Those words, “I’m sorry, but you have cancer” can never really be erased once they have been chiseled into our memories. The urgency and the permanency with which they adhere to our lives instantly create what is possibly the most traumatic shockwave that we are likely to experience.
I was alone the moment I heard my diagnosis, on the telephone, picking up my messages. As fate would have it, I was 2,500 miles away from my home, away from my wife and all that was familiar to me. I had traveled to say goodbye to my mother who, at 92 years of age, had broken her hip.
The fall was not directly responsible for her death, but it precipitated her passing, two days after I picked up my phone message. She never knew of my diagnosis because I saw no point in telling her.
I called my wife, who was in Honolulu, which had been our home for the past year. As we spoke, I reached up and put my hand on my chest, my left breast, and tried to imagine what had “gone wrong” inside there. I looked at the plane ticket sitting on the table. I took a deep, cleansing breath, and then I glanced at the clock.
But at that moment, the time of day had no relevance. I had nowhere I needed to go and nothing in the future that was certain. Time, for me, had stopped. I felt frozen in my tracks.
I don’t remember being frightened or even anxious. The message on the phone from my surgeon in Hawaii simply said, “Take your time Khevin, and as soon as you get back to Honolulu we’ll figure out our next step.”
I liked the fact that she said “our,” but I wondered how many “steps” I had to choose from.
My wife and I had moved to Hawaii for a year after I retired as a full-time stage magician in order to live in residence at the Palolo Zen Center. As longtime practitioners of Zen meditation, our participation at the facility was a dream for us. And in order to live there, we had sold our home and put all of our belongings in storage.
I had a lot of difficulty imagining a future as I sat in the jet, heading “home” to my wife and our meditation practice. I had no idea what stage or grade my breast cancer was. I only knew that, as a man, it was rare and poorly understood. And so, with nothing that really felt certain at that moment, my thoughts turned to my wife.
I felt that there was a strong possibility that I could die from the disease. But what of her? We had no real home. I had retired. No real savings except for what the sale of our home had brought. Where would she go? How would she manage?
The possibilities were unclear to me. Time had come to a standstill, and along with it, the future seemed frozen too.
As I sat on the big jet, flying me back to my temporary home, I tried to chip away at all of the possibilities that lay ahead. It was impossible. I had no control and very little information by which to make assumptions regarding the rest of my life.
Looking back on those days in May of 2014, I can see that the effect of my life slowing down was a process of self-preservation. The slowness, the uncertainty, the long hours were giving me the opportunity to practice my meditation and to remember how thoughts, good or bad, can so often hijack us. Simply put, I didn’t know how much time I had left, so it did little good to struggle to find more of it.
The matter at hand, it seemed to me, was to find some stability in a very unstable future. As I looked deeply at what was underneath my feeling of timelessness, I realized that my biggest fear was that I would die and leave my wife “homeless” in a sense. I know all too well how this feels as my first wife died of ovarian cancer at the age of 47 and I was left a “widower,” in a very big world with a very limited view of what was possible.
Now, though, I realized that if we simply had a spot to call home, I would be absolutely capable of dying with the knowledge that she would have her own place to live, carry on and find peace anew.
After my mastectomy, and after our final day at the Palolo Zen Center, we flew back to the mainland and had our vehicle shipped back as well. We embarked on a 4,000 mile car trip to some of the nation’s most spectacular national parks as we began our search for a place to call home.
We bought a brand-new home in Vail, Arizona. As of today, we’ve been here, and I’ve been living with breast cancer, for four years now. I seem to be doing well. But the only thing I know with any certainty is that the minute we picked up the keys to this new house and moved in, along with two frisky kittens, my life of uncertainty thawed out, and time began once more