There is the dreaded itchy nose. There is the terrifying possibility of a sneeze. I have been vaguely worried about hiccups. But today I discovered a new thing that makes me move in unhelpful ways as a giant machine shoots radiation at me between my two tattooed dots: crying.
I’m pretty sure it was the song that was playing as they left me alone for my 15th fraction: California Dreamin’ by the Mamas and the Papas. I have heard that song so many times throughout my life, and it has never made me cry before. It is not the elegance of the poetry, surely. But today, on the table, sadness washed over me and through me. All the leaves are brown/ and the sky is grey. I guess it was too close somehow. The wistful quality of the song was somehow mirrored in me, cancerous again, arms stretched high above my head while the radiotherapy eye stared at me with its heatless burn. California dreamin’ on such a winter’s day.
There is also something about the way a song holds a memory—and also holds a promise of a future. There are songs so anchored in time that I can remember singing them and thinking about who I’d be when I was older (“older” being way younger than I am now). Squeeze’s “Black Coffee in Bed.” Springsteen’s “The River.” And now I hear them and compare sometimes. I look back at me looking forward, and it’s dizzying, like the endless receding reflections in the mirror in the dressing room.
I mean, how much is your life the way you expected it would be when you were little? When I look back at me looking forward, I see a hoped-for family, a tree swing in the back yard, a job as a lawyer or a vet (or, if you go back far enough, as a flute playing cowgirl princess figure skater). You can almost make out the crayon marks around the perfectly rectangular house in my imagination.
I have a husband, two kids, and a dog—and ironically I have a house almost exactly the shape of the ones I used to draw. No crayon marks, but the purple house with the green roof is one I’d probably have drawn years ago. But the rest of it? What I do, where I live, how I think, how I travel, etc.? Those things are totally different than the life I thought I’d lead. I traded the tree swing in the back yard for the Tasman Sea out front. And the life at the office for a commute that generally involves airplanes. Some of those differences I’ve chosen and some have chosen me.
The sum total of it is so far beyond my wildest dreams that sometimes I catch sight of myself, teaching in Milan, or on a layover in Abu Dhabi—or once even signing books at the National Press Club!—and I can hardly find a trace of the grown up Jennifer that little Jenny imagined. I don’t play the flute anymore or have a horse, but I have the most extraordinary work, family, friends. I live in gratitude and delight about that.
And some of it is miserable, well beyond what I imagined might go wrong. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror at the hospital today, my radiotherapied rhombus of a chest, pink and wrinkled under the saran-wrap like dressing they use to keep things from rubbing against it. Twice? I asked my reflection. Cancer twice by 46? This is an overachievement I could have done without. I sit on the benches outside the radiotherapy machines with people decades older than me. And rarely, like today, with a person decades younger.
None of it is predictable. Little Jenny could never have guessed what bizarre winds could have blown her so off course that she’d land here in Wellington. She couldn’t have predicted the deep friendships, the beautiful leadership firm, the spectacular clients. Or the cells that multiplied and multiplied and forgot to die.
And perhaps that’s the ultimate melancholy about California Dreamin’. “I’d be safe and warm/ if I was in LA” is our constant call. If only we had won Florida. If only he hadn’t gotten drunk that night. If only I had felt the lump sooner. We relitigate a past that brought us to a future different than what we imagined, but not different from what we were promised. I spend too much of my time in the If Onlys, and not enough in the spectacular, troubled, confusing, irreplaceable now. In two weeks I’ll be on my way to California. Tonight the full moon balances magically over the harbour here in Wellington. My dog is at my feet after a walk through a February late summer’s evening with a freezing southerly wind. California dreamin’ on such a winter’s day.