I've had just one Christmas so far as a cancer survivor. Due to a fourteen hour surgery and many intensive rounds of chemotherapy at this time I was left too physically impaired to do much.
From the beginning of December to early March, I spent my time in bed collapsed
in pain. Christmas was a particularly difficult day. I will tell you exactly what happened, or what I remember happening.
My days followed a very unusual rhythm. They would start around the afternoon, it would take me an hour to feel comfortable with undressing to take a shower, taking a shower and dressing would take another hour. If I could muster the strength I would convince myself to walk a bit outside, but I would then lie down and watch Netflix. My father would tell me to come sit in the living room, but I was unable to sit down for longer than several minutes at a time because of open sores on my butt from surgery. Around eleven o'clock at night I would try for sleep as the painkillers kicked in, and after much shifting I would manage to rest but not sleep at four o'clock in the morning. I would listen to endless Spotify playlists to help.
I remember waking on Christmas. I felt lost, not sure what people in my position were supposed to do, and ended up trying to read a book, only the book was too heavy for me and I could not sit in a chair to read it. Then I took prescribed painkillers, and waited for them to kick in so I could try some walking. Eventually I dressed, my father took me to a family get together, but I was too sick to even sit still in public for several minutes so my father ended up driving me home. I told him to go back to the party and have a good time. It took me some time to write this article because I was not sure whether to retell this story. I was unsure whether my absence from holiday festivities was a failure on my family or the result of a self imposed exile. In the end, this was the result of both.
I was dreaming for any type of way to drag myself out of the firm grasp pulled by the weight of my own physical pain and what was happening in my stomach. Cancer was not a word I wanted to own before because I did not see the illness as survivable. I did not ponder issues of morality or love. I was terrified.
I wouldn't even bring myself to contemplate thoughts about dying. It felt like if I leaned back, let my mind go empty and leaned into the wind just right that I would disappear. I also did not want to claim ownership of my body - I had recently begun to pull off the bandages from the long line of stitches down my chest, my feet were mangled pieces of meat that I could not fully feel, my butt was bleeding, and I still could not fully extend my left arm.
Later on Christmas night I lay trying to float from the pain and imagine something else. I thought of a girl i had known in high school - the first time I had really seen cancer. It was a recurring memory I had. Her and I were sitting alone one afternoon. She was still bald and wore a wig. I couldn’t see her scars and stitches but knew they were there. She was seventeen. And there was not a thing that she could do to stop it from coming. She had a pinprick of terror and light in her eyes. I got lost in that.
By that point, it was not a matter of living or dying.
There was no real peril. I had weaned off the fears of my own in the half dozen times I had been hospitalized the previous year. I was not excited about the intense suffering that I certainly know comes before death. And having survived late stage testicular cancer, it will always be that way.
The only gift I got that year was hiking boots from my father. He told me he knew that I could not use them immediately, but eventually my body would heal, that I would recover and live to be a very old man, that I would stop being a thirty one year old man collapsed in pain, staring at the wall in the back bedroom, and waiting for the wind to blow my house down.
That Christmas wasn’t about family, home, the ones you love, or any of those feel-good things.
Those things were far too complicated for those days. All I could do was gape at my young body, blown out with the long surgery scar, my stomach bloated, the bones of my neck and arm burning, my feet bleeding, the port poking through my three layers of shirts.
Even now I haven't finished sorting those days out. Sometimes, I think back and get scared. Other times, I don't. In the ordinary hours of life, I try not to dwell on those times, but now and then, when I’m watching the moon fall down on the balcony or just alone in a room, I remember. I didn’t know if it was Christmas then or the last day on Earth. I figured it might be both, so I did what anyone should: I did the best that I could with the very few things that I had the ability to control.
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