Sometimes, life is a capricious old whore.
In late June, I celebrated my 55th birthday with friends, laughing, telling stories and feeling grateful for a life well-lived. My husband and I were preparing for a much-anticipated European vacation. A week later, I was diagnosed with brain cancer.
My symptoms were slow and subtle. A pervasive fatigue I chalked up to middle age until the nine hours of solid sleep at night were insistently followed by a two-hour nap after breakfast. A distinct change in my handwriting. I'd stare at the thin scribblings in my reporter's notebooks and wonder what sort of poltergeist was at work. My husband noticed I was shuffling my left foot and that the left side of my face was drooping slightly.
My father died from a stroke a year ago. That was my worst fear, until I opened the closet where the really scary monsters hide.
I have a longtime professional relationship with oncologist Dr. Pat Harris, who acts as my hematologist. She was my dad's doctor, too, and my family has an almost-mystical belief in her powers. She fit me in the day after I called her office, listened to the symptoms, ordered blood work and arranged an emergency MRI that night. The next day, she called and softly said she had bad news.
And how do you follow up that bad news? How do you call your husband, who has already lost a wife to cancer? How do you tell your 26-year-old daughter? Or your 85-year-old mother, whose first-born child died suddenly several years ago? I'll tell you how: You pick up the damn phone, take a deep breath and you say it straight and clear. And then you call your best friend, who was laughing at your birthday table, and cause her heart to crack. And the calls go from there, to your boss, extended family, to the two stepdaughters joyously backpacking in Europe. With each call there is the sound of shattering glass and then silence.
The brain biopsy was quickly arranged, my surgeon kind and generous with his time and explanations. I was left with seven staples holding my head closed and a persistent headache. I feel violated for having had strangers poking about in my brain. I have dreams I was attacked by a stalker who left me with the scalp incision. I have dreams of terrible battles and fire and loss. I have dreams of my daughter as a baby, fresh, pink and innocent of pain.
Too many people have kindly told me I'm a fighter, I'm strong, I'm going to "kick cancer's ass." I'm a skinny middle-aged newspaper columnist given to mewling. Cancer wears steel-toed boots. I wear Keds. I hope no one ever writes "after a valiant fight... "
Dr. Harris called with my biopsy results Thursday afternoon. During the call, in which no good news was shared, something rank and odious slithered into our home. I was moved from the land of the blithely healthy to the world of cancer patient, my days soon to be scheduled around chemotherapy and radiation.
The stinking, unwelcome invader feeds on our tears, our anxieties, our hurried hugs and whispered conversations.
But my faith, prayer and the prayers of others give me strength. My family and friends have lined up, filling our fridge with food and our house with flowers. I've had notes from unexpected sources, delighting me with their kindness. Winnipeg Free Press photo editor Mike Aporius is posting a Facebook photo a day of his chubby, chortling toddler. She's a great way to wake up. There is love around us constantly.
I've covered a lot of stories, and convinced a lot of people it would do them good to let me cover theirs. But I'm not covering this one. My friend, photojournalist Ruth Bonneville, is creating a photodocumentary we hope to use if all goes well and I'm able to return to work and tell a story of victory. Until then, I won't parse out my family's pain for Free Press readers, as much as many of you mean to me. Today is an explanation of why you won't see me for a while.
Please know I'll miss you and this privileged job while I'm off fighting monsters.