The wind off the San Francisco Bay kept the air chilly on the beach – enough so I needed the long-sleeved, button-up oxford that he offered in characteristic chivalry. The near-cold added to the edge I felt buzzing within my breast, the acidy vibe coursing from brainstem to pelvis floor like caffeine mixed with pop rocks and hot oil. What was I thinking? I didn’t know. I was a smart, 22 year-old, full of ambition and dreams. At this moment I had decided not to think. I was holding his hand, shyly, but so warmly. His skin on mine felt like butter feels melting on your tongue, bathing your taste buds in the rich, sweet flavor of ‘homemade’. His strong hand and the way he grasped mine delicately, but with a hint of rebellion, transmitted care and stability, but not overconfidence. It was our only intimacy. We were walking barefoot together. He wasn’t my boyfriend - my boyfriend was in Portland, setting up a new apartment for the two of us to move into.
My beach companion was handsome, his blonde wavy hair and deep dimples mirrored the image of the perfect man that was imprinted in my mind. By some strange coincidence, or maybe not – he looked just like my first love, a 14-year old boy I troubled myself over in high school. But this was a man – a funny, charismatic man with good taste and great looks. He had a drive to explore his world philosophically, a dream to follow a creative path in life, and, apparently a small flame flickering in his heart for me.
I couldn’t contain the unnamed emotion that his touch - that signal of something more than what it had been only yesterday - triggered in me. I wanted...what? I didn’t know. But I yearned. I longed, I craved…something. His hand in mine, his presence here with me in this new, bold, scary way opened up a hole in my chest. I could feel the accelerating suction of gravity funneling in, in a whirlpool of colors, sounds and sensations. They flooded me at an alarming rate. My body filled, tension building; the buzz ricocheted inside of me. I had to pee. I had to scream.
“You make me want to dive right in without looking,” I blurted out. “I feel out of control.”
I looked toward the ocean roaring to our left: ”I want to just jump into the sea, clothes and all.”
He seemed to understand the gravity and symbolism to what I was saying. I don’t remember what he said. But I do know, had I done it, had I dropped his hand and run straight into the tiny breaking wavelets at our feet, leapt over the rolling breakers, tripped into the icy, hip-deep Pacific, dowsing that hole in my chest and filling my soul with salt-watery risk and craziness; had he done it with me, we would have made love, right there on the beach in the indiscreet evening glow, wet clothes slapping, saline kisses gobbled up like slippery fishes, and my life would be very different from what it is today.
That buzz, that man, that moment in the burnt offering of the sun as it started to submerge like a pixilated rainbow under the choppy water, they burrowed into my brain like ticks and they changed me. We didn’t jump in. We didn’t make love. But it changed my life nonetheless. That switch of electricity pulsed open inside my emotional world and reset my train onto another track, a convoluted, interchange of decisions and non-decisions, heartache and determination, that led me eventually to a lifelong commitment and the investments adults make in possessions, places and careers. And it led me to cancer.
I don’t blame my cancer on anything or anyone; not an experience I did or didn’t have, not a person or a place that tainted my environment or poisoned my cells. Cancer is a part of each of us, and mine just is. There is no questioning why or how. The permutations that create the perfect Petri dish for a cancer to develop and grow are infinite. The genetic and environmental factors can’t be isolated or even grouped into likely and unlikely causes, there are so many. The possibilities range from an unlucky angle in the bend of my lower intestine, to a flake of lead paint I might have swallowed while crawling on the floor as a 1-year old. The trigger that initiated this particular cancer - it eventually broke through the wall in my colon and sent poisons into my abdominal cavity, bringing me a few days from death – will remain nature’s secret.
The imagination can go wild trying to reason with cancer. I am a healthy 42 year old woman who never smoked a cigarette in my life, used alcohol and drugs only sparingly and ate pretty darn healthy in this chemical-laden, American processed-food culture. I was running 35 miles a week when my cancer was discovered on an Emergency Room X-ray. I’m sure I looked damn good, naked on that operating table, but, luckily, the surgeon cut me open and repaired me anyway. The 7 months following that emergency surgery might have been the worst time in my otherwise blessed life. It wasn’t the chemotherapy that enveloped my fingers and toes in what seemed like gloves made from the sharp end of a pin-cushion. It wasn’t vomiting – vomiting was old hat for this girl who flirted mercilessly with bulimia throughout high school and college. It wasn’t even the colostomy that the doctor left on my stomach, a big blood-red piece of my insides sticking out through my flesh, releasing unpredictable volumes of what normally comes out between your legs. (Granted, the temporary colostomy was pretty horrible and made my working life very difficult, but we joked about it at home.) The thing about knowing you have cancer is that you don’t know much. It took an entire 6-month cycle of chemotherapy for me to realize that even the doctor knew next to nothing about how to treat the disease. There were studies from 20 years ago that showed some people lived longer than others with certain drugs, but there was no predicting who. There were statistics, all of which advised people to refrain from smoking and drinking, maintain a healthy diet and get plenty of exercise! Obviously, I was already defying the statistics, stubbornly getting a disease for which I had met no prerequisites. I was young. I was healthy. I was (and still am) female.
Through numerous 6-hour sessions sitting in the infusion room hooked up to a IV bag, it dawned on me that cancer is still a huge mystery. The chances were just as good that it would stick around as that it would spontaneously disappear. Of course I followed my oncologist’s recommendation, because it couldn’t hurt: I could be the perfect specimen, reacting favorably to the latest chemical concoction.
But I wasn’t. The surgeon had cut the cancer out of my gut, and the chemo was like a disinfectant, saturating my entire body in metaphorical bleach. But the original tumor was ornery and microscopic missionaries traveled to my lymph nodes and lungs and set up shop. Seven months later, I was back in chemotherapy.
“Incurable…” the doctor said. He was a young but impersonal man who tried to comfort me with awkward pats on the shoulder
“What do you mean?” I asked, trying to get a grasp of the definition in his mind so I knew we were both using the same dictionary.
“It means that we are not going to try to cure you, like before,” he responded. “We will treat you, but now our goals are prolonging your life and maintaining a high quality of life, not curing the cancer.”
This news was another blow to my determinedly carefree existence. It took getting used to - again. The medical profession considered me a hopeless case. They had even fewer answers for me, now that I fell into a new, more complicated classification. They were all convinced that I would die from this disease.
Like the day I woke up from surgery, drug-foggy and alone in a thin cotton hospital nightie, again I sat quietly and allowed myself to not think. I didn’t think about the possibility of dying soon. I didn’t think about the likely pain and suffering that my family and I might endure. I didn’t think about what comes after. It was there, in that state of not thinking about all of these things that I remembered another moment of not thinking - on the beach, holding hands with that San Franciscan man who wasn’t my man. I was young. I could live moments like that glorious evening with him without thinking and I could allow the indiscretion because, I could tell myself, of my youth. But puzzling through things and trying to figure them out is a side effect of responsibility. As time passed, certain material and personal goals required solving problems. How do I gain stability? Buy a house. How do I buy a house on limited income? Live cheaply and save money. How do I fill that house with beautiful children? Find a man that I could trust to father and raise those future people, those babies who would be more dear to me than anything else in the world...
My San Francisco moment of not thinking allowed me to experience a lightning bolt of excited emotion, a diving-in to something unknown without calculating the consequences. I relish that memory of Steve – that was his name. It fills me with a love of the person that I was when I was not thinking: full of possibility, full of adventure, risking it all for a feeling, doing what feels good and living the moment to see what it will bring. That is how I remember my walk on the beach. I realized that I wanted to throw myself into his love without caution. I wanted to expose myself to the elements of a new and scary and maybe wonderful thing. I wanted to flail in the freezing water just to see what it felt like, be there sharks lurking, or disgruntled boyfriends.
I didn’t. My frontal lobe kicked in, overruling the cerebellum, and it thought me back to practicality. I moved to Portland with my boyfriend (and subsequently broke up with him not long after). Thinking has ruled my life ever since.
How can a romantic walk on the beach lead to cancer? It does in that my entire life led me to this point in time, and this point in time includes cancer. But more than that, holding hands with Steve might have been the last time, until cancer came, that I didn’t think; the last time I abandoned myself to the powers of instinct and sensation. But then, I didn’t follow through. I didn’t jump in blindly. By overruling that impulse, I started down a lifelong path of goal setting and achieving, of strategy, responsibility and commitment. I have lived 20 years of a life that caters to only half of my brain, neglecting that spontaneous, adventure-seeker curled up in the temporal lobe. It was hibernating until now.
As I sat in the doctor’s office with the new information about the end of my life, I let the situation seep into my body and my cells like a watercolor. I didn’t try to answer any questions. I didn’t try to format it to fit into my current framework. I just allowed it to be, and let my instinct take control. I allowed myself to feel what it feels like to know you might die soon. I let the idea enter my world and become a part of it, a new monolith in the landscape of my mind. As I see it, cancer is a mountain, large, rock-faced and icy, but it is only one of many beautiful features in my internal landscape, which mirrors the great Pacific Northwest with the poetic Three Sisters range, and Hood and St Helens mountains trapped in a frozen ancient courtship. There is plenty of green. I see flowering trees swaying in the wind and rivers gurgling pleasantly. Cancer is only one piece of my world.
By allowing cancer to join me through an avenue that doesn’t analyze and deduce, it is a truth that I accept. It is in this way that my last moment of not thinking has lead me to cancer, because now I understand cancer like I understand love, which is, not at all, and that is the way it is supposed to be. I feel what it is instead of knowing it.
I have started listening to my non-thinking self more often, in small pieces because I still have children and a husband who depend on me, a mortgage to pay and responsibilities at work. I navigate my world as often with impulsive feelings as with logical planning. I’ll walk home from work a new way, or strike up an off-hand conversation with a stranger at the busstop. With the uncertainty of being here tomorrow, every decision depends at least partially on ‘does it feel good?” This is something I should have incorporated into my life long ago. Although these changes are minor, I think I will have at least one last opportunity to ‘jump in without looking’ in a big way. Nobody knows what awaits us after we die. But now I know how to not-think about it.