My husband looks most boyish in the early morning hours when we’re drinking coffee together, discussing the day’s news and lamenting the latest presidential tweeting fiasco. His disheveled light brown hair, which appears to be in disagreement over which way the wind is blowing, and his attire (often a t-shirt featuring Darth Vader with “#1 Dad” stamped below it) are deliciously incongruous with the serious geopolitical and national security issues he so deftly describes and debates with me.
One recent morning, as I was answering work emails and Jamie was, I presumed, reading the latest national security news on his iPad, he enthusiastically commanded my attention. “Listen to this!”
“Oh God, have we invaded Australia?” I asked.
“Not yet. Listen! This is right near us. ‘Colonial-style Alexandria mansion with four ovens lists for $2 million,” he read, his eyes intently scanning beneath the headline for more pertinent information.
“Perfect! One oven for each of our private chefs!” I snarked. “Why on earth are you looking at mansions for sale?”
“Because I like to fantasize about what it could be like when all this is over,” he said, his boyishness now fully consuming and emanating from him. He doesn’t mean when it’s “all over” because I’ve succumbed to cancer, of course (and anyway my life insurance wouldn’t even be enough for a mansion with two ovens, let alone four); he means when I’ve beaten it. When we’ve beaten it. That is a boldly optimistic outlook, and one that I continue to cling to because I believe the mind plays a powerful role in healing and my family continues to cling to because they cannot fathom the alternative.
“I like to fantasize about that, too,” I said. “I just don’t usually include multiple ovens in my fantasies.” What we both fantasize about, generally speaking, is the notion that the universe might work like a scrupulous customer service department. That once we can get a manager on the phone and explain that we did not order this cancer and have really not enjoyed our cancer-related experiences thus far, the universe will straighten everything out, take the cancer back and refund us with a $2 million Colonial-style mansion with four ovens, or, as is more typical of my fantasies, our own lakeside cabin in Montana’s Flathead Valley. Frankly, I’d give the universe five stars on Yelp for anything sans cancer, but there doesn’t seem to be an obvious return policy. That will not stop us from continuing to fantasize about all the ways the world might shower its blessings upon us in return for not complaining too bitterly about having to go through this god-awful experience.
Admittedly, it’s been more difficult lately to keep my bitter complaints to myself–mostly due to the draining and infuriating accumulation of treatment side effects and physical pain caused by ornery, terrorist tumors. I’m talking real sons-of-bitches who, in the case of one lung tumor, ate a chunk right out of one of the ribs in my chest. Would I rather think about living in a stately mansion with four ovens? You bet. In fact, I’d rather visualize just about anything else as I wash down a pain pill than the fact that these gluttonous tumors regard my skeletal structure as an all-you-can-eat buffet. For reasons that should be obvious (reminder: a fucking tumor ate my rib), my resistance to opioid usage has given way to a wide-armed embrace after realizing what ongoing, severe pain can do to one’s outlook on life.
With my pain under control, I can refocus on my Shangri-la — typically in the form of long summers in Northwest Montana, on the shores of and submerged in glacier-fed lakes, where so many of my happiest memories, spanning from childhood through last summer, still linger by the water’s edge and in the sweet smelling pines. But sometimes I think about those mountain-ringed lakes and imagine my loved ones gathered together on the shoreline or on a boat in a secluded cove, scattering my ashes to join the glacial waters that cooled me and filled me with delight on countless summer days.
That crystal clear blue green water is where I spent hours as a kid curating a collection of the most beautiful, unique lake stones in muted shades of reds, blues, greens, and purples. It is where, as a teenager (and beyond), I tried repeatedly–and failed–to impress cute boys with my awkward inability to get up on water skis and pretended not to hyperventilate in the early summer’s 50-degree water. Now, as an adult, this is where I’ve played and boated and splashed about with my husband and step-daughter, with my nieces and nephew, and with my sister and friends who gather for a girls’ lake trip almost annually.
It is sacrilege to many that I even admit to thinking about the big “what if,” straying from the “after we beat this” drumbeat. But deluding myself or others about the seriousness of my situation would be irresponsible, and, for me, impossible. I have to complete the questionnaire for my will and think about how I want my remains handled. Just a couple of years ago, I was working on playlists for our wedding, and now I’m making one for my memorial service because I’ve always known, no matter when my time on Earth might end, that I want my friends and family to enjoy a damn good soundtrack.
None of this prevents me from believing I can still beat this or diminishes my desire to continue fighting. But I have to cover all bases, because if cancer has taught me anything, it’s that I’m not in charge. I can only choose how to respond to cancer’s cruel unpredictability and have a menu of contingency plans ready to go for a variety of possibilities. It gives me comfort to know that, no matter what, I will always spend my summers in the lakes of Northwest Montana, and perhaps one day I’ll buy my husband a few extra ovens just for fun.
Peace, love and f*ck cancer!