Two days after moving into the basement of another friend’s house, I unpacked some of the items in our camping box. I wanted the blue polyester napkins I’d had since graduate school and a couple of glass storage containers. When I opened one of the containers so that I could wash it, out fell a ball of twine, neatly secured with rubber bands.
What an adventure I had planned to go on in 12 Cities, 1 Year. I wanted to have everything with me, everything we could possibly need. No matter that bringing along all this stuff contradicted the spirit of the digital nomad lifestyle. I was going to protect myself with balls of twine (I think there are two in there) and dried sweet onions and a glove for getting things out of the oven. No telling when I might have to pick up something hot.
Yet I always knew I would forget something essential on this trip. And I realized what it was on November 21, three days before Thanksgiving.
That evening I learned I had cancer. I was standing on a sidewalk in San Francisco outside Ramen Dojo, talking to my gynecologist about the results of a biopsy. “It’s not good news,” she said. And it wasn’t. In a way I pitied her. It can’t be fun to spend your evenings calling patients about breast cancer.
And if I could think about her, then I didn’t have to think about myself.
I went back inside the crowded restaurant and told my husband we would talk about it later. Then we ate our garlic ramen, wonderfully rich but a little too spicy. I couldn’t finish mine, but the diagnosis didn’t stop me. I was able to eat mochi for dessert, after all.
We turned down the sidewalk toward our car. I wanted to speak. I breathed carefully. I wanted to tell him, but we walked a block before the words came out of my mouth. “I have cancer,” I said. I often find it difficult to say what I have to say, but this time the words seemed to be pulling up so much fear with them.
That evening I remembered what I forgot to bring on our 12 Cities, 1 Year trip: my health. I was so accustomed to my health, so used to having it with me, that I didn’t think to bring any extra.
Doing things makes me feel better. So I went back to our hotel room in San Francisco, and wrote out an email to my friends and family. I’m not that fond of talking on the phone. I’m much more comfortable with email. And the kind, loving responses started rolling in: sorrow, comfort, recommendations for doctors, offers to help.
The first time I talked about my diagnosis to someone besides Todd, in person, I felt so cold and tight inside. I thought I might start shivering, right there at the Thanksgiving table, over chocolate cake and pumpkin pie. I worried that I might be giving the cancer more power by admitting to it, as if it were some kind of cellular Lord Voldemort.
Every time I talk about the cancer, or listen to a surgeon tell me which body parts I’ll lose, it both relieves and exhausts me. Having a clinical discussion about cancer is easier than crying about it, but both let that cold fear rise a little closer to the surface.
The other night, I watched Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, in which Professor Lupin compliments Harry on being more afraid of the Dementors than of Voldemort. It shows, Lupin said, that Harry was afraid of being afraid. Lupin thought that wise.
I hate being afraid. Thinking about this cancer is like looking over the edge of a pit. There’s a staircase twirling down into it, one of those black metal dealies that you can see through, all the way to the bottom. I dislike heights, and I know that I’ll be terrified walking all the way down that staircase, and all the way back up.
But I also hate waiting. If I stop looking and step down, at least I’ll be doing something.