Most days I'm OK. I've gotten used to living with stage 4 metastatic breast cancer — the ups and downs, the roller coaster ride. I've become accustomed to living while also thinking ahead to my eventual death. Will I outlive my pit bull, Butch, who is 12 years old and failing, a dog I've worked to protect from the kind of people who do bad things to pit bulls? Will my house and belongings be easily sold, easing my nephews' burden while they are also grieving my death? These are the thoughts that sit in the back of my mind. And while holding these thoughts at bay, I continue to book business trips and vacations, spend time with friends, clean my house and walk my dogs — all the realities of living a life.
But then there are days when I am brought solidly into my sadness, something I work to avoid. There was the conversation the other week with my friend Jo Ann. I was telling her about Butch, how he seemed to be failing, his arthritis making his back legs splay as he attempts to go up or down the stairs. Jo Ann commented that Butch had many years, and I expressed concern about this idea. Jo Ann was confused. Why wouldn't I want my dog to around for years to come? After a series of questions from her, I finally told her that I wanted to make sure he was OK before I died — that I was afraid he would survive me and no one would be there to care for my aging pit bull and keep him away from harm. And then I felt the sadness. The sadness that I need to worry about outliving my dogs to make sure they're OK. The fact that there's a good chance that won't happen, that I may have no choice but to put my aging pit bull down to make sure he is safe before I die. That thought is always in the back of my mind, but I don't often air it. But in this conversation, I stated it out loud, and I felt sad. Very, very sad. I hate those moments.
And then there was yesterday. I attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Typically, when someone celebrates the anniversary of their first sober day, it's a joyful occasion. People speak of wrecked lives, they speak of getting sober, and they end with stories of their sober happiness and how life came together once the drink was gone. They speak of new marriages, children, houses, better jobs and better lives.
That is not my AA story. I got sober nine months after helping my best friend, my mother, die. A few months after my first AA anniversary, my beloved sister died as a result of her own addiction. And when I celebrated my second AA anniversary, I was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. It's been more of the same since. I am an AA outlier. I do not have a happy-go-lucky sober story. I never experienced a pink cloud after giving up the drink. My life has been exceedingly difficult during the last eight years, and getting sober six years ago did not change that. I did not get the cash and prizes that many in AA seem to experience.
So yesterday, when a woman about my age at my AA meeting shared her story of after-sobriety joy, beaming about her new husband, her baby to come, I dropped back into the sadness. I will not experience any of the type of happiness she has achieved. I will most likely not get married and I will not have children or even a chance to adopt them, something I badly wanted to have in my life. At first I berated myself for feeling sad and bitter. And then I realized, you know, it's OK to cry. This is a loss. A huge loss.
The other day I was talking to my Imerman Angel, Nancy. I was telling her about a gentleman in my church who died suddenly of a heart attack as he was walking down the street. Though this is a very sad event, especially since he was only in his 50s, my response was to quip, "What a lucky guy to die so suddenly." Nancy laughed. We both have stage 4 breast cancer. We both have the specter of future suffering, pain and death over our heads. I don't want to die a suffering, painful death. A sudden, quick, no-notice-given kind of death seems very enviable to me. Lucky guy.
It may sound morbid, but it is the truth of living with a terminal disease. This is a cancer of the body and soul — the cancer eating the body and the fear of suffering eating the soul. Truth be told, I laugh, I make light of it and I live day by day. Underneath, I am angry and I am scared. It is hard work for me not to look ahead and live in constant fear. So if I come off as bitter and sad at times, please forgive me. Because I am.
As a doctor once replied when I expressed the fear that I'd earned cancer by something I did, "Oh, goodness, no. Sh*t happens." While it certainly is true that stuff happens and that I did nothing to earn this spate of horrible bad luck — it doesn't mean it doesn't suck.
If you don't mind, I'm going to go sit in a quiet room and I'm going to cry for a while. If you were in my shoes, I know you would. And that's OK.