trying to decompress after the struggles of the previous few years. I didn't think it was possible to feel this calm again and it's liberating. We go to concerts, spend time with friends, and take day trips to get away. We're finally able to make having children a priority, and this all feels like one last hurrah for just us before that (hopefully) happens. This time together, free of illness and with no family members in hospitals, helps us heal.

I finally seem to be making some sort of noticeable progress with my mental recovery from cancer. Follow-up visits and tests still stress me out, of course, but the time between them is longer the farther out I get, and that time feels better, more fulfilling. Now I see hope in that line from The Second Coming—"Things fall apart; the centre will not hold." After things fall apart, you can rebuild them.

One of the positives to overcoming cancer is that it's left me with a clarity about certain aspects of myself and the world around me that I didn't possess before. My tolerance for bullshit has decreased enormously. I'm more grateful for the people who make life worth living, like both old and new friends. At the top of that list is my wife, my partner in all things, who shares every experience with me—good, bad, and ugly. It's sometimes easy to forget just how many life changes we've seen each other through since we met. We were just kids.

While cancer can bring clarity to your life at times, it can also bring crippling emotional ineffectiveness at other times. Sometimes I see myself on the other side of a moment, days later, and still can't express why I didn't do more. Why didn't I provide greater emotional support or availability to my wife, or a family member, during that moment? I find myself asking these questions more than ever recently. I'm prone to avoidance and procrastination when facing something difficult or challenging, which can't be easy for my wife to live with. But she sees more than just that. She recognizes better things in me that I have trouble seeing in myself sometimes.

We've weathered several ferocious storms over these last few years but we've got the lighthouse in our sights now. The destination is close, we can almost feel it. We're seeing the end result we want and we're working as positively and harmoniously as we can to reach it. Times like this remind me that I'm not only the cynic I tend to identify as, but also the hopeful idealist that my wife sees in me.

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The day after my father passes away in October 2015 I keep an already planned lunch date with a close friend, knowing that a kind face will do me some good. This friend knew me way back when, during those years when we were all just becoming something, on our way to who we'd be later in life. We'd lost touch for years—there's that sad phrase again—but thankfully reconnected later. She has a family too, so we share stories and relate to each other's insane daily lives raising babies and toddlers. We've become the kind of friends as adults that I never would have imagined when we were teenagers. She likes to tell me how kind I was to her back then, and she's never forgotten that. It's amazing how differently we appear in other people's eyes compared to how we see ourselves. Hearing this goes a long way towards making me feel less like a loner and more like someone who makes serious, lasting connections.

In these last few years, and now with my father's death, my friends rally behind me in ways that never fail to surprise me—not because I didn't think they cared, but because the depth of their caring is beyond anything I'd ever imagined. This old friend regularly sends cards and texts at just the right time, always saying the right thing to lift my spirits or make me laugh. That's the kind of person she is, as are so many of my other close friends. They've all helped me realize we don't go through hard times alone; instead we support each other, prop each other up. We're there for each other.

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During and immediately following my diagnosis and radiation therapy, I repeatedly and obsessively listen to the 2011 album Only in Dreams from the Dum Dum Girls. As I drive to radiation therapy every day for a month, I listen to it in the car. I listen with headphones when I'm at work or taking a walk. Many of the album's songs are about loss, grief, and the acceptance of both. The music is classic noise pop, dream pop, and shoegaze, and infectious as hell. Lead singer and songwriter Kristin Gundred is writing about her mother's recent death from cancer. Her lyrics are crushingly direct and address the stages of grief one experiences after a loss.

While discovering this album I'm working through the stages myself, grieving what feels like the loss of my former self. I'm stuck in the anger stage for an unhealthy amount of time. It's become difficult to be around people, or to even care, and I have to fake it with all of my strength most days. I do a decent job of it, but those closest to me can see the strain. Listening to this album helps to quell the anger, or at least to channel it into something remotely positive, even if it's only by realizing that other people feel this way too, as lost and sad and angry as I do. In the song "Heartbeat," Gundred sings:
How do I come around
After all that has gone down
I strain to hear the sound of my heartbeat
How can I tell myself
If I can't tell anyone else
I'll stick my thoughts on the shelf 'til tomorrow
Oh Oh Oh Oh
I don't know where to go to get away from this sorrow
Take it away, take it away, take it away, take it away
I cry in the car while driving to another radiation treatment because the song is putting my feelings into words. I just want someone to take it all away, the heartache and the pain that squeezes my chest like a boa constrictor until I can barely breathe. How do I come around when I don't even recognize who I am now? How do I talk to people about this when I can't even express it to myself yet? In time, by accepting change, I'll come around, I'll talk more honestly and openly about it all. Right now though, it's like I'm living inside of a stranger's body. This album becomes my security blanket, and I will return to it over and over again during the next five years. It helps bring me back to myself.

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It's December 2014, just a few days before Christmas, and I'm being escorted down a long and winding hospital corridor by a nurse. She's leading me to the neonatal intensive care unit, or NICU, where our twin children were moved following their arrival on planet Earth earlier this evening. After somewhere in the neighborhood of fifteen hours of labor, my wife gave birth to our children via an emergency cesarean section. That wasn't the plan, but it wound up being medically necessary while my wife was in the operating room. When your babies are born premature, they're taken to the NICU. They need time to grow and gain some strength. NICU nurses oversee their care and are, without question, some of the most amazing women and men I've ever known. The nurse walking with me down the long and seemingly endless hallways at that moment is no exception: she's kind and understanding while I try to adjust to the fact that I'm now a father.

My wife is recuperating in her room, told by the doctors and nurses that she needs a little more rest before I can wheel her down to the NICU. So she tells me to go first, to see our children. We'd seen them of course in the O.R.: a girl and a boy. Violet and Benjamin. But nothing in my life has prepared me for the first extended period of time I'll spend with them.

My heart is beating through my chest, overwhelmed by the enormity of it all: my wife just gave birth to our children, two small versions of us who will grow and evolve into their very own, distinctive selves, completely separate from whatever they've inherited from us. They're both doing well, healthy and beautiful. I'm overwhelmed by the magnitude of new life, unprepared for the rush of emotions it stirs inside of me. While holding my son in my arms, tears form in the corners of my eyes. I promise him that his mother and I will always be there for him and his sister. We're sure to let them down sometimes, but we'll always love them and work our hardest to be the best parents we can be for them. Then I tell them what little I've learned about life so far that seems essential to living with some semblance of balance. I encourage them to be themselves and not worry about any expectations from their parents. Just simply be. Later on I remember that my father said something very similar to me once.

At this moment, I can feel a new and clean break happening in my life. Things will clearly never be the same again, but this time I'm excited at that prospect. I realize that raising children will be even more difficult than I can possibly grasp right now. Years of being frazzled and overtired from lack of sleep, an infinite amount of diaper changes, and navigating each new stage of their lives lies ahead. That's okay. In this moment I welcome the change, embrace it, even. I'm ready.

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Pushing through the market square,
So many mothers sighing
News had just come over,
We had five years left to cry in


1 comment:

  1. Dude.

    So much I'd like to say, I guess, but I don't have the words right now. I know it took you a while to put this together, so I don't feel too bad about not having those words right now.

    But I remember holding L'il Punk in my arms for the first time, and I remember having him taken away from us to the NICU and extending our stay at the hospital to be there in the same building with him, and how much it meant to use to finally be able to take him home.

    Different journeys, but some of the same paths.

    I'm glad you've reached the space you're in where you can look back at all these things and make them part of you.

    W.S. Punk (from the A.V. Club)

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