We writers can’t wait to get to “The End.” We type those words on the page and our hearts lift, champagne corks are popped, celebratory cocktails are made. It marks the end of another tale told, all the loose ends neatly tied up. Our characters have touched the darkness, fought the demons, nearly lost, yet have emerged to meet their happy ending. They live to face another day.
But sometimes, we must write to a different “The End”. An end where the storylines are abruptly halted, left untied, where there is no resolution, where the main character doesn’t live to face another day, even though the story is told intimately through her eyes, her thoughts, her perspective.
I am writing to this kind of The End. On Dec. 29th, I was diagnosed with stage IV kidney cancer. It’s treatable, but barely. It isn’t curable. The average survival time is two years. Eight percent make it five years.
I’m 42. I have two children under 10. My future has been stolen from me. *
Let me say this, because in America, we have a weird habit of blaming people for their misfortune, of looking for reasons why they deserve it. I’m slim and I exercise. 5 feet 9 inches tall and 145 pounds, if you must know. I’ve never had a health problem in my life. Normal blood pressure, normal blood sugar. You name it, normal. Never had a prescription except for an occasional antibiotic.
I went to my family doctor because I felt like I had a virus I couldn’t shake. No fever, just tired, not hungry, losing weight. She told me I had anemia. I took iron pills and it didn’t help. Then, a friend who is a nurse came to visit and made me go to the ER because I’d lost a lot of weight and she said I looked terrible. The ER doctor spent two minutes telling me I had cancer and it had spread before leaving me alone in my room.
I had to wait five days to see an oncologist and find out my first health crisis is an incurable cancer.
No, no. I couldn’t get a cancer with hope, like breast cancer, I say to myself. As harsh as it sounds, I relish the thought of fighting a battle I could actually win. One where I could touch the darkness, then emerge victorious. But this is a one-way trip to the darkness.
And I’m even an outlier in my own cancer. This cancer rarely strikes people under 45. It’s most common in men in their 60s. I am neither. The doctors say it’s just bad luck. And I suppose it is. The worst luck.
My storyline has unraveled. I will be ripped from it right in the middle, right in the part where all the other characters need me the most. When I have children who are not yet adults, when I have a Mom who has loved me so selflessly and so epically who will actually, for once, need me to care for her in her twilight years, when I have a husband who planned to become gray and spotted and blind and deaf and old right alongside me, with plenty of sticking our toes in exotic sand in exotic locales together on the way.
I lie awake at night crying. Not for myself, but because I’m going to cause every. last. one. of the people I love the most incredible pain. My husband. My sister. My Mom. My children. Most of all my children.
I suppose, in a way, I am mourning. Mourning for the years that have been stolen from me and from my family. Mourning that I’ll be taken while I still have unfinished work in this life. But I won’t cry forever. No. I can’t. We can’t. We cry now because the crisis is new, the routine upset, the wound from the bad news fresh.
Soon, we will settle into the new normal of treatments and doctors and hospitals and biopsies and Cat scans and prescriptions. At least, I hope we will fall into a routine, because boring and predictable, as much as we hate to admit it, is what we as humans need to carry us through.
And hopefully, in this new normal, I’ll be able to tend to my children. The real, physical ones that I made molecule by molecule out of dry toast and mashed potatoes because the morning sickness was so bad I couldn’t eat. And, my other children. My books and paintings: my imagination made real. Yes, I will tend to those children, too, in part because they, too are a piece of me that will carry on once the flesh is gone. Something my loved ones can turn to to remember me.