A couple of years ago, I read a short story by Alice Munro, “Floating Bridge”. It is about a middle-aged woman, Jinny, who has been undergoing treatment for cancer, and slowly losing her battle. She is now at the point where she is getting a hospital bed in her house, and her husband has hired a woman to help take care of her. The story’s present action takes place as they are going home from a visit to her oncologist. There is a side-trip, as well.
The story is paced excruciatingly slowly, but one gets the feeling that that is how Jinny is experiencing time; it has almost stopped, and she feels stuck. At one point, she becomes disoriented and completely lost by herself in a corn field. Then, a teenage boy drives her home, and takes the long way, to show her a floating bridge over a swamp. He kisses her without invitation, and her head swims. She stands on the bridge in the dark, unable to discern the dark water from the dark trees or sky, and feels the floating bridge moving beneath her. She is dizzy and lost …
It is then that we learn that the doctor has told her that her cancer is suddenly and unexpectedly in remission. He said she should go home and resume her life. Then time stopped, she got lost and became dizzy and disoriented as the bridge shifted beneath her in the dark.
I think that was the only time I read something, then very clearly thought, Gee, I never knew anyone else had ever felt that way – those metaphors perfectly described how I had felt when I completed my cancer treatments in 2008, and was told to go home and resume my life.
Of course, I have known people whose oncologists told them to go home and get their affairs in order, and I know which feeling I prefer.
When I was told that an alien invader had been found growing in my lung this past May, it felt like being told to get my affairs in order, because I know just how dangerous metastatic esophageal cancer is, both by the numbers and through my experience with patient peer support.
My oncologist has now told me to go home and wait and see. Although the lung tumor was a metastatic recurrence of my esophageal cancer, I am told that when a single, slow-growing met (metastasis) appears after a few years free of detectable disease, it isn’t uncommon for that to be all the cancer there is, and, having removed that, I would now be cured. If there is still more cancer to appear, which is a very real possibility, it is slow-growing, and there will be a real chance to wipe it out, like we did with this first met. This is all outside of my experience; recurrences are usually big, aggressive, and fast-growing.
It’s that same disorienting floating bridge feeling. I can resume my life, but with the awareness that we don’t have the slightest idea what will be after my next scans, which will now be coming at three-month intervals again for a while. (A poem I wrote in the spring of 2009 about living from scan to scan, in three-month intervals, is appended at the end of this post.) But, make no mistake about it, this sense of precariousness and fragility never goes away. Never. And it makes life exquisite. (May I suggest …)
Having cancelled all of our plans for July, in a couple of days, my wife and I will take advantage of this armistice and go to Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park in Maine for the week. It’s one of the most beautiful places in the world, and we’ve got a lot of history there, although we haven’t been back in five years now. Before we had kids, we spent almost two weeks there every summer, we were there with the kids many times, and a few times since; it will be a good place to re-establish a sense of normalcy.
And I’ve got this nagging feeling like I’ve just received a miracle.
The Year After Cancer
I dole out my life
In three-month portions
One ladle full
Into a white clay bowl
Glazed with delicate stories
Of delicate lovers
And I hold the bowl
Under my chin
To slurp deeply from
The Chinese spoon
Thick and smooth, fragile
Between my fingers