In preparation for entering a PhD program, I wrote a little essay, "A Bend in Time", describing the experience of turning the corner in life. One corner. The corner. The curve where you switch your focus from the life you have lived, i.e., your youth and upbringing, to the life left to live.
The switch felt good at the time. I regarded it as a benchmark of maturity. The future stretched before me, another five decades of smooth, competent driving in the direction of eternity. No more stupid marriages or detours around destiny. I looked forward to a half century of untrammeled creativity. Productivity. The further accrual of wisdom. Fun. I would flower in my sixties as I never quite had as a sometime flower child in The Sixties.
Death, of course, would graciously arrive only after I grew tired of writing books and poems. There would be no period of incompetence, physical or mental, because my heart would take me out one starry night, suddenly, and preferably with the good manners not to wake me up.
From the pinnacle of one’s existence, it’s easy to imagine the mirage of the good life stretching out far ahead in time, leaving wide, comfortable margins on either side of one’s path. Sunny weather…as long as my poor heart stays together…keep writing all the time, the time….
The only way a colonoscopy fitted into that picture was to extract from it a relatively harmless diagnosis, at worst a medical slap on the wrist: At worst, "Hey, Dummy. Better lighten up on your favorite beverage and burger and up the exercise level. We found a cute little polyp or two in there."
This wrist-slapping was to occur in due course, when my GP could next see me.
Imagine my surprise when, as I sat on the edge of some functional piece of hospital furniture, trying to remember how to get dressed, the internist, Dr. H, came right up to this groggy doggy and said he wanted to see me pronto if not sooner in his office.
A bright guy, he must have figured that I must have figured out from his first words that, of the forty possible causes of twenty times the permissible blood in one’s stool, I must have nailed Cause #40. I’d been informed that results would not be forthcoming for weeks, but he told me immediately that there was a plyp or polyps, right at the start of my friendly and useful little colon, near the ileocecal valve, and that he hadn’t been able to snip off all the polyp without risking —
"Perforating the colon," I finished. Pretty good fro a groggy doggy. He nodded; then left. Busy man.
Two realisations emerged from the wavering mirage of my future. One: this saga wasn’t over. And wouldn’t be, for months. Two: I could now legitimately add the letters CP to the alphabet soup behind my name, for Cancer Patient.
I’ve heard these moments described as the sensation of blood freezing in the veins, or cold water dumped over one’s head. Me, I heard a screeching noise as the mirage of my future disappeared and the image of the infamous switchback on the road to Takakkaw Falls in Yoho National Park zapped out of my memory box and planted itself firmly into next week. Brakes! BRAKES!!
I was about to become a cartoon character, legs windmilling in air after leaving the precipice, held up only by the willing suspension of disbelief.This can’t be happening to me.
Oh, yes, it can.
I learned the finer points of driving from a Brit who liked to race. Hence, I know about braking before the curve so that you can accelerate through the curve–because there’s better control on acceleration than on deceleration. If you guess wrong, you end up oversteering like crazy all the way through the corner. Rather like being a patient, as I’d learned the last time I was really, really sick. The truism is, that the compliant, confident patient invariably does much better. Slow down before the surgery and prepare your mind, or you’ll wind up micromanaging your post-op condition to the point where nobody wants to spend any time with you, including yourself.
As hostel parent in the Park years ago, I ran the triple switchback to Takakkaw Falls many times, always in my Feeble Ford, an Econoline van that probably inspired the song by Humphrey and the Dumptrucks that goes, "That old truck’s got a lot of heart; remember that grease is cheaper than parts." Going down the switchback wasn’t too bad, except on the occasions I was rushing to reach a fresh source of water for the radiator, as the porcupines had once again lunched on the rubber hoses in the engine. Going up the switchback demanded consummate skill, however. The engine needed to take a run at the steep slope at almost maximum speed–but not enough speed to lose it on the corners. Tricky.
At Takakkaw, you could always err on the side of caution, knowing you could take another run at the switchback. The first part was relatively easy; the second and third sections had to be done in one go. If some fool tourist from the city came down as you were trying to come up, you’d have to back all the way down, which was no fun, but could be done.
Cancer might not offer a second run at its twists and turns.
A couple of days later, I was in the internist’s office. The original appointment for a couple of weeks after the colonscopy had been shortened up to just a few days. The hospital seemed to be in an all-fired hurry to get me on the road to wherever. For the first time, I felt frightened.
THe internist referred me to a surgeon. Now I had to believe this was really happening. The prospect of sugery rose up before my eyes as real as the mud and stones of the Takakkaw switchback–but only its first section. I know I can drive that section all right. This body has had a few surgeries. Beyond that, however, there’s fog, like the low morning clouds in the mountains that could fool a driver into thinking there was just one section to the switchback.
The docs can’t say what lies in the fog until after the surgery. Staging, this process of gaining knowledge is called. We know the polyp is stage three but we don’t know the cancer stage yet.
I’m driving into fog. That is true of each of us every day, of course, but this fog is thick and personal. There are no magic windshield wipers to disperse it. There is almost nothing I can do to negotiate this switchback besides trust. Stay cool. Stay positive. Keep my hands on the wheel and a foot poised over the brakes for that moment the next switchback looms into sight.