E
Jan/Feb 2008 Fiction

Standard Deviation

by Julia M. Sidorova

Photo by Steve Wing


To Mikhail and Grace

 

It was an ad, wasn't it? A car ad, and there was this boy, this little prince in a tidy suit, leaning towards you, and whispering it, like a big secret, for your ears only: Zoom-zoom... Well, there you have it, we are not on the spot yet, we are still hovering up above, the wind blows us this way and that, our vision is blurry, no resolution to speak of, only a hazy aerial, horizon is curving, but we zoom, we zoom in, as that quirky little genie next to us urges, lisping coyly, that rascal: zoom...

 

1

"March 99: Dyspnea, cough, fatigue: pulmonary WU CRX: Diffuse Interstitial Pneumonitis PFTs: Severe Restrictive Lung Disease CT: Splenomegaly April 99: Lung Bx: Lymphocytic Infiltrate (Indolent B cell Lymphoma) BM Bx: positive for B-NHL"

Today, as every day, 1862 Americans are dying of cancer.

(Zoom)

Among those, 52—of Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma.

(Zoom)

Among those, 19 are women.

(Zoom, zoom!)

Among those, 11 were born in or before 1941.

Among those, 4 are divorced.

Among those, one went to Barnes and Noble today and is now loitering in the self-help section.

A 59 y.o. WF.

It's me.

Nonsense, I am not dead yet. I've only just been diagnosed. I do not even feel as bad as the diagnosis. I cough, I seem to have trouble clearing a cold, I feel weak. But I can still fancy I am suffering something Victorian and elegantly deadly, something only sensitive-natured and sophisticated-spirited ladies can develop, something that lets you look good until the end, and then you just gracefully go off stage...

I can still run playful thoughts in my head, such as: why not turn the red ticket that I was dealt to my advantage? People are so willing to cut you some slack when you are a cancer patient. Coworkers and friends coo and flutter around you. Family grows more permissive... I will be allowed some eccentricity. I could even call up my ex, Daniel, and he just may be compelled to come for a visit and hold my hand... I smile: that would be so theatrical! In my life, we don't do this kind of thing. In my life, I'll just let my discipline on the job slacken. And enjoy it while I still can —lounge on a couch, read a book instead of going to work.

Worry?

Yes, I worry. Do you know what our five-year survival rate is? 60 percent. At 9 AM today I froze with fear of death. At noon I was dismissive. Later on—indifferent. Right now I am defiant.

On to the task at hand. Do you know how many self-help titles are published each year? Around 2000, one in ten books sold. And yes, most of them are purchased by women (I hold up a book. Title: "250 things your doctors do not tell you about cancer.") Apparently, each coming year brings a crop of fresh and novel ways of helping oneself. We are a dynamic culture.

I've spent over forty minutes here however, and I still have picked nothing. How about this one? A corn-fed hope, Chicken soup for the cancer patient soul: survivor stories.

Or this one, black comedy, So, you've been diagnosed with cancer. Now what?

In the end I take both, the gooey one, and the smirky one. I approach the check-out and hand my selections over. The good-looking glasses-beard-ponytail type behind the counter gives me a glance. I smile in return, faintly and fleetingly— such a shy exhibitionist that I am —oh, yes, it's me. "Would you like a bag for these, M'am," he says warmly. "Yes I would, thanks." As I go through the doors, he still looks my way.

Like I said, I still feel well enough to take interest in such moments.

And then it comes, a coincidence. Outside, there is a bulletin board, and I stop to scan through the tattered quilt of leaflets and cards. I notice this one, and I keep staring in disbelief, moving my lips, reading. It drives the point across, but it is put in such a jackass way that I can't believe my eyes. I mean, it is not a good English! Are you a CANCER? the note says. And below, Cancer women—talk, date, share. A comb of phone numbers. Slowly, I reach out and tear one off. Yes, I am a cancer woman, I guess.

Then it strikes me: the Zodiac sign, you idiot! It flushes me cold, then hot. How could I get it so wrong! I am so flustered I could cry—and for what reason? Crumple the number, throw it in the garbage bin, and walking away, mutter angrily, I'm a Sagittarius!

 

2

"May 99-August 99: Cyclophosphamide + Prednisone x4 cycles Improved after 1st cycle then progressive dyspnea and fatigue, and nightsweats"

They say: she had courage to continue working/being pregnant/etc. Let me tell you, at this stage it is quite the opposite. It takes courage to stop doing what you were doing: give up on your career, have an abortion, take a pottery class, travel to that destination you always dreamed of. It takes courage because by dropping everything that was your life before the diagnosis, you acknowledge the diagnosis. Continuing with what you've been doing is no courage—it is denial that your life, or what's left of it, is changed forever.

I continue with what I've been doing.

Besides, cycles of chemotherapy (injection—recovery) develop into a routine of their own, not to mention, prevent you from gallivanting off onto some soul-searching trip. By the third cycle you come to the outpatient center like to some country club. The nurse knows you by your first name and greets you from the door. You have a favorite chair, where you lounge during an hour of injection. They serve you orange juice, which is nice, though it doesn't quite kill the weird taste I get in my mouth when the drug hits the bloodstream. The middle-aged lady to my left is a ferocious-looking biker type who sports a black-and-white Blues Brothers T-shirt and wears headphones over her bald head. Other than that we are quite nondescript—knitting, reading, napping.

Since you are supposed to feel sick from the drugs, all judgment on whether they work or not is postponed. Still, by the forth cycle I think I am worse off. And so, waking up sweating in the middle of the night I can't help posing questions of a WHY type. Or more specifically, why ME? There has to be an explanation. Do you know how many females who subsequently developed Non Hodgkin's lymphoma dyed their hair in the sixties and seventies? I am not joking—a statistically significant number.

I used to dye my hair—I had to. You see, my hair started to go gray as early as my mid twenties. It mattered then (just as it mattered to have this shortie haircut, a Mia Farrow circa her Sinatra times kind of do, which has stuck on me ever since, just out of inertia). It mattered, because I am not a baby boomer, I am a war baby. But I was a late bloomer. Daniel was booming into his twenties when I bloomed—hanging out with people of his cohort. Coincidentally, that was when I first learned how an orgasm should feel—and I was twenty-nine.

When Daniel and I got to specifics, I lied about my age. From there on, I loyally adhered to the boomer generation, taking to heart every statistically significant turn in their collective journey (the Age of Rebellion—the Age of Indulgence... ). These turns weren't just Daniel's, they were mine too, they were my firmly assumed identity.

The years with Daniel weren't that bad, give or take a few issues, slow in development. It was when the difference started to show, around the he 40: I 48 point, that he got spooked and bailed out. Our daughter, then with her teenage lack of appreciation for complexities, blamed Daniel's departure on my lying. "You lied to us!" she would shout. "You've been deceiving Dad all these years! It doesn't matter, what it was about, what's important is that you told a lie!"

My dear girl, lies are just one kind of word foam; reality is more organic: mute, subliminal. Like me dozing off on the couch, glasses sliding off to the tip of my nose, hands locked on my soft abdomen, and waking up to Daniel's comment RE: ongoing eleven o'clock news, and blinking, and not being able to pick up the thread of his remark. Or like the jowliness of my cheeks when my face articulated above him as I rode him in bed ...

I believe Daughter is more appreciative of organics now that she is approaching thirty, however, I suspect her allocation of blame may have remained the same. Our convictions have a way of spreading beyond their original site.

When Daniel left, I developed an identity crisis of sorts. So perhaps it was not a coincidence that a few years after Daniel, I coauthored a study that amply demonstrated how much heterogeneity really existed and still exists within a much stereotyped baby boomer generation. So much so that any sweeping generalization should be considered superfluous...

A retaliation. Yes, I am a statistician. With the US Census Bureau.

 

3

"August 99-January 00: CHOP x6 cycles--partial remission."

I am now on four drugs instead of two. CHOP somehow stands for cyclophosphamide +doxorubicin + vincristin + prednisone. CHOP, BACOP, C-MOPP--bebop names for regimens that sound all the same to me, and according to the stats all have more or less the same efficacy for all of us, a 50 plus thousand cases a year.

Which is very unsatisfying. Shouldn't there be a statistical variable that will reveal those who will benefit better from a CHOP as opposed to a C-MOPP? It hasn't been found yet, but it must exist! How many women with lymphoma have pulled You will soon settle in a place of cool climate out of their fortune cookie? How many have a grown-up daughter with a nervous laughter and lips, just like her Daddy's?

My daughter is on the phone. She's been working in this reproduction sweatshop for five years now. It's a large outfit in Portland, OR, with a paycheck and some benefits. They make copies of works of art: an order comes in, a reproduction is hand-painted, shipped out.

Do I know how many Girls with a pearl earring she has painted over the last five years, she says. Ten. How many Screams? Twelve total. And that's not the worst. That at least used to be art, she says. "But what do you think about that one with the lame poker game by dogs? Certain Coolidge's the artist." Yes, how many, I ask. "Thirty-four," she says, "I mean, we ship worldwide. The tastes of the world are narrow as tunnel vision and thin as veneer on an Ethan Allen highboy. I mean, if Edward Munch, why not a Self portrait in Hell?" I say, "Well, it is Hell and all. Blazing flames, beady eyes of the artist." She says, "Okay, that's just to make a point! The point is—the lame poker dogs are popular, but Gustave Moreau isn't! His Salome's dance, have you seen these paintings? I always wanted to paint them, especially the one that is unfinished. It is such a marvel, there is so much of this fluid, magic-light mystery in it, so much depth that seems to go right down the well of time!"

"Now, now," I say.

"No one ever ordered Salome's dance," she says. "No one. I would've finished it, you know."

I say, "Well, people's preferences have always curdled into trends. One should be satisfied that at least some of these involve masterpieces. How many Mona Lisas have you painted?"

"None," she snaps. "I am not on it. Our Mona Lisa man is Ming-Chi, I give him English lessons at lunch break, when he brews jasmine tea in a Smuckers jar."

Which brings me to the touchy point. "Daughter of mine," I say, "you know you can paint anything you want, and not wait until someone orders it."

"You don't get it, Ma! I do it eight hours a day, five days a week. I can't come home and paint all over again!"

And that is how we have mutual dissatisfactions. We both suspect each other of assumed helplessness. I—see above. And she—frowns at my driving thing. I agree, it is the quirkiest little phobia: I cannot drive on a highway. I will drive in the city, and drive like a maniac, my friends say, but when it comes to highway—no. And the fewer cars on it, the worse. During the off-peak hours I even get nervous when I am someone else's passenger. And that's me, who used to hop into my 1966 Karmen Ghia and speed into the blue! Sometimes alone, sometimes with people packed 5 : 3 to the recommended capacity. Other times with Daniel. Hell, I taught that greenhouse-raised New Yorker how to drive on that car! And then he left Daughter and me for his secretary, a GenXer, naturally.

Daniel has nothing to do with the phobia though. It started years after.

In occasional nightmares I dream of driving on a highway. What terrifies me then is the ease with which I can slip into disaster —just by jerking my hands on the steering wheel right or left, even inadvertently— and the whole thing goes deadly awry, wreckage, wreckage. City streets are not like that. The social support network, the camaraderie that you enjoy with fellow drivers on a street somehow keeps weird thoughts off your mind.

Occasionally, Daughter takes a poke at me, "Ma, with your Boston traffic, highway is a parking lot, not even a city street! Why wouldn't you get on and creep along with everyone else, rubbing shoulders as much as you need!"

Well, it is more complicated than that, I guess. Our quirks too have a way of spreading beyond their original site.

I remember my Daughter in front of the TV (when she still lived with me), saying contemptuously to one of those ads, "Diamonds are degradable. Diamonds are not forever, you stupids. Styrofoam is."

I thought then that I would not have minded if Daniel had given me a diamond ring. I came out having the correct responses, despite the "Age of Rebellion" and such. My Daughter, on the contrary, doesn't have the correct responses. She does not like Dogs playing poker, while everyone else does. Am I supposed to think that that is why she is unhappy?

... Daughter says on the phone, "At least change the carpet in your place. It was shat even when you got the condo, and it is only worse now. It's been twelve years, Ma!"

Now that I am in remission, she is a little more casual with me.

 

4

"May 00: Progressive SOB, abd pain (splenomegaly), early satiety, nightsweats, fatigue, Hct 26."

My spleen has grown. It is overcrowded with deranged lymphocytes. My spleen presses on my stomach now. I can no longer eat even a lunch size meal. I feel too full, and it starts hurting. A woman in my patient forum writes, My body changes with every coming day...

I know exactly what she means.

When I was a baby boomer, I was comfortable about being statistically significant. When we (even one out of ten of the 70 million of us boomers, all told) reached out for a book, it turned into a bestseller. When we popped a pill, it made millions to the corresponding pharmaceutical company. Well, now I am not just out of that demographic. Now, I can't help but think that those statistics were simply—wrong?—no, superfluous. Now I think that the real, true numbers are hidden out of view. The numbers that will explain a great many things, including me and my growing spleen.

When she was seventeen, my Daughter did a painting: a tall, narrow canvas depicting a certain cross-section. On top, a crust of sunny lawn, a white lawn chair on it, tulips, a few toys. Below —grass roots, lower yet—grubs, worms, mole tunnels. Lower and lower down, it gets darker and darker, less and less like earth, then churning shapes appear, at once mechanical and alive, gut-like, tangled, disgusting...

Life is like that painting, it seems to me now, and perhaps that is what my teenager Daughter had meant ( but hopefully, not): healthiness and normalcy are a thin crust on top of the unseen, unreported depth of morbidity, of shapes and types unimaginable... And I fell right through, I in my lawn chair, right through the crust, into the dark coiling guts. But there is more. The true, revealing numbers that explain it all—they are right here, below the crust of trends, unseen, secret, buried, and controversial, like diamonds in African mines. If only I could tease them out of the coils!

So here I am, I've dragged myself to work, I am slumped in my chair, I am poring over databases, running my routines, misusing federal resources on my, arguably, private obsession. Co-workers eye me with a mix of pity and suspicion. (Poor thing, it's gone to her head... ) How many females who subsequently developed Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma had worn an IUD during the Summer of Love and had been sick with jealousy decades after? How many ailing females never seek help of alternative medicine?

Evidently, precious few.

A woman in my cancer forum rants and raves about her defiant sister and their alternative quest. A certain Seminole healer who does not take money (that's reassuring), has supplicants lining up at his door. He inspected the woman's sister, he put little wooden spatulas on her knee caps, he told her she had no cancer, it was fungus. That same forum woman is so good at grilling her sister's oncologist about this and that treatment her sister is given. She adamantly advises every forum novice to do the same. But she embraced the wooden spatula diagnosis. Fungus.

It would appear, all she longs for is blind faith and superior license, and doctors do not provide either. Well, how can they—youngish, overworked, glimpsed as hastily finishing a yogurt on the way to the next patient? Perhaps this "empowering" of a patient by encouraging her to question her doctor has backfired. The placebo effect worked better when doctors wielded divine authority and mysterious instruments (not unlike wooden spatulas).

Even so, I will not be an exception. I've found myself a Chinese doctor, through a friend of a friend. I've started acupuncture to calm down my spleen. After the second session, the doctor, a skinny, dedicated kind of type, took up my cause. She believes she can help me beat my cancer. She calls me every other day, she tells me what to eat. I take tinctures now (they taste extremely bitter), and brew herbs out of plastic baggies that she puts together for me. I am so very grateful to her.

This next one, however, is a challenging proposition. She says willow leaf brew would be very good for me (both drink and steep feet in!), and fresh leaves would do best. Do I know of a willow tree in the neighborhood? I don't, I must admit. Calling back in no more than an hour, she has the answer—she tracked down the biggest ever weeping willow, and it is very close, between Homer and Grafton streets, by the mall and the community center. All I have to do is drive up and harvest some leaves.

So it comes to that: is my faith in the power of oriental medicine strong enough to go clip leaves off the city property willow, in the middle of a crowded public space? After a day or two of hesitation, I commit. But I am too embarrassed to ask for friends' help, so I go alone. I go late at night too, so no one would see me. The whole thing is a no small feat for the anemic, short of breath wreck that I am these days. Driving up, then getting out of the car with a grocery bag and scissors, then dragging myself to the tree. The drooping, soft, lettuce-green shoots, this year's growth, hang low, and I clip, I clip.

A sneaky sick me on the public property in the middle of the night.

Back at home, victorious, I plug in an old tape, one of my unfading favorites, an imprint from the days of youth. Space Oddity.

This is ground control to Major Tom, David Bowie sings. I make my willow brew, cool it, pour it into a tub.

I sit with my feet in a pot of willow brew, untimely pregnant, like the elderly Sarah, only with my own spleen not with Isaac.

Planet Earth is blue
And there's nothing I can do...

Here I start weeping, folding lopsidedly around my spleen-bulge: an old lady's tiny, high-pitched wail, and tears are dropping into the alternative medicine foot tub.

 

5

"July 00: Appears terminally ill Bedridden Intolerable abdominal pain from splenomegaly Oxygen dependent due to SOB at rest Daughter called to come from West Coast for last visit Rituximab given weekly for 4 weeks"

Morphine makes you sleepy and constipated, so it is supposed to be taken with a laxative. This creates a whole other predicament... which, however, ceases to capture my attention after a few more days (weeks?) of constant pain. In my position, formalities such as bowel movements are bound to lose importance.

At some point along this way I panicked (in pain and suffocating) and called 9-1-1, and now I am in the hospital. There is talk about discharging me into hospice care but it is not finalized yet. Some logistics to sort out— a special bed, commode, oxygen tanks, visiting nurse. Besides, my Daughter is terrified to be my main care provider— what if I start dying and she will not know how to make me comfortable?

At some other point there is talk of signing up for a clinical trial.

"It is phase one," my oncologist says apologetically. Meaning that the purpose of this one is only to establish that the drug in question does not kill you before your lymphoma does (he conveys it more delicately than that). My Daughter nods, hollow-faced. "But it may also help, right?" she repeats. "Yes, certainly." I sign something, she has to support my hand, and then she stares at the paper, as though my deformed/enfeebled signature looks worse than I do.

It's day, and then suddenly it's night.

"I'm here, Ma," Daughter says. "I'm right here."

"Of course you are," I say.

"Don't be afraid."

"I am not."

They say everyone is alone in the face of death. I am not alone. I am with about two thousand of us, all around me, and that's just in my country, dying of cancer tonight. I am sorry, folks. I have tried to derive a statistic that will explain at least some of us, but it is so very difficult. It is too big of a job. Too many variables—unknown, intractable. And the spleen-pain—it gets in the way. And the records —they are so fragmented... so incomplete.

"We try," they say. We mouth the words. We scrawl them on notepads kept at bedside. We tap-tap-tap them on our keyboards, with our unruly fingers. We try to complete the record—

"...I was in the other car. She did not know."

"...We were thrown out of Egypt in 1956. I was ten. Daddy did not make it to our boat."

"...Drinking scotch in Central Park, in October, 1975, he was Russian, a diplomat, a spy, his firstborn son just had a surgery to close his abdomen. A birth defect. That was when I recruited him."

"...See those scars? It's from a chain. Flesh is whiter than skin."

"...Here is a complete list of my published works."

"...And then Sam grabbed the doggy and smashed him into a tree."

"...I tried to leave those two alone, but I could not find the trail back in the dusk."

"...Everything your greed touched has turned to crap."

"...She let me put my finger there."

"...A sparrow in flight, a dipping-bouncing trajectory, just like an electron, and just as joyful of existence... "

All around me, the chatter of the dying. It's not unlike the twitter of the flock of birds settling for the night in a willow tree —you can't see them in the dusk, but you can hear their voices, and it seems that the whole tree is speaking in tongues. And so I add my voice to the chorus:

"It was a pool party. I walk to the edge of the pool and suddenly see Daughter, a four year-old at the time, sitting at the bottom, under four feet of water. She is just so calm and serious, her little face is thrust up, her eyes are open, and then she makes this all out attempt to push off the bottom, to spring to the surface. She is trying to survive, all by her little self, while her Ma is... She makes it half-way, and then she is thrashing, swallowing water, drowning—but I am already in the water, I grab her, we'll be okay... "

I know that number, too. 500 plus children, in backyard pools. Each year.

I didn't come there looking for her. I just meandered in.

Daughter says, "Ma, birds are up. Hear them? It's dawn."

"A tape recorder without a tape," I whisper.

"What?" Daughter asks. "What, Ma?"

"Life is. A tape. Recorder. No tape."

 

6

"August 00: Dramatic resolution of SOB, pulm infiltrates, abd pain, and anemia. "Partial remission" November 00: Recurrent fatigue, SOB, splenomegaly, anemia. Rituximab given weekly for 4 weeks"

I dreamed that Daughter, Daniel and I were frolicking in the snow, spinning holding hands, and chanting, cancer gone! Cancer gone! In September, I walked down a hallway after a follow up with my oncologist, down a long hallway with a sunlit window at the end, so that all the doctors, and all the nurses, and all the patients and their families ahead of me glowed with blue-white auras, and the hospital vinyl reflected the sky. I was smiling, because everything was going well with me.

In October I told Daughter that it would be okay for her not to come home for Thanksgiving. A Hawaii trip— with a bunch of friends including a prospective love-interest—of course she should go!

"You are taking what? Scuba diving classes? For Hawaii? But weren't you... I thought you did not like being underwater."

My heart starts pounding.

"Underwater? I am very comfortable underwater. You are still projecting, Ma. I was never afraid of being underwater. YOU are, but not me. You are projecting, it's the same as with jewelry. I never liked diamond set in gold, but remember how..."

And she keeps going on and on about jewelry and things, but I am not listening. She was never afraid, I keep repeating in my head.

"Ma, are you listening? For example when you come to Wallgreen's and find out that the shampoo you bought a couple of months ago and liked so much, is no longer there, and neighboring bottles have closed ranks and look at you like nothing happened —then you know you were the only one who ever bought that brand of shampoo. It is not comfortable at all being statistically insignificant, wouldn't you think? Being in a minority or in a singularity, don't you agree? Don't you agree that numbers are oppressive in more than one way?"

"I? No... that is, yes. The poker dogs."

"The what dogs?"

"Have you thought about starting your own business? With reproduction. A high-end kind, by invitation only, totally classy copies. You know you could do any art. You could finish the unfinished Salome."

There is a bit of silence at the other end. Then she says, a tad testily, "Mom, it is just not that simple. It's not like people would—"

I hastily interrupt, "At least you know that you are a gifted artist, right? And I am not projecting this time— I can barely draw stick figures, as we all know."

"Right," she says. "It's from Dad. Remember how he used to draw those comic books for me? Where I was a superchild?"

That's not where I wanted this conversation to arrive.

Still, she was never maimed with fear!

In that pool.

Not then, not after. She may not even remember any of it! After this news I really start to believe that I am out of the woods. Cancer gone!

Then in November it comes back, it closes ranks as if nothing happened, as if it was just as easy as slipping into terminal wreckage on a highway. As if it was always there, in hidden, oppressive numbers.

I go back for more therapy. Daughter is away on her Hawaiian trip, but when she comes back, I delay to tell her. Just another week or two—it won't make any difference if I get worse, but if I get better the whole episode could go unmentioned. Christmas is approaching (the Christmas frenzy, my Daughter calls the season), and I find out that I now get misty whenever I see one of those ads they run during the Holiday count-down. You know, those warm candlelight glowing—grandma in her chair— kids crawling under the tree ads.

It's snowing and crows on maple-trees in my window are screaming in their all out, jerk-your-body-forward kind of way. Like memento mori,those crows. Or rather, memento de numeri.

 

7

"March 06: Remains minimally symptomatic on no further therapy"

My physician is a very tall man in his mid thirties, and he has a whole collection of peculiar facial grimaces to employ when he speaks, especially publicly, like now. I think he used to stutter and that was how he learned to overcome the impediment —by doing those nose winks, by moving all those muscles around his jaws a trifle more than warranted by the needs of pronunciation. (It is a funny experience, to be saved by someone so young, he could be your son).

He has invited me: it was a personal postcard, he was to be giving a seminar at Dana Farber, and I fondly accepted. Now, I am sitting in the back of the auditorium, listening to him telling my story (my identity well camouflaged of course): a case report.

All of it takes seven entries on four slides and is told in less than two minutes, appropriately cursive and jargon-filled. I still do not, for the life of me, know what pulmonary WU means, but I've been on this circuit long enough to understand that SOB stands for Shortness of Breath, not Son of a Bitch. My doctor's face is a duly professional deadpan, bracing however (I know!) against the pressure of glee from the inside. Oh, I know he is proud--very proud, I am his favorite patient, his one moment they all, those hard-boiled, unspoiled with happy endings oncologists live for—a success case, a proverbial survivor.

Another minute—and we zoom out, onto the nasty, upwardly mobile curve of incidences in the US population, the curve on which I am less than a dot. And then to something with yet more clinical terms... admitting along the way that what was used on me was no silver bullet, it has helped some but failed in others, which is to say it is just another statistically promising new therapy.

It would have been easier to comprehend if it never failed. But short of that—Why me?

And then, after that, why me?

How did I manage to ... my dear, dear dead 40 percent, the other part of the 60 percent five-year survival rate! It was like we were standing in a battlefield awaiting a crapshoot of deadly ammunition, and it commenced. One keeps standing, another lies on the ground torn to pieces. Oh, to hell with those overworked metaphors! What I am trying to say, what I am grappling with, is this age-old urge of a human being to anthropomorphize statistics, to comprehend the rift between a multitude and a singularity, between us as a flock, this padding the odds both for the hunter and for the hunted, and me as a unique story, reams of irreproducible memories, lightning bolt flashes, such as seeing your daughter's calm and determined little face under four feet of water, and then learning decades later that she was not afraid, not at all. Where is it coming from? Why do we keep on asking: why me? How did I deserve it? What have I done?

What have I not done?

That undiscovered statistic, the one that explains me and others, perhaps it still exists. But just as likely, it doesn't. I have read somewhere that our cancer is simply a price we as a species pay for our longevity. In other words, we can grow cancer because we can watch our grandchildren grow.

As a human, I am infuriated by this lousy deal, oh so much! But as a statistician... it makes sense to me.

I do not remember what I've been doing these five years. I went to work. I paid my medical bills. Volunteered for patients, went to support groups. Told my story over and over again, so it would get expunged out of me by transforming into words that grow neutral through repetition. Said all these things every one of us says under the same circumstances (... Consider all the good things that come out of it—a deeper understanding of life—to those in my position; and, never lose hope—survival is possible— to those in worse shape than I).

Sometimes, I am more afraid than when I was in the middle of it. It makes me quite a hypochondriac (A woman in my group says: once a cancer, always a cancer). I have a habit now, a nightly compulsion when I trace the bulge and cinch of my abdomen bottom to top with the tips of my fingers—I am making sure the left side is the same size as the right side. Nor do I ever fail to notice a willow tree, wherever I go. I have a feeling I am running out of time to do something, but I still have not gone to Tibet, or to that sacred city deep in India, where frail and wistful come to heal or to die on chalk-white stone slabs descending to the river. Jeez, I haven't even replaced that carpet in my condo. But I had a dream yesterday night, a dream that I am in my Karmen Ghia, breezing down a highway somewhere in Wyoming, ten hours without seeing a single car around, and happy as... as that sparrow, who is just like an electron, and just as joyful of existence!

And if so... go on, soul, my tremulous and daring, anima typicalis et singularis—let us live a bit more. Let us climb into our old Honda and drive across the country to see our daughter; we'll sit for her, she would not mind painting an Old girl with a pearl earring for once, or even maybe, finally, a Salome's dance, with her own Ma tiptoeing across that palace floor! Or holding a staff for the king, or standing at the foot of the throne as an old servant hag! But we will finish it, damn it, there'll be a finished Salome, oil-painted, ever luring and shimmering, down to the deepest well of time, and better than Moreau's piece!

Let us go then. And now, my quirky little genie, you can zoom out, soar, until all that you see is more like a panorama of us all, 297,559,080 animalculi doing our Brownian motion, making heat and buzz in our endearing, obnoxious manner—

and then more like a map on which living carpet my tiny lollipop (if you can still discern) crawls microscopically but determinedly East to West—

and then farther up, up, until all of it is just boundless—sun-saturated—blue.

 

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