I got the news today that yesterday’s CT scan was clear. Besides making me happy, the news caused my mental model of the future to stop wobbling. Before I began watching my thoughts fly by on a regular basis, I had never devoted much attention to the question of how much time I spend thinking about the future. When I started practicing mindfulness meditation, my procedure was to count my breaths and observe how my thoughts arise without any apparent effort on my part. I recognized the nature of the thought that was drawing my attention away from my breath — “remembering,” “associating,” “fantasizing,” “planning.” It might be different for others, but for me, “planning” comes up a lot whenever I do that exercise. It had never occurred to me before my cancer diagnosis that events could cause my mind-picture of the future to wobble like a mirage in the desert, or to disappear entirely.
Practically the first thought that occurred to me when I read that e-mail in that Paris hotel room last January was that the cone of possibilities that I had always pictured spreading out indefinitely into an increasingly fuzzy future could be truncated quite suddenly. It became possible to feel what it’s like to suspect that the future might consist of a few months, or weeks. I could see the end of what had been an infinite tunnel. I knew there was an end to it somewhere, but that was always off in the distance. Suddenly, I could see with telescopic vision. It wasn’t a distance any longer. It was a proximity.
Since then, I’ve lived in two alternate realities at once. In one reality, I keep a calendar and make entries in it for months in advance. In another reality, the calendar doesn’t go that far for me. My sense of the future had changed. I could still plan for it, but could no longer muster the power of certainty. During treatment, I didn’t really want to think about what the next week would feel like, but I did keep in mind the image of a Spring when I was no longer putting my body in the path of a linear accelerator in the morning, shitting fire in the afternoon, and lying stupified and weak until the next morning. Spring came, I started to recover from treatment. The smell of jasmine and roses, the feel of the lawn beneath my feet. I’ve never been so glad to see another Spring. I went through withdrawal from the painkillers I had been taking every four hours for the past four months. But when I stopped taking painkillers, my abdomen started hurting again. Haven’t I been through this before? One thing I’ve learned is to resist denial and call the doctor immediately when I realize I’m going to have to call him eventually.
The pain was nothing like it was in December. But it was insistent enough. Like a dog barking in the distance. It’s not really that bothersome until it goes on hour after hour. At this point, barely two months after chemo and radio, it seemed unlikely that the pain could be caused by the tumor regrowing so fast that it was pressing on a nerve again. My oncologist ordered a CT scan to make sure. My image of the future started shimmering again, even though I’m now in full-blown planning mode for my next book. If the pain isn’t crippling, you have to keep up the work of living your life as if it had a future, even though it becomes impossible to maintain the illusion of certainty. I no longer say “I’m going to New York next month,” which isn’t exactly true. I say “I’m planning to go to New York next month.” I didn’t have to get cancer to start seeing things that way, but that’s how it happened to me.
As I said at the beginning of this post, I got the news today that the scan was clear. It’s probably damage from the radiation that hasn’t recovered yet. Two months after being run over by a bus, human bodies still need time to heal. So it’s back to pain killers. I’m planning to go to Peru for a few days. I’ll bring my pain killers. My acupuncturist is working on me with the little needles and is recommending a massage therapist. I’ve started doing yoga and qi gong again. And planning. Working on my syllabus for September, 2010. Making elaborate outlines for chapters I plan to write between now and July, 2011.
I guess the next question is whether “planning” will occur to me less often when I watch what my thoughts are doing.
- howardsbutt posted this