I’m counting backwards from 10.
I’m lying in my underwear on the roof of the casita I’ve rented in a lakeside town in the state of Jalisco, which boasts of its perfect climate. I couldn’t agree more. The sun is warm, the air is clean. I breathe easy. I float on the sounds of the call of the oil-seller and the music from the dancing carwash brothers, as a watery blue sky blankets me. This is only for now, but right now is perfect. I close my eyes.
I rustle my toes under the crisp white sheets. I look out at the snow falling on the theatre building as I nestle deeper beneath the blankets in my room in Banff. The trees sway softly, framed by their woodworked brethren in the windowsill. I breathe easy. I feel like a poet sent to a mountaintop sanatorium. A little fresh air will do me good.
The water laps up on the rocks just a foot away from our toes, and the trees rustle above us in response. We are sunburnt and lightly hung over from a weekend of camping, and the discovery of a tiny beach at the edge of a lake presented us with a perfect place for a nap. We lay our pillows and sleeping bags down right on the beach and now we are resting. A gentle chorus of snores surrounding me. It is beautiful beyond description. I think, I will never be this happy again. I think, something terrible is going to happen.
I’m counting backwards from 10.
The IV is hurting my hand but I don’t look I don’t move I listen for the sound of the oil-seller and they’re talking over their procedure for if I start bleeding and I move my toes and hear the friction of the white sheets and I am freezing cold freezing cold and it must be the snow on the trees, look at the trees, and just keep counting and thinking about I’m dizzy, I’m spinning, I’m just sleepy, but it’s okay, we stopped to take a nap so just close your eyes, listen for the sound of the water and the leaves and the
It’s March of last year, and every time I breathe in I hear this sound. This squeak. It’s particularly noticeable because at the moment of its first appearance I’m in the middle of rehearsal, delivering a long and beautifully written monologue about a woman lost at sea. At first only I hear it, and then soon others do too. It’s annoying. I make jokes. “I’m an actress – no, I’m a seagull!” (The jokes are both niche and unfunny). I go to the clinic. They give me an inhaler which does nothing, and the squeak becomes a permanent resident. It comes with me on the highway in LA, it sits under the stars with me in interior BC. It interrupts dinner parties and phone conversations. It doesn’t hurt, I don’t think.
It is written in my journals from years past, included in jokes in closing night cards, baked into memories of shows, flashed back to me through Facebook ‘memories’: sick, sick, sick. Antibiotics, clinic visit, Tylenol, nasal rinse antibiotics, steroid inhaler, antibiotics, clinic visit, emergency room, hot water bottle, antibiotics, puffer, antibiotics. Sick, sick, sick. Almost two decades of being sick during school, being sick during shows, being sick at work, being sick at home. Memories of a Skype date where I went from shivering under three sweatshirts and a scarf and a hat to sweating and shaking in a sports bra and then back to bundled up again, over and over in the course of an hour–long conversation. Of a cold shower in the dressing room post-performance, my body so hot my heart was racing. Of waking up again to a rattling wheeze, bundling up to go to the clinic for a steroid puffer to get me through the matinee. I am told repeatedly that I simply ‘work too hard’, that pushing myself is somehow the root of this persistent and unsettling inability to get better again after getting sick. After rest, nutrition, doctors visits, medications, acupuncture, naturopathy and B12 injections fail to prevent me from getting sick, I turn my focus instead to being able to deliver the finest performances you’ve ever seen from someone with a fever so intense their heart is racing fast enough to burst.
I get the appointments I have asked for (and asked for and asked for). A battery of lung tests, breathing tests, blood tests. An X-ray, which reveals nothing. I leave rehearsal for a few hours to get a test where you steadily take doses of something that gradually reduces your lung capacity to 20%, and then they reverse it once you wave dizzily at the technician telling them you can’t breathe. I did not know the nature of the test before arriving at the clinic. I take a cab back to rehearsal after. I’m diagnosed with mild asthma, which I am sure I don’t have. They give me a puffer which doesn’t work. The doctor asks me if I’m willing to get a CT scan. It’s not conventional, she tells me, because I’m young and it’s a lot of radiation. I tell her it’ll probably be worth it.
By the time the CT comes around, it has all begun. I get a ride to the hospital from a friend, not wanting to bring a Skytrain car’s worth of germs into a hospital, of all places. I wash my hands raw after. Less than a week later my doctor phones me – she can’t look at the scans, because she can’t get to her office now, but they found something. Some “thickening tissue”. She’s giving me a referral for a bronchoscopy. She tells me not to worry, not to google. She hates that she can’t see the scans herself.
The dressing room lights highlight my ever-multiplying grey hairs. I grab a pair of tweezers from my makeup case and pull them out one by one, from the root, before every show. I’m sitting between the two women playing my daughters, two and three years younger than me. I, however, am the right age for the character. I had been certain I would not get this part. Female actors in their thirties are skilled, honed, resilient. I don’t know how I’ll keep up now. Lacking an ingenue’s beauty, I hustled through my 20s on what I thought must be some kind of novel scrappy newness. What invisible hurdles am I jumping now? I collect a small pile of greys and throw them in the trash.
“You’re so young.” This is what every doctor, nurse, and lab technician says to me on a loop through this. “What are you doing here?”
The thought occurs to me, however irrational, that my body is punishing me. Punishing me not only for endless workdays and unrelenting schedules, but for three decades of pinching, pulling, scratching, shaming. I have always been angry at my body, for one reason or another, and now I feel it is angry at me.
In the week leading up to the bronchoscopy, I have a dream about my lung. I wonder about this errant ‘piece of tissue,’ as it has been described to me. It is unknown right now why it’s there, or what it thinks it’s doing, and what its plans are. But in this dream – the tissue has been removed, and for the first time I am able to take a full deep breath into both lungs.
Suddenly everything is easier. Some previously unknown capacity has opened up – not just lung, but emotional, physical, mental. I am smarter. I am more patient. I am more beautiful, more organized, and friendlier. It’s sunny every day. I keep saying to everyone “wow, I had no idea. I had no idea life could have always been like this.” Every problem that haunts my life is solved with the removal of one little piece of me I can’t even see.
Then I wake up.
The hospital is unsettlingly quiet. Every person I see is covered head to toe, only urgent eyes poking out from between a mask and cap, from behind a plastic shield. Still, the nurse banters with me as he checks me in. “Thirty years old, non-smoker, what the heck are you doing here?”
“I know,” I say. “What the fuck, right?” He concurs. “What the fuck.” He is smiling under his mask. I think. He finishes my paperwork and says “I hope it’s nothing. I’m rooting for ya.”
Two hours later, after I wake up and the doctor has finished delivering his news, the nurse comes back. I tell him what the doctor told me. His eyes are still, unreadable behind the glare of the plastic across his face.
“I wish I could hug you,” he says. “But I can’t.”
I have floated through the incredibly difficult last two years of my life on the tide of plausible daydreams. I imagine myself far from this moment of pain, which I remind myself is temporary, in a future that could become reality. I think of the shows I might do, the dream roles and venues and productions, the plays I might write. I think of the places I might go. I think ‘this is only for now, and what happens next?’ I work hard cultivate a delight in the future, rather than a dread.
This is not possible, in the 31 days between when I find out I have cancer and when I find out if it’s the kind that could kill me. Because the known world is holding its breath, turning blue, and I don’t know if I will ever step on stage again and I don’t know if I will ever walk in a place that awakens some unknown part of me, and I don’t know how I will pay my bills in six months, so I imagine nothing. The current of possible futures dried up and unappealing, I turn to the present moment. I go to a friend’s back yard to look at his new chickens, and we drink wine on the lawn getting sunburnt and blissed out. The chickens, with what appears to be a 20–second cycle of discovery, puzzlement, and problem solving, reset gently over and over again, clucking softly. We drive out to a lake and I beckon my friends past the swampy shore into the cool centre, floating in the sun. We eat chips with wet hands on dirty beach blankets. When I cannot do any of these things, I sleep dreamlessly in the middle of the day.
One week last year I saw a hummingbird in each of the three countries of my life. The year after my father died, had I worked nearly every single week without stopping. When at last I was done, it was spring again. A week after closing the last show I was traveling south. I spent the day before my first flight on Bowen Island, where hummingbirds crowded the bright plastic feeder outside the kitchen window. I looked out at the Pacific Ocean, already worried about my rental car in Los Angeles. I landed in my birth city, got behind the wheel of a black sports car after an anxious 30 minutes in the rental place trying to choose between cars that all looked the same to me. When I landed at the place I was renting, I wept. The raw pressure of the year I had set up for myself cracked me open and grief shuddered out of me. As I drove around the city where I was born, the city where my parents met, I continued to struggle but was visited by the glittering hummingbirds every morning in the garden. When the plane landed at my next stop, Mexico City, I felt a palpable release. As I sat in the garden at Bosque Chapultepec, I texted a friend of mine who is wise in all ways. A hummingbird hovered in front of my nose, looked at me, and turned and flew away.
Two excruciating days after the promised appointment with my surgeon and my scan results, the call finally comes. I write everything down because my mind skitters rapidly across time and space whenever a new unpronounceable is introduced. He starts with the good news: the cancer has not spread, and is confined to the single tumour they initially located. The type of cancer is a carcinoid (not carcinoma, which I mistakenly wrote down at the hospital) and is unlikely to reappear. I will not require radiation or chemotherapy. He goes to the less-good news: because of the location of the tumour. He says, imagine the lungs are trees, (and my mind skitters to the play I am writing about a woman who studies trees, who has cancer, but doesn’t know it – oh shit I’m still on the phone) the tumour is at the roots of the trees, which somehow means they need to remove 60% of my right lung. This will make it a major surgery with significant scarring and a much longer recovery time. He says a few other things, but I say that this is fine with me. For the 31 days I have waited for this news, my mind has explored every wrinkle of possibility, every best– and worst–case scenario. A scar is superficial. Pain is not forever. This is only for now. I hang up and explain this again to my partner, again to my roommate, and again to my mother. When I finally have a moment to think, I look outside and see, for the first and only time ever, a hummingbird hovering outside my window.
Every day I take a little sip of poison from the glass and chemical cocktail in my hand, hoping it will make me stronger. It doesn’t. The world, previously holding its breath is now screaming, howling, and I howl too, I text and write and talk talk talk and apply pressure to the wounds of my friends and loved ones and we try to breathe, we try to breathe. I keep going to the hospital where they inject little bits of chemicals into me, x-ray juice and names I hear five times and still can’t remember. I leave, vibrating with necessary poison, stabbed full of holes and taped up again.
When I finally make it to the ocean alone, I turn off my phone and plunge myself into the still-too-cold water. I swim, imagining the little drops of poison in my veins freezing and falling away. I lay back and look at the sun. When I get out of the water, there is a voicemail waiting for me telling me my surgery is in seven days.
On the plane from Guadalajara to Mexico City, I notice that the other person in the row with me has clearly never flown before. He’s a sweet–faced young man, anxiously rubbing his hands on his knees, checking his seatbelt, looking around wildly when the plane makes any sound. I want to talk to him, but my beginner Spanish ties my tongue. After the plane has taken off, I just look at him quickly and smile. When the plane begins its descent, though, he speaks to me. Is it okay, he asks, if we talk while the plane is landing? It is, in fact, his first plane ride, and he is scared. I smile and say yes. Very quickly my childlike Spanish gives him a task – to ask me simple questions and helps parse through my bumbling answers. It is a good distraction. He asks me what my name is, where I’m from, where I got the colour of my eyes. I ask him back. He shares my father’s name, a name I’ve never encountered in Canada. In between my stuttering sentences, I somehow manage to find the right words of reassurance as the plane continues towards earth. This is normal. That is the sound of the wheels. Don’t be afraid. We hit turbulence and he takes me up on my offer to hold his hand, darting into the empty middle seat and clutching me hard. I tell him we’re almost there, I tell him 10 more seconds, I remind him to breathe. I tell him we’re almost there and start to count, and not one second later we land. We clap. He crosses himself and kisses my hand.
“Aha, I thought it was you, but I wasn’t sure.” I’m shivering in my hospital gown, clammy from the antiseptic wipes I’ve been instructed to prepare my body with, to avoid the outside of my body contaminating the inside. A woman stands in front of me, with a squinting smile that makes me think I’m supposed to know her. She is the anesthesiologist, who has the quirky energy many in her profession share. With a blissed-out cadence, she tells me what’s happening next. They will give me an epidural for the substantial pain that comes with this surgery – it sounds gross, she says, but I’ll be grateful for it. This is what I’ve been most dreading. The idea of a needle in my spinal cord seems like an unfair summit of horror on top of an already terrifying procedure. And just like that, it’s showtime, and I’m abruptly wheeled away from my partner who at that point I am told is not able to visit me again in the hospital. I enter the theatre where the bright lights glare off the plastic masks of the surgery team, obscuring faces. The smiling woman helps me into the position where they will insert the epidural. “We’re going to give you a little something first, okay?” I nod, preparing for the thing I’ve dreaded most.
That’s the last thing I remember.
There is one thing I didn’t tell anyone. The surgeon told me, over the phone, that there was a 0.5% mortality rate for this surgery. That’s good, I said hopefully. That’s 1 in 200 people, he said gravely. Okay, I said. Thank you for telling me.
So when my eyes open to the searing lights of the post-operative ward, I take a moment to feel grateful that I am alive. And then the companion to the privilege of life arrives. Pain.
Filled with numbing substances unknown, I dream.
A director asks me to sit in on a workshop – they know I’m not well and understand completely if I can’t attend but it feels very important right now to get a second opinion on the piece. I walk into the hall, watch the work, offer some notes, everyone is pleased, but as I leave and walk the hallway everyone is shaking their head at me, part disapproval, part pity. My hospital gown reveals my back, sliced wide open and then stitched shut again with big cartoon X’s. Suddenly my legs give out, and it takes me a long time to pull myself down the stairs. When I reach the bottom I collapse in a heap, my bare and bloody back exposed, and everyone around stares sombrely at the woman who didn’t know how to stop.
My dear friend visits me from Toronto and picks me up in his rental car and we drive to Sasamat Lake. I am excited to feel the sun on my face and the water on my toes. We get there, spread out our blankets and snacks, but every time we look up at the trees lining the water, they snap shut, folding on some invisible crease and disappearing into the water. The horizon has gaps of naked plywood on it now, in sharp contrast to the sun sparkling on the water and the surviving, unwitnessed trees. If we’re going to have a nice day at the lake, we’re going to have to keep our eyes down the whole time.
I wake up, dozens of times every night. If in my dream I have a healthy body, I am alarmed to wake up in the hospital. If I’ve dreamed that I’m dead, I am mildly pleased to wake up alive.
Sometimes I feel like my lungs have become chrysalis-thick goo, clotted to the delicate butterfly wings of my ribs. I breathe roughly, heaving the sticky mess of flesh as best I can. Sometimes I feel like the spun-sugar softness of my arms has wettened and smashed sticky into the soapy hospital sheets, unable to be peeled off without skinning myself alive. I awake confused, my logic untethered by opioids into fantastical imaginings of present carnage, but then eventually I settle into the here, and the now, which is not particularly gentle.
Once the fog clears, I lay alone in the humble simplicity of the early morning and mostly just feel sad.
I get to go home, and the days ooze by in formless surges of sunlight and darkness. I enter the seesaw of nausea and pain, either sitting eyes closed and upright for hours waiting for the spinning to stop, or lying motionless in bed, little firecrackers of pain shimmering through my body every 20 seconds.
By week two at home, my body is healing but my spirit is not. I make appearances in the outside world, doing my best to look better than I feel. Though I manage not to look like someone who two weeks ago was wheeling around a tank full of blood and gore attached to a suction tube stuck in my lung, I cannot shake the feeling that a little piece of me is gone. I don’t want to look anyone in the eye. I feel small, shy. Stupid.
I spend a lot of time thinking about bodies. The beautiful bodies of my friends, the bodies under threat, the bodies under violence, the astonishing act of a body living, breathing as all bodies should be allowed to do. I think of my body. I try to thank it for its astonishing efforts of healing the massive wound on my side, its ability to protect me from the worst parts of this trauma. I try, I try, I try. This is only for now.
Every spring, I crave peonies. I am not in the tax bracket for which cut flowers are a household staple, but peonies are worth the indulgence. I love their chaotic blooms, their abundance of petals and sweet smell. I also love that their arrival heralds the subtle entrance of spring from a sodden Vancouver winter. I finally found some, during the long wait for a surgery date, in a luscious burgundy. I proudly displayed them on our butter yellow kitchen table, admiring the contrast. Every year I forget the thing about peonies: their splendour is short-lived. After perhaps 18 hours of glory, they began to drop their petals, first one by one and then in audible dumps of softly stacked beauty. The delicate scent turns into a sharp smell of decay, which perfumes the air of our apartment as subtly as before. I am petulant when my housemates comment on the mess, and leave them until every petal has fallen, leaving behind a stinking exposed stamen.
For whatever reason, my sense of smell becomes sharp in the hospital. A moment in which I realize I can smell the hospital soap on my skin is a point from which I cannot return. I feebly scrub my body with baby wipes. I agonize over smelling my own breath but cannot manage to get to the bathroom to brush my teeth. I cannot reach my armpits to attempt to stop the smell of my regenerating body. This obsession follows me home, as I beg my partner to scrub my armpits harder when I cannot, trying to balance the delicate condition of my lungs with my desire to dunk myself in sweet-smelling moisturizer, knowing full well that the chemical cocktail of deodorant does not belong near my still-raw wound. I cannot forget the deep incision in my side or the filthy hospital tape stuck to me which I may not remove. I can’t stop smelling the presence of my human flesh.
The lung is the grief meridian. This is what I’m told many, many times over the two years between my father’s death and the day they cut a little piece of it away from me. I started grieving my father long before he left this earth, as addiction ate him alive. Winter after winter of antibiotics and avoiding long distance calls from Mexico.
My mom and I flew to El Paso for the funeral, she from Vancouver and me from Toronto. El Paso is right on the border of the US and Mexico, literally a stone’s throw from one nation to the next. I landed first but I was too afraid to drive the rental car alone so I sat in the airport for hours, watching hundreds of people pass by who looked a little more like me than anywhere else I’ve been. My wise friend texted me – may she do some healing energetic body work for me? I text back, “yes please, thank you.” I don’t really believe in anything but that doesn’t really cut it when you’re dealing with acute grief. I believe in people. I believe in care. I believe in my friend.
She tells me some time later that she scanned my body and found a great terrible yucky mass filling my lungs and making it hard for me to breathe. It’s anchored to a single spot, where a small silver hook has sunk into the flesh of my lung. She says she has unhooked the mass and cleaned out my infected lungs, lined them with cool clean leaves. She urges me to find water and a tree. I thank her. I feel better.
When at last we arrive at the hotel, I dip my shaking body into the courtyard’s pool, looking out over the twinkling night lights that make El Paso and Juarez nearly indistinguishable. I sit beneath a bedraggled palm tree and breathe deeply, trying to picture the little spot in my lung that will one day make itself known to me one year later and 2000 miles North as I speak a monologue about being lost at sea and washing up on the shores of Mexico.
I can’t tell you the whole story. I can only tell you a little piece. That’s because it’s not over yet, and because it started long before the place I chose to start telling it to you. There’s the part where I get my first PET scan to ensure the cancer has departed, scheduled for the day after my 31st birthday. There’s the part 10 years from now where I’ll be sure it has returned (and be wrong). There’s the part some unknown time ago when the first cell made the wrong choice over and over again.
This body is the holder of the memories I turned to in the darkest moments of this saga, the keeper of everything I am. The little piece taken out of me would have taken my life, and it was with me when I lay in a field under the whiskey-spinning stars, it was with me rumbling along with the crack of thunder from a tropical storm atop a pyramid, it was with me clenched tight behind my heart at my father’s funeral.
This moment is not forever. I am just a little piece of the universe, and this is just a little piece of my body, a little piece of my year, a little piece of the mysterious unfurling story of my life.
I am counting backwards from ten.
I try to meditate every day. I am imagining that I am clearing my thoughts away, like a wave washing over the shore. I try to release my beloved hypotheticals and focus on the present. Sometimes when I meditate my body shakes. I notice that. I let the thought float away.
I take a deep breath.