Rick’s note: I wrote this the night before my doctor felt that he had to tell me some bad news: There is very little chance of my being cured. Whatever they’re doing now is just keeping me alive a little while longer, and they can’t do that forever.
One cold night out in Buenos Aires with a friend or two, after helping finish off a huge plastic tub full of vile local beer at a loathsome expat bar which smells, looks and feels just like all the douchebag clubs in my old college town, I had the strange experience of comforting a friend about my own death.
She was crying, but I don’t remember how it started. I think she was upset at me for not taking my cancer treatment seriously. I was in the middle of a 6-week combo radiation/chemo cycle for colorectal cancer.
“How can you think so little of yourself?” she asked with wet cheeks and painful-looking, contorted lips.
“I’m doing what they tell me to do… I’m going every day.. What else am I supposed to do?”
“I just can’t think about you dying! I just can’t!”
She was in pain but I didn’t feel anything similar, and never had.
“It’s going to happen. That’s what this diagnosis means,” I said. “And I need you to help me when it does. There’s no one else.”
And there isn’t but she’s not ready. She still talks about “when you get rid of that fucking [colostomy] bag we’ll start going to the gym together.” But it’s permanent. It’s unbearably permanent, like the cancer.
As I’m writing this, I’ve just finished watching Mike Mills’ Beginners. In one scene, Ewan MacGregor’s character, Oliver, is chastising his newly-gay dad, played by a wonderful Christopher Plummer, for telling all his friends that he’s “turning the corner,” that his cancer treatments are working, that he’s getting better. He’s telling them what they want to hear.
‘Dad, it’s stage IV cancer,” Oliver says. “There is no stage V!”
That made me laugh. But it’s more than just gallows humor.
That night I told my friend and the other person with us that I had accepted my oncoming death. I didn’t say, And you need to accept it, too. My death is my own. Stop trying to take it from me. I didn’t say it because that seemed cruel and not what she wanted to hear. We moved on to other topics, and another tub o’ beer, but I was dumbstruck. It had never occurred to me that my friends could be in denial and that I would be the only rational one.
I’ve more than accepted my mortality. When I see depictions of death in the films and television shows I’ve been obsessively watching, avoiding doing anything else, when I see someone collapse from a heart attack or even get shot in the chest, I feel an aching, a longing to experience those last moments myself, for it to be over, to finally let go of this obligation to hope that I feel. It’s only a few seconds but it’s such a new emotion for me and so liberating, like falling or flight in a dream, that I’m stunned immediately after. Then the scene ends, the surviving characters cry and I’m still here. I wake up.
There are moments recently when I almost haven’t gone to a doctor’s appointment, or postponed to the last possible hour doing all the little bureaucratic errands I have to do to continue to be treated. I think: What if I just don’t go? Why don’t I sell my camera or my phone and buy that little tank of helium, explain to the guys at the hardware store what size hose I need, reinspect for holes the plastic bags I’ve collected that I know will cover my whole head and then some. Why don’t I? After all, postponement and deferment is how I got here, at stage 4 with a second tumor in my gut and tiny lethal lesions on my liver. Yet, I don’t. I don’t let go. I have more writing to do.
Theoretically, I don’t want to postpone owning and directing how I die, either. I don’t want to lie in a hospital bed surrounded by strangers speaking a language I only half-understand, pumped full of painkillers and slipping away incoherent and speechless, brain-damaged by comfort and deprived of one of the things that I value most about myself — my contrarianism.
Cancer is a lonely disease, I read somewhere; but really, this is ridiculous. I lost my Argentine boyfriend after the second surgery, during which I almost died and then ended up in intensive care, vital signs pinging my body’s refusal to give up. My straight drinking buddy drifted away, frightened of finality. An Argentine friend, whom I felt as close to as a sister, stood me up when I told my story at Second Story, and later moved away without telling me. An ex-boss threw me out on the streets, confiscating my belongings, my cancer drugs, my medical records, for publicly revealing that he hadn’t paid me for three months, among other character flaws. It wasn’t enough, I guess, that my own mutated cells were trying to kill me — a flesh and blood human tried to destroy me, too. And he still owes me that money, and my stuff.
I am so strong, they say, when people hear or read my story. I don’t know about that but facing these things, worrying daily about eating and paying rent, I can’t be weak. But, I am very, very tired.
Yet, it can be weeks before my sister or nieces or my best friend contacts me, through Facebook only, and I’m devastated. Some of my closest expat friends have moved back to the States or Canada and the ones that are left… well, invitations out have trickled off. Folks still help me, but I’m an abstraction now, a charity case. It might have something to do with nights like the one that opened this post. It might be that I just haven’t made good friends here. It might be that I’m not a good friend.
But I am still fighting, or at least, still going through the motions of fighting. I haven’t yet figured out for whom.