This last week of radiotherapy, I’ve been trying to see what the machines have to teach me, what this experience has to teach me. And as I leave the country for the first time since radiation began (big week ahead in the US), here are the lessons that call out to me.
It’s worth it to fight to stay alive. The first two days of this week, my regular radiotherapy machine was out of order and I needed to go to a different one. I’m not sure whether it was the unfamiliarity of the machine and the way it looked and the way it moved, or it was the increasing redness and pain that the machine was creating in me, but this week there was a part of me that wanted to duck away, out of the frightening and burning beam and under the table. Tuesday morning it was all I could do to stay on the table. I had this little voice that said I had tried hard enough, dosed my body with enough radiation, and that I could be through. It was a fight inside me to stay. I did it by closing my eyes and thinking about all the people I love, all the people I’m trying to stay alive for. Those of you reading these words were on my list. Before I finished, the session was over but the insight lingered. We fight to stay alive for ourselves, but even more I think we fight to stay alive for the people we love and who love us. We live for each other.
And sometimes you don’t even get to fight. When I got home from radiotherapy on Tuesday, my partner Jim called. “I’m calling with bad news, Jennifer. Really bad,” he said. “You should sit down.” I sat down and found out that our friend and colleague Tim Pidsley had died utterly unexpectedly. One day he was making good use of his tree trunk thighs on a bike challenge from Wellington to Auckland, and the next day he was dead. (I’ve written more about Tim here LINK). There is nothing that explains Tim’s death to me. Nothing. He was fit and strong and took care of himself. Just past 50, I’d have thought he was in the prime of his life. Here I have been working and working to stay alive—four surgeries, 24 sessions of radiotherapy, two shots in my belly (22 to go)—and Tim never got to even think about it. He went to sleep in his own bed one night and didn’t wake up. The lesson here for me is familiar, but underscored and bolded and in all caps. LIVE WHILE YOU ARE ALIVE. Don’t put it off. I don’t believe in living each day as if it were your last (because then who would ever do radiotherapy—that’s a gift to our future selves with a price to the present self). But I do believe in living each day so that it could serve as your last. Dying at 52 is horrific. Dying after a life of making a difference and a week of a spectacular bike ride? It is horrible, but those days that have ended up being Tim’s last are mighty fine last days. Tim lived while he was alive.
See each other. On my very last day—back in my regular machine—there were subtle differences. “Happy last day, Darlin’!” the receptionist called out to me as I walked past. The chair of the woman whose recurrence is worse than mine (who finished the day before) was filled with a new woman looking as terrified as I was 5 weeks ago, picking anxiously at her light blue robe. I took a picture of the “bed” I had been lying in, the cold burning eye of paradox that was hurting and healing me. But the last dance of the machine was different. The x-ray paddle swung way out of place as it moved from one side of me to the next. I squinted up at it; what was it trying to tell me? It swept over my head and then I saw—the angle perfectly reflected me back at myself. For an instant, I looked straight into its glass panel and it looked straight at my face rather than my breast. And I saw it and I saw myself too.
I was struck then by yet another thing I knew before, but knew harder now. A life fully lived is about seeing and being seen. It is about seeing ourselves reflected in one another and knowing us both better. One of the reasons I miss Tim so much is because we saw each other. In our last time in California, I told him what I had seen in him that made me want him in our firm when we were just forming. In Wellington last month, he gave me feedback so lovely and so specific that it made us both cry. I saw him, he saw me, and we each got to see ourselves more clearly because of one another. It was the last conversation we’ll ever have. And it will serve as his last.
And now it’s time to board the next plane, begin the next chapter. My skin is itchy and ouchy and it aches inside, nearly to my deep heart. But there are no blisters, and I am not in constant pain. I’m tired but not exhausted. They tell me each day for the next 10, it will get a little worse. And then each day after the next 10, it will get a little better. And each of those days, I intend to live what I have learned. To fight to stay alive with diet and a trip to another cancer center in California. To live like I’m alive and enjoy this stressful and glorious week of work and the friends I get to work with. And to see and be seen, because that is the point of it all.