Jay Lake: Writer

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[Cancer]

[cancer] “Is this concrete all around me, or is it in my head?”

One thing I haven’t talked much about here is the emotional journey cancer has put me on. Partially that’s because I don’t yet understand it myself, and partially because I didn’t want to go fishing for the classic online group hug. Don’t get me wrong — all the incredible support I’ve received from LJ and online community has been invaluable to me. But I wanted to say something meaningful if I was going to say anything at all.

The night of May 7th, two days before my surgery, a number of friends and family gathered in a back room at DeNicola’s for a celebratory meal. It felt like my wake, though I think I maintained pretty well. The night of May 8th, having been on Fleet all day and as result finding myself achingly empty, my family again gathered at my house to keep me company. It felt like my funeral, and I maintained quite poorly.

Simply put, I did not expect to wake up from the surgery.

This was not a logical conclusion based on medical information, it was an emotional reaction to the whole situation. By then we had a pretty good idea the cancer was likely to be early stage, and the effects limited. I had absolute confidence in my colo-rectal surgeon. I had immense amounts of information, courtesy of an entire network of friends and family who are research geeks, most especially lasirenadolce. I knew the outcomes and the risks, I’d been through a lengthy informed consent process.

I still believed I was going to die.

I lied to everyone, including myself, about how terrified I was. I don’t suppose anyone was fooled, least of all me, but I lied and lied and lied in an attempt to alchemically transform my bravado into real bravery. The next morning, leaving the surgery prep unit with the anesthesiologist and his assistant, the fear caught up with me. I’d been cracking wise during the admission process, but I sobbed uncontrollably as the gurney wheeled through the halls of OHSU. I was possessed with a black, raging fear tinged with the grief of never again seeing my daughter, my parents, anyone I loved.

Waking up that afternoon was one of the most surprising things that has ever happened to me.

That a surgical cure had apparently been effected was almost beside the point. I lived. My body had more lines in it than a power station, I was miserably uncomfortable, a million things were wrong, but I lived.

Since then I’ve spent an enormous amount of time in my head. Much of it was drug-addled, but in a lateral way, not in the sense of being utterly stoned and trying to fly off the roof. Still, looking within is not a normal occupation of mine. One reason I generally move so fast through life is it keeps me ahead of the wavefront of self-doubt. My nigh pathologic extroversion was turned in on itself.

At the same time, only now am I starting not to feel crazy. The mental lacunae, the stuttering memory, the vile temper — I have hated the world and everyone in it since the surgery, most of all myself — I have sufficient external perspective to recognize these things as artefacts of the illness, the surgery, the anesthesia, and the post-operative medications. Still I’ve had to struggle through them, being some other person of very limited physical and mental energy. Querelous, unhappy, barely capable.

It’s a hell of a thing to face when you live your life on fast forward, as I do.

This stuff is very hard to talk about. Even the cancer itself is difficult enough, that disease being such a swear word. The slide into emotional instability, depression, cognitive dysfunction and memory loss is deeply embarrassing, and very difficult to live with.

I still don’t know what that time will come to mean for me, but it has put me in a very different frame of mind about my life choices, about my writing career, about the speed at which I live. However the cards fall in the end, it will be a very different game.

All is growth, all is grist, but that can be very hard to perceive from inside the clouds of unknowing. Only now am I beginning to glimpse the light.

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