Monday, January 16, 2012

Day 621: Things We Lost in the Fire

Recently, someone I've known for most of my life pulled me aside, hugged me and told me this: I know you've been through hell and back, Katy. I'm proud of what you've done. You're through it now, it's over. Well, it's been an interesting few years, I said. No, not interesting, she insisted. It was hell. But it's over.


She had breast cancer herself several years ago. She went through surgery and radiation, but avoided chemo. She knows the story, has that thing that's much appreciated in cancerland: empathy, as opposed to sympathy. I've been thinking about this exchange recently, thinking about what it means for things to be over, for anything to be over. If you remember it, I suppose it's still there, it's still real. Does that mean that if you don't remember something, it never happened?


No, that's not what that means, but memory is a hell of an important thing. The other day I was smiling at a friend's video of her son learning how to walk when a thought struck me and I went from laughing to almost crying. I have no memory--almost none--of Augie learning how to walk. He took his first tentative steps around the fourth of July in 2010, when we were in the north woods of Wisconsin, a few days before I started chemo. I do recall a little bit of shaky walking on the deck of the house, but barely. I was still recovering from my second surgery, still reeling in the relief of my margins finally being clear and knowing I was stage one, BRCA negative and all of that, and I was scared shitless thinking about chemo. He really started walking a week or so later, and I was just in a fog--even though I never had chemo brain, my body was in such a state of shock in those early chemo days. We have a video of Lenny learning to walk--we actually staged it; put her Dolly on a chair across the room and made her go walk to get it. Poor Augie's got nothing. Gabe barely remembers those days either.


Sometimes I feel this cancer experience the most through the discovery of what is missing. Those memories of my son, for one. The ability to fantasize more than a few years into the future, for another. My long hair, that stuff that made people remember who I was, for a third. Some things are more tangible: for instance, I used to actually perceive my breasts as a part of my sexual life; they used to be an important erogenous zone for me. That's completely gone now--everything else about my sexual life is back to normal but that. Gabe has been bothered by this, but I've told him he can continue to enjoy them as much as he wants, but I just have this notion of breasts as harbingers of suffering that gets in the way of excitement these days. It's strange how that's happened, considering how normal my breasts actually look--almost exactly the same, save that small half-moon shaped scar. You'd have to do a double-take to notice. I was looking at myself, marveling at this fact, thinking about the physical distortions that other women go through that I was spared, when I noticed something else. What is that on my chest? Am I imagining it? Maybe I'm just flushed, maybe it's because I've been exercising.


Days later, I asked Gabe to take some photographs, to help me take stock of the situation. Now that I see the evidence, I know--I'm permanently sunburned on the left side of my chest, on my pec and my sternum, from radiation. I think it's fair to say it's permanent, since it's been more than a year. This bothers me at the same time that it makes me feel somewhat relieved. It's good to have some physical reminders of things, lest it all be wrapped up in my strange little mind, but it's tough to think about what that means--that I was burned so badly, that my chest muscles will, even according to my physical therapist, never be the same. I never even thought about what my chest muscles could do, what my pale skin was supposed to look like, until those things changed--until the old way went missing. So it is, I think, with most things. What is that saying? You don't miss your water until your well runs dry.


I've dealt with a lot of these intangible losses over the years, and I've mostly shrugged my shoulders at them, because when you consider what actually happened, things could have been a hell of a lot worse. I might have no memory of Augie learning to walk, but what does that matter to him? He can still run at me, do a flying leap, land on the left side of my chest, make me double over in pain, apologize and then sing me a song, all without considering the possibility that I might not have been here for that. And after more than thirty years of having pretty red hair be a huge part of my identity, I can now be one of those annoying people who can't really see the point of it anymore, thinking, damn, it really is just hair, what was all that time and fuss about anyway? I can sigh at the loss of my evenly-toned chest and then say, wait! What if I turn around? Can the strength I see there cancel out the weakness on the other side? Even if that's completely illogical, can I pretend just for a moment that it can? Can I stand here, rolling my eyes at my husband who is looking adoringly at my naked body, burns, scars, flaws and all, and say, this body still works, doesn't it? I've made it work as well as I could, so come on, take a picture. Who knows how long this will last, what we see through the lens?


Who knows?


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