Tag Archives: cancer

Pluto shits on the Universe

1 May

Pluto-and-charon-artists-impression

 

This is the title of a pome, sent to me by the lovely M who sends me pomes to wake up to most days, and I’ll include it in this post because it is spectacularly attitudinal, and a ripper of a metaphor.

Back again at last in my beloved Snowy Mountains, I woke this morning with a vivid memory of the birthday I celebrated after my first round with cancer. My sons, who were teenagers at the time, broke into their piggy banks and cadged off their dad to buy me a luxurious Yves Saint Laurent bathrobe of thick white towelling with delicate pink and green satin embroidery on the collar and cuffs. I said, unwisely, wow, is this for me to cark in, and nobody but me thought it funny.

My sense of humour was always dark grey and the cancer experience turned it black. The colour black is, of course, the result of the absence of, or the complete absorption of light, depending on your point of view when you wake up in the mornings. I prefer to think of it as the latter because I’m cheered by the notion of darkness needing light for its very existence, rather than being the consequence of light’s total absence.

Anyways, this Yves Saint Laurent bathrobe is the most luxurious item of clothing I have ever owned, and it is still almost as good as it was the day of that first survival birthday. I may yet cark in it. I most certainly will insist on being buried or burned in it. I’m kicking myself that I left it at home, because it would be perfect for running from the hot tub on the freezing verandah back into the glow of the fire-warmed sitting room. I don’t know how those louts of mine even knew about Yves Saint Laurent at that obnoxious stage of their lives, but I’m ever so glad they did.

The pome:

Pluto Shits on the Universe
BY FATIMAH ASGHAR
On February 7, 1979, Pluto crossed over Neptune’s orbit and became the eighth planet from the sun for twenty years. A study in 1988 determined that Pluto’s path of orbit could never be accurately predicted. Labeled as “chaotic,” Pluto was later discredited from planet status in 2006.

Today, I broke your solar system. Oops.
My bad. Your graph said I was supposed
to make a nice little loop around the sun.

Naw.

I chaos like a motherfucker. Ain’t no one can
chart me. All the other planets, they think
I’m annoying. They think I’m an escaped
moon, running free.

Fuck your moon. Fuck your solar system.
Fuck your time. Your year? Your year ain’t
shit but a day to me. I could spend your
whole year turning the winds in my bed. Thinking
about rings and how Jupiter should just pussy
on up and marry me by now. Your day?

That’s an asswipe. A sniffle. Your whole day
is barely the start of my sunset.

My name means hell, bitch. I am hell, bitch. All the cold
you have yet to feel. Chaos like a motherfucker.
And you tried to order me. Called me ninth.
Somewhere in the mess of graphs and math and compass
you tried to make me follow rules. Rules? Fuck your
rules. Neptune, that bitch slow. And I deserve all the sun
I can get, and all the blue-gold sky I want around me.

It is February 7th, 1979 and my skin is more
copper than any sky will ever be. More metal.
Neptune is bitch-sobbing in my rearview,
and I got my running shoes on and all this sky that’s all mine.

Fuck your order. Fuck your time. I realigned the cosmos.
I chaosed all the hell you have yet to feel. Now all your kids
in the classrooms, they confused. All their clocks:
wrong. They don’t even know what the fuck to do.
They gotta memorize new songs and shit. And the other
planets, I fucked their orbits. I shook the sky. Chaos like
a motherfucker.

It is February 7th, 1979. The sky is blue-gold:
the freedom of possibility.

Today, I broke your solar system. Oops. My bad.

ƒ 

This pome is infinitely applicable to all kinds of situations. I particularly enjoy the use of “chaos” as a verb.  I like to recite the pome to the regiments of cancers and their tired metaphors of war. I say it to a couple of people who shit me to tears. I say it to the goddamn state and all its agents. I say it to everybody who

Somewhere in the mess of graphs and math and compass…
 tried to make me follow rules. Rules? Fuck your
rules.

I pass it on to you, dear reader. Go forth and chaos like a motherfucker.

Now there’s an epitaph.

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What a woman wants, what a woman needs…

28 Feb

Yesterday I visited a place on the NSW south coast that once served as a sanctuary, a place to which I fled after an almost terminal encounter with cancer left my whole being drastically weakened, terrified to live and equally terrified to die. Daily life had become impossible, I no longer knew how to fulfil its expectations. I needed solitude, away from city life, I needed to escape the claims and demands of human interaction, even with those I loved and who loved me, and I needed this so desperately I think I might have physically attacked anyone who tried to hold me in place. Fortunately, nobody did, I was reluctantly let go when I promised to allow visits, as long as nobody stayed too long, and how long was ‘too long’ was to be determined by me.

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It was also fortunate that we owned a caravan behind the sand dunes on a largely deserted beach. You can’t live in a caravan, they said. You can’t live there all by yourself, you’ve been so sick, look at you, you have no hair and all your bones are showing. Fuck off, of course I can, I told them, unkindly. Any attempt at what I perceived as thwarting me made me frantically distressed, as if I was being pinned down by a body stronger and more powerful than mine that I had to fight off, or suffocate.

The caravan was in one of those old-fashioned parks where families spent their holidays year after year for as long as anyone could remember. When I arrived, exhausted from the four-hour drive and the emotion of goodbyes, the place was largely empty, being out of holiday season and in the middle of autumn. It was cold. The south coast climate is at best fickle, I have known us wrapped in sweaters and blankets on Christmas Day. The caravan, unoccupied for months during my illness and initial recovery, was musty and damp, a habitat for spiders and insects. The day was overcast, adding to the gloom, and while our spot beside the creek in a grove of melaleucas was idyllic, it allowed for little light under such a low grey sky. I had a panic attack. I couldn’t stay in the spider-infested gloom. I couldn’t go back to our light-filled Bondi Beach home where I suffered anxiety attacks every time I went out the front door into the neighbourhood I had, prior to my illness, loved to inhabit, with its cafes where I met my friends, ate weekend breakfasts with my husband and whoever else happened by, where we swam or walked the winter beach hand in hand talking as we always did with such energy and delight, even at the times we disagreed with practically everything the other said.

DSCN0889

After the cancer, I couldn’t talk about anything anymore. The ongoing blows inflicted by the illness, so unexpected, so unpredictable, they seemed unending in their variety and persistence. After cancer is a time largely underestimated in its power to disrupt. Generally, people think you ought to be relieved, happy you got away with it this time, determined to embark on a recovery regime that will get you back in the swim of things just like you were before. In reality, at least for me, it’s when the horror of the experience actually hits home, something that is impossible when you’re going through the treatments and your world has become medicalised to the extent that it overwhelms all other realities. Post cancer, every little twinge in your body is noted with alarm: is it coming back? For months I woke in the night drenched in sweat, from nightmares the details of which I could never remember, and a debilitating weariness dogged my days. There was nothing that did not leave me exhausted, and tearful. I couldn’t manage all this, and human beings as well.

I walked along this same beach yesterday, under a similar low, soft grey sky, the familiar smell of kelp, the haunting cries of seagulls, the gritty south coast sand between my toes. At the end of my beach there’s a broken wooden jetty where I used to lie on my stomach, peering intently at the stingrays gliding through the clear water beneath me. The rhythm of those days and weeks and months of solitude came back to me. In the mornings waking up sweat-soaked and panicked, climbing out of my single bunk bed to make tea on the gas stove, cold, even if the day was warm, because what I remember from those months is how I could never warm myself, even under piles of blankets, even in the hottest sun, it was as if I had a frigid core that nothing could reach, it was as if I had entirely lost my previously automatic ability to regulate even my body temperature. The trembling of my body, most especially my thighs, and the cold sweat drying on my skin. The fear of moving. The terror of putting one foot in front of the other. The utter loss of everything ordinary.

My husband and my adolescent children would visit and though I loved to see them, the relief I felt at their departure, at the resumption of my solitude, made me ashamed. I remembered yesterday the feeling of my starved gulping, my greedy devouring of nourishment not from my loved ones whom I invariably felt I had to reassure, but from the solitude of the natural world in which I was immersed. That was my healing. My guilt at abandoning them was great. But my need to be alone in this wild landscape overwhelmed it. I wanted nothing except what I needed to stay alive, some books, some music. The hurt I caused them did not become fully apparent till some years later when my eldest son, beside himself with unexpressed distress from that whole period of our lives, shouted at me, You didn’t need any of us! You just left us! You didn’t let us help you, you are such a fucking loner, Mum, you don’t fucking need anybody!

Which left me speechless. And reaching out for him and he came into my arms, grown up, so much bigger than me, and sobbed.

DSCN0891

I don’t know how it is for others, but I’ve always had a dreadful struggle between what I need for myself, and what others need from me, and what I want to give them because I love them. Sometimes I think I will die if I don’t have time absolutely alone. Sometimes I cannot bear to engage in one more conversation about, essentially, nothing, the kind of conversations that make up so much of our daily discourse, the words that serve to weave the binding threads between people, and that is their purpose. Sometimes I think if I am not able to sit in silence in the natural world for as long as I need to, I will start breaking things. It’s as if the healing never really finishes, needs to be topped up from time to time with a return to the inner self who increasingly becomes more solid, more real, than any outer persona and whose needs are so far from anything found in the everyday world with its constructed conventions, and its claims that largely require almost incessant, low-intensity interactions for their fulfilment.

For a woman to do what I did, leaving home, husband and family who cared for me through the desperate and dangerous phase of my illness, insisting on solitude rather than accepting their love was seen largely as selfish, and it was, there’s no denying that. It had a price, for all of us, but yesterday I understood that there’s nothing intrinsically wrong or frightening about paying a price for something deeply desired, these are deals we strike every day, choices made, choices rejected, and almost every one of them has some effect on someone to a greater or lesser degree. I still don’t know, after all this time in this life, how much I am allowed to take for myself, how much selfishness I am allowed, how many choices I may make that cause another hurt or discomfort, how responsible I must be for protecting another from disruption in the pursuit of my own desires and needs. With every situation this must be weighed up anew, and I have made some horrible errors. It seems that the important thing is that I continue to bother to attempt these fraught calculations, even though my sums may be dreadfully wrong. I hope that is the case, though I don’t expect I shall ever know.

Quint Buchholz. lemaze-studio.com

Quint Buchholz. lemaze-studio.com

I must be alive ’cos my heart’s still beating.

29 Jan

Some time ago I was told that I have an indolent lymphoma, a death sentence, the specialist implied. But so is life, I said. The moment I’m born I’m old enough to die. David stared in dismay, as if he found my attitude cavalier. As if he feared I hadn’t been listening.

Dying Rose. By lovestruck via flickr

After receiving this dismal news, I left David’s office and went into the hospital bathroom, where I stood looking in the mirror for a long time, talking myself down from the ceiling and back into my body.

Who am I, I wondered as I stared at the pale woman in front of me.

Where am I going?

This sudden loss of self- recognition and purpose spooked me. Get a grip, I advised myself. I adjusted my old leather backpack on my shoulders. I washed my face, put some balm on my cracked lips, and left the hospital.

I was wearing jeans, brown boots, and a white shirt. An emerald green silk scarf, a gift from my youngest son whom we all call The Adventurer, was thrown carelessly around my neck. The scarf was stiff with tears and snot. I’d lost my bravado when David insisted on repeating his diagnosis. I’d held up both palms in protest, as if to keep him and all his words away from me, then I’d sobbed like a little girl who’d been unjustly punished, that it wasn’t fair.

David pushed the tissues across the desk. I’d used my scarf instead. It smelled, still, of my child.

This is how my life ended, and my dying began.

 

GET OFF MY CLOUD

After leaving the hospital I walked carefully down the familiar Newtown streets,leaking vital energies like a dying alien.

Dog in the forest

To return to the city after a long absence is to invite a serious assault on the senses. My senses were attuned to the ocean, and the secret scents of the rainforest.To the distant chug of trawlers as they crossed the bar at sunset, heading out for the night’s fishing.

My senses were used to the sounds of the whistling kites nesting at the bottom of the garden, and the sorrowful cries of the black-capped terns on the winter beach. Calmed by the blue heron absorbed in picking its delicate way across the mud flats in the wispy grey of an early morning river mist.

These senses were ill-prepared for traffic fumes and the roar of trucks; the hot sun glaring off shop windows, and dog shit in steaming piles around my feet. Neither had they managed well with the hospital’s chemical odours, and the sight, through an uncovered window, of a purple-gloved hand preparing a large syringe.

Purple. The colour of bishops, martyrs,and feminism, and now of cancer.

I was much taken with the name of my illness. It sounded refreshingly non-medical, even poetic. In.do.lent. Having or showing a disposition to avoid exertion. Sluggish, I read when I looked it up, the better to get a handle on the nature of the intruder.

I imagined the Indolent Lymphoma loafing on a Caribbean beach in a Panama hat, sunning itself under a striped umbrella, with a pink cocktail in its hand and a bag of weed in the pocket of its board shorts. I imagined myself confronting it.

‘We need to talk,’ I’d begin. ‘You’re on my cloud. You need to get off. Your attitude is costly for my life, and it cannot be allowed to continue.’

When I got up close I saw the creature had reptilian eyes and a self-satisfied leer. It winked at me and sucked on its roach. It didn’t speak, but roused itself enough to adjust the umbrella to keep the sun off its face. Then it idly threw the last of the roach into the warm turquoise sea. I lost my temper.

‘Well fuck you!’ I yelled.‘This isn’t fucking over yet, you know!’

 

STUFF FUCKING EVERYTHING

For a long time I slept with my teeth clenched, and woke each morning with an aching jaw. I couldn’t rouse myself enough to talk to anyone. I dreamed I was swimming in a turbulent sea and when I sank beneath the waves, my skirt became trapped under a rock.

I told no one I was ill. I thought that by telling someone I would make the diagnosis real. I lived alone then. My children were scattered across the world, and I was bereft of husbands and lovers. It was easy to keep a secret.

The dreams became worse. Apocalyptic, with tidal waves; angry wolves, soldiers, and smoking theatres of war littered with the limbless dead. I became afraid to fall sleep. I sat up at night watching infomercials on television and drinking red wine. In the early hours of the morning I’d swallow non-prescription calmatives. I didn’t consciously consider suicide, though I had it in mind if things became too bad, if pain became too bad further down the track.

A frightening aridity then took hold of me. My fevers were dry and wouldn’t break. My skin shrivelled. My eyes felt full of grit. My salivary glands reduced their output and my tongue, deprived of normal lubrication, became unwieldy and attached itself to the roof of my mouth as if both were lined with Velcro. I craved fluids and drank frequently and in large quantities. But the liquids brought no relief.

My spirit is burning itself out, I thought. I hadn’t anticipated this deathly dryness, this burning up, this slow progression towards grey ash.

Grim Reaper. By Brave Heart via flickr

‘I don’t know how long I’ve got,’ I realised in a rare moment of reflection and assessment. ‘What do I most want to do?’

I had infant grandchildren as yet unmet on the other side of the world. Why not take a trip and visit them? At this thought I was immediately afraid. Fear has always been my Achilles heel.

‘What if I get sick, really sick in a foreign country?’ I worried, as I walked the winter beach with my black and white dog.

‘But why does it matter where I get really sick?’ I argued back.’Does anywhere feel like home to me? Where do I belong, where have I ever belonged? Does it matter at all where I die?’

I considered these questions mostly in the abstract. As generalised philosophical meditations, as a scholar rather than a sufferer, and got nowhere.

There are times when knowledge fails to make the necessary journey from the head to the heart.

‘Stuff fucking everything,’ I thought one day, overwhelmed by circumstances of such magnitude that my mind rebelled against admitting them. And besides, I was beginning to bore myself. There is only so much time one can spend contemplating one’s death. It was now a time for action, not stasis.I also wanted very much to start smoking again after twenty-four years of abstinence, and that urge had to be resisted at all costs.

So, with what felt like my last reserves of self-care, I decided I would go to Mexico. My son the Chef lived on the Mexican Caribbean coast with the grandchildren I had yet to meet. What better journey could I make? And my best friend, Jane, agreed to join me there later in the year.

I stored my winter clothes in boxes. Where I was going it was always summer. I packed my bags and boarded the 10am Qantas flight from Sydney to Los Angeles, to Dallas, Forth Worth, and on to Cancún. A thrilling optimism took me over. No regrets! No tears goodbye! Hola! Buenos dias, senors y senoritas!

Flying into...

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