Yesterday, I laundered my bed linens. I aired the mattress, freshened the duvet, fluffed the pillows. I swept up the dog hair, knocked back the cobwebs and rearranged the disarranged closet. It felt good. I have been in bed with a cold for over a week now. Everything was looking tired and worn and covered in tissues and cough drop wrappers.
Doing the laundry isn’t a noteworthy thing. Saturdays are when grown-ups put fresh sheets on the bed. I never gave it much thought.
But it occurred to me, as my outstretched arms held the billowing sheets, it was kind of a big deal. All of that billowing and stretching and lifting and tugging, I haven’t always been able to do it.
Two years ago, on Valentine’s Day, I had a bi-lateral mastectomy with partial reconstruction. That is a fancy way of saying a team of surgeons removed both of my breasts and put little bags of solution in as placeholders. It was a rough surgery. It was an even rougher recovery.
No, rough isn’t the right word. Harrowing. Harrowing is closer to the truth. There were complications. There were more surgeries. For a long time, I couldn’t use my left arm for any kind of weight-bearing work, of any kind, not even to lift a carton of milk. I could not change the sheets on my bed.
I have spent a lot of time in this bed in the last two and a half years. Times when I laid in this bed because it was all I could. Times when I laid here because it was closest to the bathroom. Times when I laid here because I couldn’t see any sense to the world and so why not take to my bed. And times when my house felt so forlorn and empty, I couldn’t face it.
The thing about cancer is, it isn’t one big bad thing that happens to you one time. It keeps happening. Big things happen, like having my breasts removed, but little things happen too, like not being able to open jars or my eyebrows growing back weird, which turn out to be not such little things when you add them all up.
Every day in a million ways large and small, I am reminded that cancer has happened. It is happening. Cancer is present tense, not past. I dream about cancer. I have nightmares about cancer. Some mornings I awake and will lie in bed for hours, eyes half-closed, in a futile attempt to delay reality just that much longer.
For the minute my feet hit the floor, cancer is real. My hands and feet ache and complain and are clumsy. My hearing is bad. Cognition impaired. Even the chemistry of taste has been altered. Pill bottles line the bathroom counter, each signifying some grave malady I have acquired or has been exacerbated, representing a dozen little side trips off the Cancer Mainline, next terminal is Terminal.
It isn’t just me. Another shitty thing about cancer is it doesn’t happen only to the patient. I wasn’t the only one put through the wringer. My family, my friends, all the people who love me and care about me and who cared for me, they took body blows and kidney punches.
People talk to me about a sense of overwhelming helplessness, watching me go through each stage of treatment, only guessing at how difficult it all was and not being able to make it go away, to not make it hurt. My poor parents, I don’t know how they stood it, how they stand it now. And I can not contemplate what my cancer has wrought in my daughter. Everyone knows I haven’t seen the last of bad days. And no one is going to talk about it until they have to.
People cooked and delivered meals to me and apologized for not being able to do more. Care packages came from far away friends with apologetic notes. I couldn’t make them understand that what they did meant everything. Wild rice chicken casseroles and a yard mowed and a box of cookies in the the mailbox meant the world. It made the difficult days and the long, long nights so much easier to bear.
This February, I am reminded of how far I have come. I am reminded of the struggle I put up to stay alive. I am reminded of all the loving kindness in the world. It invites me in, envelopes, comforts me, warms me, like my fresh flannel sheets and my warm bed.