Eight days ago a cardiothoracic surgeon cut a Cheshire cat’s grin 3+ inch long under my right armpit, separated my ribs and went inside to remove a substantial part of the top lobe of my right lung.
I write to you from my bed at home trying hard to concentrate on spelling, grammar, syntax. There will be mistakes, but they will be genuine mistakes like the difference between naïve artists and trained naïve artists. My mistakes are part of the message. (Spell check and my brain are not adequate to this task.)
The anesthesia will take weeks to wear off, and I stopped the painkillers two days ago when I could not remember the name of the current president. Obama and Trump were on the two ends of a see-saw vying up and down for the position.
It was only 7 days before surgery that I even heard of VATS, video-assisted thoracic surgery, the gold standard to get, ah, well, specifically, yes, ah, to get cancer out of lungs. It was only minutes before that I was told I had a 70 percent chance of lung cancer. A couple days later the surgeon who would do a pre-operative bronchoscopy (camera down my thorax to check suspected “lymph involvement”) said the odds were 80 to 90 percent. The “mass” was “almost certainly cancerous.”
I hadn’t felt sick, but my internist a month before listened to my lungs, and that started an avalanche of dominoes from X-rays to CAT scan to PET scan to an appointment with the cardiothoracic surgeon (thank you, Johns Hopkins and Sibley hospital) who said “This needs to be removed. I can schedule you for Friday.”
WHAT? WHAT? This is not my movie! I have been miscast. Nothing about this part fits. This is fundamentally “off,” not wrong so much as “off.” Even as a tidbit in the back corner of my brain said “Isn’t denial the first step of grief?”. . . and I said, yes, but, NO.
I didn’t believe I deserved less to have cancer than anyone else. It just wasn’t my movie.
In the first few days I told only a few people, but we had to move fast, and Christmas was upon us . . . jing-a-ling.
Who do you tell? Who is strong? Who is experienced? Who needs protecting? Who can help you the most? Who would you betray if you did not share this intimacy?
Is this a private matter, a public matter? Are there rings of inclusion?
Is it sympathy begging to post on FB? Or does transparency give new possibilities to this passage for myself and others?
I chose transparency. Soon after, more than 100 FB friends were sending messages, and love, and hearts, and wishes. A cascade of goodness. And the congregations of three churches in Iowa were praying for me plus a circle of high-powered women in northern California, and amazing friends everywhere.
Their strength didn’t tiptoe in. It arrived bold and present with a soothing weight that surrounded me and filled my body and occupied all space around me.
Now let’s look at something else. Today is the fourth anniversary of my mother’s death at age 96. That woman was not ready to go into another Iowa winter. She was buried in -30 degree weather. It felt like a betrayal.
It was also 8 days after my brother, then 59, came home from the hospital after surgery for advanced lung cancer that he died of a clot blocking blood from going through his lungs. This is my ninth day after surgery. He was looking into my eyes as he died.
They are with me tonight.
The kicker is, I never had cancer.
My surgeon beamed when he said “I only get to tell 10% of my patients this. You do not have cancer, never did.”
WHAT?! WHAT? . . . . Yes! This is the movie. It’s a weird part, but I can play this role, and I understand the obligations of the blessing.
The mass, examined cell by cell, was scar tissue, fibrous crap, enmeshed tentacles of arteries, and other junk held together under more fiber like a lid over a trash can. In other words, newt’s eye, whisker of wild boar, fingernail clippings, hag’s tooth, and bits of lost socks. If it weren’t in its own trash bin somewhere. . . though I suspect it was more thoroughly destroyed . . . I would burn it over a sandal wood flame and sing “Hymns to the Silence.”