The Meeting with the Goddess
You touched my hand
You were awake
And while you slept
You dreamed of all the other hands you held
And wondered why you stayed around
With all the other hands to be held
And in a note, you said it all
And you were gone, when I awoke
- When I Awoke (Julie Doiron, Goodnight Nobody, 2004)
As the Summer dragged on my treatments became so hard that just the thought of the pale green walls of the Cancer centre would send me into a tailspin. The thought of IV’s and the colour of the orange chemo fluid was an instant trigger for a panic attack or bout of vomiting. They tried everything during the treatments to keep me calm, but nothing during the three- to four-hour appointments was of much use.
By the seventh treatment in early August, they could barely get the IV in my arm. My veins had always been like beautiful accessible tunnels of life. Every nurse that ever tapped me when I donated blood complimented me on my veins. By the seventh treatment it took the third and most experienced nurse three tries to find a good vein. I sat there as she roughly tried to stick the needle into various places on my hands and arms.
“Nope, that one’s gone.” the nurse was calm and methodical if not terribly gentle compared to the younger women on the floor.
“That one’s done, too” she continued to wander around my arms, holding the needle between two fingers. Was I “done” already? That’s all I can take?
“Ah, there we go” she spotted something on my forearm. I never looked at the needles any more, so I turned away and let her do her penetrating business. A few seconds later she stood up and walked out of the room, leaving me with the other two nurses. They continued hooking me up to the infernal machines. I started to get more nauseous by the second. My chest was tight and I couldn’t breathe. I went pale, then green (according to my mother), and then reached for the nearest trash bin where I proceeded to empty my stomach.
I hadn’t had the first part of the treatment injected yet. They weren’t even done hooking up the saline solution. Well this…sucked? I continued to heave past the point of actually throwing up. Here I was puking my guts out in front of all these other Cancer patients. Most of them didn’t pay any attention. I couldn’t help but noticing that I was the youngest person sitting in a bed getting treatment. My mother asked that we get a little more privacy on my behalf, and they moved me to a private treatment area so I could be less of a distraction to the other patients.
The nurses gave me a direct IV injection of an anti-vomiting drug called Maxeran. 4mg of Ativan on top of that and it was like the boat stopped rocking. They put warm IV bags of saline on my arm to help with the cold feeling. I sat there and counted the minutes until I would be able to walk out the front door. I tried to imagine the clean air and not the stale, sanitized air of the Cancer ward.
Things were looking more and more dire with every treatment. As the chemo did its job it also ravaged my body in every way possible. I felt like I was dying, and I wasn’t sure it was just the tumour. How bad was our medical technology if the treatment made you feel worse than the Cancer? Or is this what it felt like when you started to lose the battle? I tried to go somewhere else in my mind and think about other things.
The next three weeks are a blur of restless tossing in my bed, sweating and wrenching and thinking how long it was going to take for me to die. If this treatment didn’t work, I would have radiation at least, and then possibly a blood cell transfusion. I’d need a donor my type and everything, and it would cause a lot more problems with my complete absence of an immune system.
My body was barely keeping ahead of the treatments, from a statistical standpoint. My red and white blood cell counts were extremely low, but always just above the threshold of “too sick for treatment”. If your body didn’t have the stamina to keep up blood cell production, you were into transfusion territory. With no immune system and a host of medical issues that can be caused by blood transfusions, that was always held as a last resort.
It was almost my birthday and I had barely anything to look forward to. I figured mathematically that I would probably see 24, but maybe 25, definitely not 30. Due to my extended chemo tour I had “cancelled” my official birthday party plans. Alissa and I were sort of getting along but very, very distantly. I really only had one thing in my life that I was still holding on to: The new Julie Doiron album.
I know, I know. It’s lame to use a record to anchor your thoughts around, but music is important to me. Sometimes certain artists produce work that resonates with me in a very deep and personal way. Moncton, New Brunswick’s Julie Doiron had produced some of the most deep and affecting music I have ever heard. Her new album, Goodnight Nobody, was already looking like her best work yet. If nothing else, I was going to go out on September 7th and buy that CD.
It’s the little things you hold on to (at the end?).
There was a bonus milestone. Just about 3 weeks after my last chemo treatment the day before my birthday—September 4th—Julie Doiron was set to play in Ottawa at a small club downtown. Tickets purchased. Let’s do this.
My eighth and final treatment was a larger clusterfuck than the previous one. I was ten times as nervous and about a hundred times more nauseous. They had given me a prescription for something called “Nabilone”, which was supposed to be a synthetic THC that basically got you to relax. I took two before we left for the hospital, and I think that was the worst idea ever. I didn’t get “high”—not that I knew what that was—I just got dizzy and even more sick. I was having trouble walking, talking, the whole thing. But not in a classic stoner way, more like a classic person having a stroke way.
Everyone was rushing around me to get me sedated and calmed down. The next thing I remember I am hooked up and ready to go, and I spend the next three hours dry-heaving into a waste paper basket every few minutes. It was like, totally bogus, dude.
Some “trip”. I was convinced that all the years I had avoided marijuana were justified if this is how I was going to react. Of course, it was admittedly some kind of synthetic reproduction of the real thing. I hated all of the drugs they were putting inside me, and this one was the biggest let-down yet.
There was a great anti-drug campaign when I was a kid. The commercial jingle went:
“Drugs drugs drugs: Which are good, which are bad? As your Mom or Ask your Dad!”
I knew now, they were all bad, and my parents would probably agree with me. I sat there in that green padded hospital chair and took my medicine as best I could. I shifted back and forth and tried to find a comfortable position. There was none to be had. I tried to keep my stomach from jumping around more than I was. I couldn’t distract myself, my brain wasn’t working. I was passively witnessing the input my senses were sensing, but I couldn’t process or analyze anything. I was reacting in real-time, unable to keep any thoughts in my head for more than a few seconds.
After the treatment I was still very much out of it. I stumbled to the bathroom, stumbled to the car, and finally I remember stumbling into bed. When I finally came down from my haze I realized, this was my last chemo treatment. All I had to do was endure this final round and I would never have to do this again. Unless, of course, it didn’t work.
The “crisis” that started on my birthday had its origins a few months back. Alissa’s best friend from back home was getting married (to the man she’d been with since high school). It was going to be a grand affair in the park of her hometown, and Alissa was the maid of honour. She had a great dress picked out, and we had purchased airfare with the tiny bit of room we’d clawed away on one of our credit cards. But the night before she was supposed to fly out, she fell apart.
I had never seen her this panicked or frantic before. She was crying, screaming, rolling around on the bed. She didn’t want to go, she kept saying. She said didn’t want to leave me. Did she not want to fly? She’d flown before; just last year when her grandmother died. I tried to calm her down but she was just too upset. I could barely reason with her. If she wasn’t on that plane in 12 hours we were going to forfeit almost $600 in airfare. She wouldn’t say she wasn’t going and she wouldn’t say she was.
I was too sick and tired to help her, I just wanted her to solve her own problems for once and just let me sleep. After a few hours of her back and forth, I told her I did not want her to fly. I called the airline and cancelled her flight for her. Now she was upset at me for ruining her best friend’s wedding and not herself for not being able to fly. But then there was something else. In the hour of fighting and discourse that followed, she finally screamed at me:
“If I leave you then you’ll die and I won’t be there!!!”
There was silence. Minutes, maybe? Probably not. I just stared at her in amazement. Was this the real her? Did she really have no idea how to handle this situation either? Did she care after all? Maybe there was some hope after all.
I did a self analysis as we talked over the situation. My body was drawn out, emaciated. I had a throbbing headache and my joints ached. But my mind was fine after the first few days of treatment. The chemo drugs were out of my system by the 4th or 5th day, and between the hours of Noon and about 9pm I was basically “okay”, just a bit grumpy and nauseous. I had already proven that my body wasn’t all that “weak” several times, and it could be pushed.
The idea of driving there was mine. We had rented cars and driven the last few trips back to her hometown and it wasn’t terribly expensive or exhausting. It was about seven hours door-to-door, and this time our destination was actually about an hour closer. Six hours sitting there with A/C and cruise control and the new Julie Doiron album in the CD player. When I realized I could “save the day” and go on a bit of an adventure at the same time, my brain was hooked on the idea.
*** It should be noted here that my wedding invitations are a very good example of how or relationship dynamic worked. She wanted to be the Princess in the Tower, and be swept away by her Prince. I wanted to be Charming but I ended up like a certain ogre (who will not be named for legal purposes). ***
It was “perfect”, in my mind. She was happy, we didn’t have to be apart, and I got to rent something that wasn’t a movie or video game! All I had to do was…drive all that way…and see all those people…in my omni-suit…with no hair. Okay so at this point it is probably worth noting that “perfect” had a whole new standard, and it was considerably lower. Compromises had to be made if I was going to survive this, let alone the cancer itself.
My mother was more hysterical than Alissa had been to start with. She was absolutely convinced that if I went on this trip I would die, and would not accept anything less than my agreement to stay home. That was something I didn’t feel I needed to do, and I really didn’t want to tell my wife that I couldn’t drive because my mom said I couldn’t. I might have been as hairless as an Olympic swimmer, but I still had to fight for my own choices once in a while.
It gave me some energy and drive, just like having to walk in the Summer heat to get groceries. I knew I could do it, because I couldn’t see myself not doing it. The thought of me staying home sick instead of driving all day just wasn’t in my brain at the time. I tried to reassure her that I was in control, and I knew what I was doing. It made me furious to hear her saying that I was too sick and too weak. I knew better, and I would show her. I hung up on her and we packed our bags.
I actually did feel pretty good the morning we left for the wedding. The fact that I was “done” chemo really helped with both my mental and physical state. Perhaps this was the end of the journey down the rabbit role, and I would wake up healthy and in a happy marriage. I woke up with what most would consider a moderate hangover, and I didn’t feel like I was in any way too sick to drive. We were on the highway by Noon and we were at her friend’s house just after dinner. It was a pleasant early Fall drive, and we listened to music and chatted.
For the first time since my diagnosis, we talked about the Future. If I was done treatment and was in remission, what would we do next? Alissa said that she wanted to get back on track to where we were going before, and she’d like to try to get pregnant as soon as possible. I agreed with her plans, especially the sex parts.
When we got to our destination it was just starting to get dark, and we went to hang out in the basement. The girls quickly got to work on wedding favours; trying ribbons around chocolate flowers. I busied myself with the one freelance job I still had: a semi-annual newsletter for an NGO. It was always at least 40 pages of the most difficult typesetting due to the language, but after eight issues it was the most relaxing thing I could do at that time.
I was feeling very proud of myself. I stood up and made people happy, even in my state of physical depletion. I could still do things if I wanted, and that meant I wasn’t beaten yet. I had stood up to my mother’s best pleading, but I knew I was fine and I knew I had to do this. I “had it all”, such as it was. Happy wife, typography, and a semi-comfortable couch. My body was just going to have to deal with the rest of the shit.
The wedding went like every average, decent wedding with average, decent folk. Nothing happened of note and I felt pretty good most of the day. The ceremony was in a large public park, and the weather was sunny and warm without being especially hot. I took pictures with my little digital camera. I remarked how beautiful my wife was looking in her bridesmaid dress, and probably took more pictures of just her than the bride and groom. After the vows were said we drove over to a small golf club for the dinner portion.
Most people knew who I was, and they knew I was “sick”. I was never introduced as “the guy with Cancer” but I did get a fair amount of “how are you feeling” questions? I was tired, and just leaning on whatever I had next to me. I had pleasant conversation with several guests about the day, the bride, normal wedding stuff. It was a happy day for these people, and I tried to be jovial and merry.
I wasn’t really eating, but I wasn’t totally wiped out, either. I managed to eat a small portion of my meal, but I was mainly interested in people watching. I didn’t really know anyone other than my wife and her friends getting married, so I contented myself to look around the room and try to put stories to faces. The truck driver, the doctor, the international spy. The cancer patient sat in the middle of the room, observing.
Alissa was moving around the room for most of the evening, chatting with friends and having a good time. She was so much more comfortable in her home town with her old friends. I wished that I could make her this happy, but it would a long time before moving was an option. My wife’s heart was here in her small town. My career and my doctors were both back in Ottawa. I certainly felt chained down, did she feel chained to me?
By the time the dessert course was being served, I felt my energy start to wane. 8 p.m. on a Saturday night and I’m suddenly ready to hit the sack. We still had to drive about half an hour back to the house. I didn’t want to take her away from having a good time; she really needed a good night out. I would put up with my fatigue until she was ready to go. I wandered around the club house and found a quiet side room. I sat in the darkness for a while, watching people move around in the distance.
Less than an hour later, she found me and told me she was feeling a little tired. I seized the opportunity, and we made the rounds. Many loving good-byes later we were on our way to the parking lot. Alissa was in a good mood, and we reflected what a great day it had been. I focused on driving and my mind sped off into the unknown. I tried not to think about the drive home, my next CT scan, and whether or not I was still cancerous in some ways.
I was never in the Present during this time. I was somewhere between the Past and the Future. I was lamenting my failures and shortcomings, and all the things I would never get to do. What did one good day matter if there were so few left? I looked over at Alissa, she was already sinking into her seat, her own tiredness taking hold. We spent the second half of the drive in silence.
I was thinking about our wedding and how we’d felt at the time. Getting married at 22 was all about showing the world how strong our young love was. Back then we were at the start of a great journey. Now here we were on that journey, sitting apart and driving forward into the darkness in silence.
How could I make this up to her? I had promised her so many things and now I couldn’t even go to the bathroom like a regular person. I had to get back to health and full strength quickly, that was the only thing I was sure of. If I couldn’t get back to work, and get my life back on track, I would never be able to make her happy.
When we got back to Ottawa, I had my mother meet met at the car rental place so I didn’t have to walk the 20 blocks to the apartment. I should have expected a confrontation after our last phone conversation, and it was delivered straightforward and calmly. Alissa was not good for me, and I needed to separate from her immediately and there were people in my life who were ready to help.
To say I was resistant to the idea would be not doing it justice. I was outraged, insulted, hurt, and I let her know it. I felt like I was being called out as a weakling infant who needed his mommy to step in and handle my wife. How could she not see that I was dealing with everything that came my way and I was still on my feet? I wanted a pat on the back and this was a sweep to the leg. I took it very personally.
This was my strongest supporter, after all. If anyone knew how I was dealing with things, it would be the one person at every appointment, with me every minute of treatment. My mother was the only person outside of the medical community who knew my current blood counts, red and white cells. She basically cared more about me than any other person on the planet. But I couldn’t agree with her or do what she was asking me to do.
I had just faced the biggest challenge of my life, and she had been there every step of the way. I was fighting to preserve not only my life but my marriage and my commitments, and she was basically telling me to pack a bag and walk away from it for my own good. My pride just wasn’t going to let that happen, no matter who was insisting it was the best thing for me. As I saw it, it was the worst thing.
We fought in the car for about 20 minutes, her pleading with me to get out of this toxic relationship and me telling her it was my decision and I would tell her when I was ready to leave. If she wasn’t going to help me in the way that I needed her to, then she was welcome to stay the hell out of it. I stormed out of the car and went up into the apartment.
I wouldn’t speak to my mother for the next two weeks. It wasn’t like I had any more treatments; my next appointment was at the end of September. It was hard not to tell Alissa what my mother had asked me to do in the car. I was short on supporters so in this instance my wife would have to do. She had been quite close to my mom and was very hurt by the situation.
Things seemed to be a bit more stable – if you can call it that – over the next couple of weeks. It felt more like the 3rd hours of a flight in a holding pattern. Alissa would go to work at the video store, and I would stay at home and recuperate with TV and video games. My mind was slowly coming back to me as the drugs cleared out of me. I had a complete meltdown one day over drugs, and I threw them into the garbage and down the chute in the hall. I was tired of how all these drugs made me felt, I’d rather go back to the cough from the tumours.
*** Note: In hindsight, I’m really sorry I didn’t take it back to a pharmacy like you should. But seriously, it was a cathartic moment and the closest place was like a 15-minute walk. ***
I only had two dates I was looking forward to: Returning to work at the beginning November, and the Julie Doiron show later that month. Oh, and I had another CT scan and follow-up appointment booked. I guess. For now I was trying to focus on the good things, and the list was short but good.
Alissa did not want to go to the show, of course. She was more into 80’s Night kind of scene. Dancing and drinking and various sugary concoctions disguised as shots with vulgar names. I guess sitting on the floor listening to beautiful music isn’t everyone’s scene. I pity those people, sometimes. The rest of the time I just go to great shows like this one and enjoy them.
The club held about 200 people, but was basically divided in thirds by the bar area. So just about everyone was crammed onto the small dance floor in front of the stage. By using black-lights as the main lighting and black paint on almost every surface, it covered up how dirty and run-down the place was. At the time it was my favourite place to see live music, and I had even graced its stage with a few of my failed musical groups over the years.
I had seen Julie play this venue several times already. The last time she was about a year earlier when she was very, very pregnant. She had bused in from Montreal with nothing but her guitar and a small amp. Her music is gentle and soft and is quite lovely. It was hockey playoffs, and while she was on stage the bar staff were actually drowning her out with their cheering. I am all for respecting one’s country, but please keep it down while the pregnant lady is singing.
This time the crowd and bar staff were much more respectful, and it turned out to be a great show. She had no accompaniment as the last few times she had played Ottawa, so it was just her and the audience. She played for almost an hour, and in her unique fashion never looked at the crowd once but interacted and joked with us repeatedly. It’s as if she was terrified by stage fright yet driven to perform and be delightful while doing it. Simply put, it was worth looking forward to.
She stayed afterwards to sell the few records she had brought with her. I already owned all of her albums and once again she didn’t have any other mercy but I went up to speak to her any way. She was always friendly and smiling when talking to her fans, and I waited for a chance to speak with my favourite artist. I was nervous and couldn’t find any words in that moment. When everyone else who came up to the stage had left, I finally managed to blurt something out.
“Hi. Um…” I stuttered. “…I- I really want to thank you for your latest record, and this show. It’s really helped me through a bad time.”
“Wow, thanks so much!” She replied warmly. I stood there awkwardly mute while she smiled and talked about recording the album and how the tour had been. I wanted to tell her why her music had been so helpful at such an unfortunate time in my life. But in my head it just seemed weird to tell someone that their album helped them deal with Cancer. I thanked her again for the show and she thanked me for coming out to the show. I let her get on with clearing the stage. As the DJ started into his first of many alternative rock hits I headed for home.
All in all it had been a really great experience. I felt like I had been silly trying to talk to Julie Doiron but in the back of my mind I was trying to make sure that if this was the last time I was going to see her in person I thanked her for making such beautiful and meaningful music. Now that it was done I felt like I could at least scratch something off my bucket list.
As I headed homeward I decided to walk. The night was a cool late-September evening, but it was only 11 o’clock and I had been feeling more physically able. I walked the ‘scenic route’ from the Market to my apartment, taking me past the Parliament Buildings. It was a cloudless night, and the wind was keeping things just cold enough to conjure up thoughts of the coming Winter.
I was heading back to work in just over a month. Alissa and I were doing alright. I had my next appointment with Dr. C next week to learn my status, and my fate. I was pretty sure that the Cancer was gone, but I had no medical proof of that yet. Until then I would just have to believe that my body was fighting the good fight and keeping me alive for the time being.
When I got home Alissa was already asleep. I crawled in to bed and embraced her. She curled in to me and I fell asleep for the first time in weeks without hours of tossing and turning or 2–3 of my little white pill friends. It was a good day. There would not be any of those for a while.