I’m a novelist, so I dabble with irony on a weekly, if not daily, basis. I like the sting at the end of a short mystery, the reversal in the middle of a thriller. Think serial killer falling victim to a serial killer. Or animal rights activist getting hemorrhagic fever from a flea on the bunny she freed from a lab. You get the idea.
So, I found it painfully ironic that weeks after deciding to try a life experiment that I call The Year of Living Courageously, I was confronted with a situation requiring more courage, and a kind of courage, that I’m not sure I possess. I embarked on this project planning to try and live more authentically, to speak up strongly when someone tells a racist joke in my hearing, to increase marital intimacy, to (maybe) face down my physical fears by riding a roller coaster more challenging than Disney’s Splash Mountain or jumping out of a perfectly functional airplane with a parachute strapped to my back. I thought I might try a new activity just for the fun of it, without worrying about whether or not I have any aptitude for it. (Tap dancing, anyone?)
And Then I Had a Colonoscopy
The doc found a strange, oozing lesion near my appendix and decided to investigate further. A CT scan followed. It showed a mass on my liver. When the doctor called to break that news to me and suggested more tests, designed to find out if I had a form of metastasized cancer called carcinoid syndrome, my hands turned to ice cubes and I could barely write down the test details. Endoscopy, blood work, octreotide scan. The latter required five days of fasting—nothing but liquids, absolutely no proteins. I burst into tears.
People talk about time slowing down in a moment of crisis, but I experienced the opposite. Time sped up. My mind raced through months of ugly treatments to my deathbed where my teenage daughters and husband wept. I saw my well-attended funeral, my grief-stricken mother. I started drafting mental letters to my girls, to be read as they reached life milestones. What should I include? First kiss, break-up with boyfriend or fight with best friend, graduation, choosing a career, buying a major appliance or even a house, marriage, sex, motherhood? (Roughly in that order, I hoped.)
Let me skip over the gory details to the punch line: after surgery that removed my appendix and part of my colon and small intestine, the docs discovered no cancer. None. The mass on my liver was apparently a shadow; there was nothing there. I had a chronically infected appendix, now gone. I would live. Maybe, I thought, I should call my new project The Year of Living Gratefully.
I Ditched the Project
Actually, I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that during the stressful month leading up to the surgery, and the weeks of recuperation afterwards, I didn’t work at living courageously. In fact, I ditched the project completely after writing the first half of this essay. My biggest battle was in my head, where I tried to stop anticipating the worst, tried to keep my brain from going round and round in non-productive, even damaging, circles.
Imagination, the lifeblood of a writer, is both a blessing and a curse. I won’t bore you with a description of all the things I imagined before the surgery because you’d think I was neurotic at best and a total loon at worst. Let’s just say my imaginings ran the gamut from envisioning myself, drained by cancer treatments, unable to write a sentence, to my daughters going off the deep end as teens with no mother to guide them. Still, it taught me that to live with true courage, I’ll have to learn to exercise control over my thoughts.
And in the End, a New Start
In that knowledge, there is hope and a plan for action. A meditation class might be a good start . . .