I’m walking around like a soldier who’s home from war
Lost in the foreign landscape I used to know
Will I ever feel like I belong?
Will I ever feel like I belong anywhere?
Frightened Rabbit, “Home From War”
It was on September 1st, 2018 that I first heard the word “cancer.” Just under a year and an entire lifetime ago. I had no idea that day what that word really meant, and how it would permanently change me. I had no idea how it would permanently shatter the foundation of so many buildings and monuments I’d spent my life constructing. When I heard the word “cancer,” I thought “setback.” I thought “challenge.” I thought about the surgery to remove my tumor blockage. I thought of clean-up chemo. I thought about everything being back to normal by this time next year. I didn’t think about death.
Of course the story of how everything unfolded after that is documented in this blog, but it wasn’t until about six weeks later that enough scans and doctors had slapped me in the face to make me realize I’m really not going to be getting out of this alive.
After the most surreal year of my life, I keep waiting for it to become less surreal. And I think that I’ve gotten there. That I’ve found steadier footing. And then the ground shakes, laughs, and knocks me back down off my feet again.
Sometimes it’s the most benign activities that get you. You’ve been through the earthquake and learned to settle yourself. You walk back to the territories of your former life, thinking that it’s safe to go there now. The places are familiar. The faces are familiar. But you are forever changed.
Yesterday, armed with my new coping skills, I believed that I would be okay to test out what I believed to be a form of acquired acceptance of my new reality. But I did too much in one day. And it’s consequence is a sleepless night, a busy mind, and a 3 am blog posting.
It began with a trip back to my old office to wrap up out-processing.
A year ago, I was free from the tethers of a toxic office and a toxic project and embarking on a new one, in a new culture and environment. It was a fresh start, outwardly, but inside all of the damage had been done. I was already sick enough inside to be beyond “curable,” I just had no idea of it yet. There would be plenty of time to shed the weight I had gained and to address the warning signs that I was finally starting to notice. Or so I thought.
Yesterday I walked into that office to finalize some details for my retirement on disability at the age of 41. One thing that’s important to understand is that this was not just a job. It was a six-figure career. It was a year shy of 20 years of investment. It was a huge part of my identity. I would have never dreamed that I’d be coming in today, a year later, terminating formal certifications and appointments and retiring.
I can see it on their faces. What do you say to someone who is retiring on disability because of an ultimately terminal diagnosis? Congratulations? And how should I even mark such an event? With a formal celebration or acknowledgement? Or should I just fade away into oblivion?
I am grateful that I will not be forced to continue working- impossibly balancing medical appointments and side effects- until I finally drop. But retiring in my early 40s with the expectation that I probably won’t last more than a year or two past that? This is not normal. This will never be normal. I balance between jokes and small talk to mask the awkwardness of it all.
I rush out in a thunderstorm so that I can make it home before my son gets off the bus. The chaos and calamity outside are the perfect soundtrack to my inner unrest. My son gets off the bus, smiles, and runs to give me a hug. Some balance is restored, but my day is not yet done.
It ends with curriculum night at the middle school. I was here last year for my oldest daughter. This year we have two at this school. We walk through our children’s schedules and meet their teachers. My husband and I divide and conquer. I take Lucy’s (my sixth-grader’s) schedule.
Teachers and parents are crisp with the start of a new school year, and for the parents, the start of a new phase of their child’s life. Teachers crack jokes. We laugh.
Normalcy. Deceptive normalcy. It’s a sucker punch to the gut. The science teacher talks about the 27 years that he has been teaching. He proudly shows pictures of his adult children on the screen. His kids came up through this district. They are successful. He will take care of ours.
Other parents are internally brimming with thoughts of their children growing up. I am internally sinking into another out-of-body experience.
I won’t get to see my children as adults. I won’t get to brag about them. I smile at the right time. I laugh. Inside, the water is rising and I am running out of air. By the end of the night, I ditch the casual conversations with other parents I know and head straight for the car. I’ve got no more fuel left to pretend that my entire world isn’t upside down while theirs is still spinning.
At home, I finally break down. This isn’t fair. This isn’t fucking fair! I am accepting that I am going to die. I am accepting that I have no control. It is what it is and it will be what it will be. But not seeing my kids grow up will never be acceptable. That will never be normal. And that will never be okay.