Monday, March 14, 2022

My Tightrope

For decades, I pined for more time to write, through years of law school and then a decade of working in law firms, later through the early years of motherhood as I pumped, changed diapers, and hovered over my little ones. If only I could be free to write, I used to think. It was one of the constant laments of my life. Now that I suddenly have no demands on my time, I find myself frittering it away.

Instead of writing, I’ve been lying in bed, surfing the web. I scour Gap and Old Navy websites, and then move onto Nordstrom and Macy’s, scrutinizing each top, dress, and skirt, imagining myself in each outfit. I watch endless episodes of K-drama, engrossed as if the characters were my friends, and rewatch sections I find endearing as I sip my coffee and adjust my pillows. I scroll through social media sites endlessly, even when I reach the posts I had seen the day before, though I rarely comment or participate. Frequently, I walk around examining my numerous house plants, watering each one carefully not to damage their delicate petals. These activities seem more than enough to fill the time wedged between lunch dates with friends.

I have gotten used to not moving much. My body no longer feels restless as it used to in the early months, when I first found out my cancer had spread to my bones, liver, and lungs. At that time, I quit my part time clinical job as an associate therapist and relieved myself of all my teaching and writing obligations. Suddenly, there were no outlines to draft, no PowerPoints to create, no research to undertake. All of my work-related zoom meetings were cancelled overnight. I felt officially cut off from my professional future.

Freed of all my external responsibilities, I find myself focused only on the present needs of my body. I am hyper-focused on whether I have new pain, as that may indicate further spread of the cancer, how my body feels at the moment, whether I have enough energy to make it to the shower. On some mornings, it takes effort to wake up early enough to sit with the children while they eat breakfast. On good days, I do a couple of loads of laundry or bake some zucchini bread for the children. I feel proud of myself when I make it to the grocery story. I spend much of the day managing my discomfort and fatigue and figuring out what foods my body would tolerate. I am a hostage to my body and its limitations.

At this point, personal ambitions feel meaningless, irrelevant. What difference will it make to write one more post, another article? What if few others read about my experience? Will it make a difference? These questions feel overwhelming, because of my new reality that gives rise to these questions. It is the stance of one already extricated from life. Ironically, the enormity of the situation makes it easier to seize on the mundane obstacles of the day. All my hopes for the possibilities of the future are suddenly deflated, shriveled and torn like popped balloons.

The time passes quickly, unnoticed, like dead skin that sloughs off as dust before we take notice of their accumulation. Before I know it, it is almost time for my children to return home from school. I listen for their chatter and steps as they near the house and then the turn of the key. When they walk in, I am ready with hugs and bright smiles. I inquire about their day and listen as they prattle stories from their time away from me, who said what, what the teacher did, which child behaved inappropriately. I watch their little mouths as they munch on snacks I place in front of them, a napkin ready in my hand to wipe the crumbs off their cheeks, even though they have long passed the need for such help. I lock eyes with them often, caressing their hair, as I remind them of the good qualities I see in them. Most evenings, I invite them to sit next to me in bed and we watch some episode of a show together, our heads careening toward each other, my hand often in one of theirs, our cheek pressed together. It’s a period of incubation, where I imprint all my love for them and hope that they remember my touch, my warmth.

It has become a discipline to not think about the future. Not thinking about the future delivers the only hope of a salvation, as the three-year prognosis, even if couched as a "median survival rate," feels too certain, too statistical, too scientific. When they first delivered the diagnosis, I kept crying that it is not enough time, my children are too young. The nurse who treated me said, “You’re still here. You’re still here.” I cling to those words, and remind myself, I’m still here. It’s a cursed tightrope, walking toward a future where I no longer exist as I straddle a present that forces me to put on blinders. 

There is a certain sense of victory in being able to squander time now. I’m in charge. I can choose to value time or disregard it. I can tell myself it matters little to me. But I know in the end, I will be pining for more, begging to live longer, to watch my children grow one year older.

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