July 19, 2001
The Strongest Link
No matter how well things go in chemotherapy, the truth is, cancer always makes new demands on you. You can't afford to be a k'nocker, pretending you know what you're doing or what you're ready for. It's not as if you are in charge.
On the morning of my final course of treatment, I was ready for the long, seven-hour routine now so familiar to me. I was bringing irises for my room, pretzels filled with peanut butter for the nurses and anticipated visits from dear friends throughout the day.
It occurred to me that now, on my sixth round, maybe I was overdoing the need for support. The nurses have become like friends, and I knew I could count on them for diversion and hope, conversation about their art projects, pets and outside interests. Why ask others to interrupt their lives when by rights I could (should?) handle this last treatment alone?
My portacath was easily accessed. The intravenous drip of steroids and kidney stabilizers was set in motion. Emily, Joyce and I were discussing the career prospects of our adult children. At 2 p.m. the doorway filled; my oncologist and the staff brought a chocolate cake and sang "Happy Last Chemo to You!"
Yes, my last chemo day proceeded naturally, dull with the drip of healing.
At 6 p.m., we caught the mistake. The IV pump had a glitch, and I had not yet begun Taxol, the first and longest part of chemo treatment. For two and one half hours, while Susan, Cynthia and Rona had been discussing art museums and second careers, I'd been getting nothing from a blocked port.
And so I was back at the beginning. Not just the beginning of the day, but, my thoughts sent spiraling, the beginning of my life. Fear took over, my blood pressure rising into the stratosphere. And I knew, with a certainty only six months of lung cancer could produce, that this was bad news. My grandmother, who died before I was born, had had high blood pressure, followed by a stroke. She'd gone blind. All my life seemed pointed at this moment, this awful dark joke. Maybe cancer wouldn't kill me, but blood pressure might.
"Can you meditate?" nurse Stephanie asked as she turned down the light.
Yes, of course. I had practiced 20 years of meditation, plus visualization. Plus prayer. Not to mention yoga.
"Om," I began. And "Shalom."
I started the slow counting of the breath, in and out. I saw myself on a sandy beach of a tropical island at sunset. I breathed God in, and tried to breathe fear out.
Nothing worked. The slower I breathed, the worse my fear became. I was the proverbial speck, a victim of a senseless universe, with the terror of my grandmother's legacy whispering in the wind.
And my blood press stayed high.
Then I heard the rustle of leaves. I wasn't alone, of course. Cynthia and Rona were bringing back soup and sandwiches. But Susan was there, flipping through the newspaper nearby.
"Hold my hand?" I asked her. Within minutes, I was breathing normally. My blood pressure stabilized.
So on the very last day of chemotherapy, one valve of an IV tube was constricted, but another valve, that of the heart, opened up.
I know nothing about bravery. I know only about need. Reb Nachman of Bratslov calls prayer the cry of the brokenhearted to a father who is far away. Maybe so. But prayer can also be reaching out, to friends who are close at hand.
Alone, I am the weakest link. Together, there are soup and sandwiches for all.