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January 1, 2013

All is quiet – the right time for taking stock. My parents are here, fast asleep having brought in this New Year far from their Castledawson home with the fireworks we’ve been saving for a special occasion and, for luck, my husband designated as the ‘first-footer’ after midnight. Sweet relief to shut the door against the worst of 2012 together, a year which started ominously, each of us terrified by the idea of breast cancer tearing the fabric of our lives to shreds.

Cancer. When I heard it got me, I cried as though I had just found out that someone dear to me had died. Inconsolable at first, I assumed those great fat tears flowed from the sheer fright of a disease that has no cure. Fourteen months later, I know my sorrow was more about wondering how to proceed toward the half-century mark without the woman I used to be. Oddly, nobody else seemed to notice she had vanished. Not even the person who delivered the news to me in much the same way as my mother might give me a ring to tell me that a childhood friend or a distant relative has died – reverent, hushed, kindly.

If I shut my eyes, I can just discern the shadow of my former self standing up and walking out the door, mortally offended by that nice Breast Cancer Navigator informing my husband and me that I had cancer.

Conspiratorial and quiet, reminiscent of whispered speculations about a cause of death when all the evidence points to hard living, on and on she talked. Her scary words filled our ears with fear, even as she stressed that what we were hearing that day in her dimly-lit office was definitely not a death sentence. Nonetheless, I heard a crack. The sound of a life altered that, over a year later,  has me wondering how I should respond to Muriel Rukeyser:

What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.

Is it because it is invisible, like the actor who, having exited the stage, falls silent and slips behind the scenes until the encore?  Or is it the treatment that belies cancer’s smugness, mine so cleverly concealed in 1,825 innocent-looking pills that I have promised to consume over the next five years? Whatever it is, I have found that many of my friends and acquaintances are skilled in deftly averting their eyes from mine and not talking about it. I suppose what ails me is easy enough to avoid. Listlessness, a gnawing dread, brief but boiling hot flashes, aching joints, nausea, and fatigue can swoop below the radar in a way that a head made vulnerable and bald by chemotherapy cannot.  What had I expected? The details of my pathology report on a perpetual crawl across the bottom of the CNN screen so no one would forget about me? My name spelled out in pink lights across the front of a Safeway store in October? No. I craved good old-fashioned sympathy, long phone conversations into the night, and endless cups of tea. I did not want people telling me I was in their prayers or that cancer was a gift or that it was part of God’s plan for me or that there must have been something – something –  I did or didn’t do that contributed to the cancer that was crashing in on us and turning everything upside down, inside out.

I wanted home. I wanted my mother, but she was so far away. I wanted to hear those comforting colloquialisms from rainy, rural Northern Ireland, phrases that remain elusive in the desert southwest of the United States with its predictable sunshine. Home brings the language I know and love, like the words of a neighbor from my childhood that leaped from a Facebook message: “It must be so difficult to cope with that burden when you are so far from your mammy. I’m sure she is all you want at the minute, as always, when trouble visits your door.” When trouble visits your door … I had not heard that phrase in years. In an instant, I was 12 years old once again, in the house where I grew up, stretched out on the good settee, trying to concentrate on a new Enid Blyton book rather than the blistering chicken pox my mother tried to soothe with great pieces of cotton wool saturated in Calamine lotion.

For me and the woman I used to be, cancer became the scariest thing in my life, because, like every scary thing that actually happens, it had never crossed my mind. I am not proud to say I still waste precious minutes fretting over things that most likely will never happen. But cancer did happen, and I wanted everyone to feel as sorry for me as I did for myself and howl about the unfairness of it all. I wanted a no-holds-barred pity party. I could not have predicted the impact of the let-down, placated by people I consider my friends who said I had nothing to worry about, my being so strong and someone to whom God would give only as much as I could handle and not one drop more. I was told the luck was hanging out of me because I had the “good cancer.” I was on the pig’s back, beyond lucky to be the beneficiary of what they deemed a fine consolation prize, a veritable bonus – the tummy tuck and the boob job following the amputation of the right breast I wish I still had. I was even congratulated on still looking like myself – you’d never know you had cancer –  and five minutes later chided by someone who barely knew me when she found out I wasn’t “doing chemo,” as if it were something akin to laundry or a pile of dishes or sit-ups. There was the woman who told me to just get on with it and “put my big girl pants on,” with a nod to God because, you know, I could handle what He had given me. There were others who have yet to utter the word C-A-N-C-E-R in my presence, let alone inquire about how I’m faring. I make excuses for them, guilty that I make them uncomfortable, showing up in the world every day, reminding them that cancer gets people like the person I used to be, people like them. I envy their good health. More guilt.

So the dance continues. If I don’t mention it, they won’t mention it, and maybe it will go away. Or maybe it won’t, and then what will we do? Will we swallow the words we are too scared to say and instead spit out tired cliches about doing battle and platitudes about the power of positive thinking? Trickier, I suspect, to ignore the recurrence of cancer, to feign indifference to it, once it has been roused from its slumber. How odd to sit in the light of a twinkling Christmas tree, pondering this and Macbeth in the wee hours of the first day of the year:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

~ Macbeth Act V, Scene V, 19 – 28

It is time, I know, for Auld Lang Syne and to settle in somewhere between reminiscing and resolving. I am stuck on words …

What words will come my way in 2013?

From the people sleeping down the hall, I know to expect words of great kindness and courage. When she calls every weekend, my lovely mother will lay into the cancer and the treatments and the shocking number of new cases she hears about back home. She will curse it for the thief that it is, and she will ask me if I’m sure I’m looking after myself and tell me not to let anyone make little of me. Mind you, she has been telling me that for years. She will worry about the toll the cancer has taken on my daughter whose adolescence was so unfairly interrupted by my diagnosis. She will remind me I am married to the best man in the world and wonder aloud how I would ever manage without him since he waits on me hand and foot. She is right, of course, as she is at those times when she wonders how in the name of God he puts up with me, so I know how lucky I am. She will reminisce about this wonderful New Year’s Eve and bemoan the miles and miles between us, and I will fall into the rhythm of home as we talk about how distance makes everything surreal. From far away, she and my father will continue to dote over my darling girl who, in their eyes, can do no wrong. They are smitten. I will ask myself if they were even remotely like this when I was 15 and if perhaps I missed it.  Then I’ll remember that they were every bit as over-protective and uptight as I am, possibly more so, when it comes to child-rearing and also that my grandparents always took my side, slipped me money, and satisfied my sweet tooth. In the past three weeks, my daughter has learned how to make fruit scones and Pavlova and a good cup of tea. My mother has learned how to like things on Facebook.

My father has been up at the “scrake of dawn” every day, actively seeking out things to fix, a few small repairs to make life a wee bit easier. He may as well be a man of 35 again, up on our roof fixing the gutters, then cleaning windows and shining them with newspaper until they sparkle, hanging pictures and cabinets, tightening things that are loose and the reverse. The electric drill and the level are never far away. A creature of habit, daddy reads the paper every day, chortles at Andy Capp’s mishaps, does the crossword, and beats the daily Sudoku into submission. As industrious as he is, he does not work on a Sunday. He never has, not since that Sunday afternoon a million years ago when he hung wallpaper in my bedroom and it bubbled. A divine reprimand, perhaps.  Like me, he is drawn to things that are old, with a good story behind them, and he can carry a tune. Forever, he has been enthralled by antique clocks and their inner workings, and he had a fine collection that he sometimes set to clang and chime at the same time, waking the entire household and probably the neighbors. My favorite is the old Regulator with its stolid, steady tick-tock and its rich chime. He has regretted for years that he didn’t buy the Grandfather Clock he spotted while we were on a camping holiday in Scotland in the early 1970s. At the time, it would have meant dipping into the emergency fund, and my mother, ever the pragmatist, was afraid of the emergency that never transpired. By coincidence, when my husband and I took our first trip to Colorado, we passed on a Regulator clock in an antique shop in Ouray. We have regretted it, too. So wasn’t it a lovely turn of fate that this New Year’s Eve, my mother and father spied a Regulator clock in an antique store in Arizona. Not to miss out again, my father had that clock purchased and wrapped up for me two minutes before the store closed. 2013 will begin with the soft tick-tock that I have been missing for thirty odd years, and the chimes on the hour and the half-hour. Magic time, like these moments between an old and new year that find me recalling Ted Kooser’s Local Wonders.  For Kooser, life is “. . . a long walk forward through the crowded cars of a passenger train, the bright world racing past beyond the windows, people on either side of the aisle, strangers whose stories we never learn, dear friends whose names we long remember and passing acquaintances whose names and faces we take in like a breath and soon breathe away …”

Looking towards tomorrow, I am with Mr. Kooser, ready to walk through the cars ahead:

But there are still so many cars ahead, and the next and the next and the next clatter to clatter to clatter. And we close the door against the wind and find a new year, a club car brightly lit, fresh flowers in vases on the tables, green meadows beyond the windows and lots of people who together — stranger, acquaintance and friend — turn toward you and, smiling broadly, lift their glasses.

Happy New Year to you and yours.


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