This summer was not the first time my body has thought about killing me. Almost twenty years ago, I woke up in an ambulance on Christmas Eve to learn of the seizure that had roused everyone in our household but me. An otherwise healthy college student with one semester under my belt, my brain showed up that Christmas with a syllabus of its own. I don’t remember many details from the relentless diagnostic period that carried me and my family through that first Epiphany. I do remember being equal parts terrified and annoyed. How could my body betray me in this way? What was my brain doing? Looking back, I can see how hard I pushed to keep promises of normalcy on my horizon. Overnight, the prospect of completing the degree I was just beginning began to feel aspirational at best. Who was I to assume four years to grow on?
Amid a battery of tests methodically examining the brain tumor detected on Christmas Eve, I was determined to keep to my plans of celebrating the new year with friends in Berlin, Germany. For me, going on this trip to the city I called home during my teenage years became the life and death battle that mattered. It would put “Bob” in his rightful place, lodged deep in my right parietal lobe – out of sight, but hardly out of my mind. Getting my parents and an ever-expanding team of specialists to clear me for international travel was not easy. But the test results were looking increasingly hopeful and I flew to Berlin a few days after Christmas. Less than ten days after my brain waves started a party of their own, I celebrated under the Brandenburg Gate. Dancing and singing together, my friends and I rang in the new millennium watching bottle rockets streak across the sky. Even the brightest colors fizzled out before raining down clouds of ash.
Life with Bob has been quiet enough. He could have been cancerous or evidence of a more serious seizure disorder, but he wasn’t. After surviving both Y2K and the possibility of a life-altering diagnosis, I returned to the second semester of my freshman year. Back among a peer group of young women more concerned with the possibility of bringing new life into the world than with the foregone conclusion of death itself, I could go for long stretches without remembering Bob’s standing invitation to a different calling.
These days, when I let myself breathe into the deepest part of me, I remember that we sometimes wake up changed, altered by things that come to us in the night. When Bob surfaces, I remember that scary things become ours in their naming and claiming. Transformation begins when we make space for the pieces of ourselves that beg to be seen and heard. Sometimes, we become the objects of our own learning. Unexpected teachers show up when we are ready – and when we’re not.
This summer, a new sojourner appeared. My doctors initially thought I was growing a large ovarian cyst and I named this new friend Gertie in an effort to welcome her into the same benign club that has suited Bob these many years. Unfortunately, Gertie didn’t take to her initial diagnosis. Instead of your friendly garden-variety cyst, she turned out to be a rare and unusual form of ovarian cancer. So rare, that Gertie has taken on unicorn status; a magical creature with a blessed propensity for disappearing into the fog of surgical anesthesia. After weeks of increasingly anxious waiting for a report delayed by experts who struggled to determine Gertie’s pathology, the call came in. My husband and I were driving through some back roads with particularly spotty cell reception when my surgeon reached out with the news. We pulled over to make sure I could hear what I already knew; that twenty years after Bob became the bullet I dodged, my body was catching up to some deep learning.
Cancer has a way of stopping you in your tracks, but we kept driving after I got off the phone, repeating to one another the words that have become both mantra and rallying cry – rare, treatable, good prognosis. From that initial call through a second surgery to remove any organ Gertie might enjoy as a second home, I have been revisiting my journey with Bob. Am I ready to remember the learning deferred and sacrifice suspended so many years ago? I wonder what I might be willing to ask again and know more deeply in this season.
I am still new to the world of cancer and recovery. Navigating a changing body – and a renewing mind – is both my daily doing and undoing. Almost 20 years after Bob showed up, making an understated case for life itself, I am at once my former self and a brave new woman. During Gertie’s diagnostic period, I was navigating the shock, adrenaline, and fear that my body remembered all too well from Bob’s early days. My husband and I had just purchased our first home together and I couldn’t quite wrap my head around a curtailed definition of the “forever” we had so readily deferred until just a few months before. Sitting on our new porch, my mind had a hard time quieting. But my eyes took note of the light filtering through the trees and my skin welcomed the sun’s warmth. I was almost unbearably alive as the specter of death rocked with me in the chair I inherited from an ancestor whose effortless old age had once seemed my birthright, too.
The body keeps tabs on us while we work on connecting the dots. My body likes to speak in ellipses, and I can trace what’s missing – and what remains – along invisible lines that connect my scars across more than just my abdomen. I stoically navigated Gertie’s entrance into my life much as I had welcomed Bob so many years before. Several days into my diagnosis, I was deep in my head about what it might mean to be dying. Pivoting seamlessly between gratitude for breath itself and bone-deep anxiety about what it might mean to claim any given day as a holy measure of enough, I found myself driving down the road we were traveling when my surgeon called with the news. As I approached the curve, the familiarity of it all – the waiting, the watching, the wondering – transported me to another season. I might have been sitting on the side of the road in Madison County, North Carolina, but I was also in a hospital room in Atlanta, Georgia, waiting for the angiogram that would determine the balance of so many things. Right before that procedure, my tears finally found me in the bathroom. With nurses and parents hovering anxiously on the other side of the door, there wasn’t time to sit with the deep truths welling up. I live into those depths now, making peace with my own flesh and blood.
This summer’s round of tests and two back-to-back surgeries ended just like that day in the Atlanta hospital – a kill shot that missed. Miraculously. And still, this lease on life chafes on those days when my new normal doesn’t feel like me. Navigating a recovery process that wades into ever deeper waters, my body begs for attention and accountability. In this season of unicorn wonder, I am called to live the questions that give voice to both presence and absence, to bitter loss and sweet, sweet gain. What, then, this body? How, then, this life? Sometimes, answers come on the porch where my ancestors hold court with Bob and Gertie. I don’t always hear, and when I do, I don’t always listen. But in my reach, again and again, for the light that makes the sum of me greater than the loss of any one part, I find my way.