Notes From a Gray Couch: Hong Kong Part 2November 7, 2011
I awoke in my friend Gilly’s guest bed in Hong Kong, where I’d come for my second rest break between SPDT cycles, to the all-too familiar feeling of upheaval in my stomach. Nausea seems to be my plague in China, but I wasn’t on chemo and I never expected immaculately clean Hong Kong restaurants to get me sick. Instead of drifting peacefully on a calm sea of 400-thread-count white sheets I felt like I was rolling in the swells on dad’s fishing boat.
Memories of rich meals, grilled lamb, mini hamburgers, roasted potatoes smothered in cheddar cheese, that enormous T-bone steak we shared the night before played across my mind. I pulled my sleep mask back into place and burrowed into the covers, exhausted, nauseous, and afraid that I had jeopardized my treatment – and for what? – meat of all things! I cursed my sensitive digestion, sure I had contracted another bout of e-coli (or some such bacteria) which had left me sick as a dog and unable to receive all of my chemo just a few weeks earlier.
Restless, I tossed the covers off and stumbled to the bathroom where I splashed water on my pale, clammy face. I had promised David we would Skype, so I booted up the laptop and called my love. Hearing his voice brought up the tears I had tried to push away. David did all the right things. He listened to me complain. He said “oh, honey” just when I needed to hear it. He listened to my fears that I would be sick for another week and that I screwed up the most important thing I have to do, the only real thing I have to do: life-saving cancer treatment. He told me he was there for me. And then he proved it by accompanying me to the bathroom. I set the laptop on the floor and was immediately sick in the toilet while in the background David made soothing sounds. Oh ours has become a modern romance.
I brushed my teeth and wandered out to the living room where I made camp on Gilly’s enormous, custom-built gray sectional. Gilly had already left for work, but his helper Andrea was there, bustling about the apartment making the bed, cleaning the bathroom, washing the breakfast dishes. “Good morning! Boker tov!” she said brightly in her musical Filipino accent (Andrea worked in Israel for eight years before coming to Hong Kong and makes a mean matzo ball soup). “Would you like I make you fresh grapefruit juice?” I groaned at the thought of acid hitting my already roiling insides, and told her I wasn’t well. “Everything will be okay,” she said nodding her head for emphasis, “don’t worry.” Andrea says this to me a lot, usually with a slightly worried look on her face.
Andrea tucked me in with a pillow and blanket, made me a cup of tea, then went to the store to buy bread and raspberry jam. For the first time since starting treatment, someone was there to take care of me. Toast and tea may not seem like a big deal, but I was so grateful for this nurturing. I looked out the window at the blue sky and could feel the promise of my day’s plans to explore Hong Kong’s beaches evaporate. I didn’t have the energy to argue. I gave in to my body. I gave in to the exhaustion. And so, listening to the comforting sound of Andrea’s flip flops thwacking against the hardwood floor as she hurried from one end of the apartment to the other, I fell asleep.
For years, and I mean many, many years, I have ignored my body when it told me it was tired. My father always accused me of burning my candle at both ends. Busyness equaled productivity, which stood for success. When I felt tired, which was just about most of the time, I pushed ahead. I thought if I worked out more, then I wouldn’t feel so tired. If I stayed busy and kept moving, then I’d have more energy. If I drank coffee, ate something crunchy — if, if if…. If meant ignoring my body’s clear and consistent message: “Girlfriend, take a nap. Go to bed earlier. Rest!” Feeling tired scared me, but slowing down to rest frightened me even more.
“What’s wrong with me?” I’d wonder. And something was wrong with me, was growing more and more out of balance, but I was too damned obstinate to listen. Even after I gave birth to Leo, had surgery, and then took chemo for six months, I prided myself on operating at just about 100 percent by keeping up with the kids, making dinner every night, shopping, doing laundry, staying on top of household maintenance, even freelancing a little. When my friend Ilana said that I was more productive while on chemo than she was in her normal life, I felt a little ripple of pride.
Hadn’t my cancer diagnosis taught me anything? Apparently not, as I was still aiming for perfectionism: I would “do” cancer efficiently, brilliantly, creatively, inspirationally. I would get straight A’s and make it look easy. And then the cancer spread.
If my original cancer diagnosis wasn’t enough of a wake-up call, then reading “progressive metastatic disease” on the radiology report had what it took to shake me permanently out of my sleep. And you see that’s the irony. I was so busy staying busy and fantasizing some other version of a perfectly fulfilled life that I didn’t realize I was actually sleeping my life away. That one string of words at the end of a CT report, words normally followed by a calculation of months, brought me stark naked, crying, and vulnerable as a newborn into the present.
I woke up on that oasis of a gray couch a few hours later. My stomach pains had disappeared, and I was hungry for the thick slice of toast I had abandoned on the plate before dozing off. Could a simple nap really have healed me? By doing nothing, I felt better. Most importantly, and I sighed with relief, treatment would resume as scheduled.
The next morning Hong Kong greeted me with yet another gift of blue sky. In a part of the world plagued with smog sometimes so thick you can look directly at the sun midday, clear skies are rare and precious. To celebrate my last day in the city, I took a tram ride up to the Peak where I planned to have a very simple lunch at an outdoor café and then walk in the sunshine.
While walking the loop around Victoria Peak, overlooking the skyscraper city of Hong Kong far below with its harbor of miniature boats bobbing across the sea like children’s bath toys, I found myself, as I often do these days, talking to God.
I realize, God, that I have been like a child. For almost 40 years I took my life for granted, believing that I were immortal and that nothing bad could happen to me. It was a naïve, privileged life. It’s not that I didn’t know death. I learned all about death at my parents’ sick beds, and I tell you I wasn’t afraid. In fact, I felt a certain instinct for it. You might say I have a calling for how to be with the dying, how to ease their fears, lessen their attachment to the living, midwife them across the threshold to the other side. I just never expected to face the truth of my own immortality at quite so early an age.
And I want to thank you, thank you, for shaking me out of my waking sleep. You brought me to the precipice and the fingers of fear stroked my spine until I felt the white hot dread of everything that I would lose, everything that I love. It is my children I love. My husband. My sisters, all my family members. My friends. It’s dancing and playing chase around the backyard. It’s the blue-green earth and the ocean full of whale song. It’s a novel I can’t put down and lines of poetry so perfect and true they bring me to tears. It’s praying in community in any and every language. It’s blueberries in July and butternut squash in October. It’s the New England forest and all of the mountains and harbors and romantic cafes I’ve yet to visit.
It is life that I love, God. Finally, my whole being knows this! I spent so may years in limbo, just waiting and waiting for my life to begin, and now that I see its trajectory like the arc of a rainbow that begins and ends in earth, I want to rise up with every cell in my body to touch, taste, feel, see, listen, experience it all.
Please, God, I know that I am just one small spark in a city of millions on a planet of billions of souls in a universe beyond enumeration, but it is my soul and so to me that means everything, and I ask you God to remove this cancer completely and permanently from my body. Fill me so completely with your light that the darkness is overwhelmed and can do nothing but weep for the sight of so much love. I understand I’m asking for nothing short of a miracle, but that’s only because I believe in them, as I am finally coming to believe in you.
I stop walking and stand on a platform overlooking the view. If you were to see me there you would probably think I was just another tourist, with my sunglasses, bottled water, and shoulder bag full of trinket souvenirs slung diagonally across my back. If you looked more closely you would notice the flush on my cheeks, the private smile on my lips, my head tilted as though I were listening to the wind. You would see me take a deep breath, exhale, laugh out loud. You would see me reach my arms high into the brilliant blue.