Sunday, April 08, 2012

In all thy works be mindful of thy last end

Tomorrow is a big day. Big changes are afoot.

Andrea has been away for four months in Australia, visiting family and running painting workshops. This time exactly coincided with the end of cancer for me. I had surgery at the end of December and have been convalescing since then.

A few weeks ago, I started a deliberate diet and exercise programme that I put together with the explicit purpose of building up my strength as quickly as possible to be ready for the next stage. Some time in February, I got back to work, more or less on the full pre-cancer schedule - albeit almost completely from home, with very little goings-out - and that has been going very well. I've been able to keep up well with what needs to be done, adding a little more every week. But now I need to move on, start getting more back into life in the outside world. The time has come for phase two.

And tomorrow is the day.

When I was diagnosed, one of the things that most filled me with fear was the idea that if I died, I would have left so many things undone, and so many necessary changes un-accomplished. Like everyone else, I suppose, I had a long list of "some-days". Some day, I would get around to doing my art classes more seriously, practicing every day. Some day, I would start picking up my Breviary and taking my prayer life more seriously. Some day, I would start taking my language study more seriously. Some day, any day now, I would get serious about my health and pay more careful attention to what I ate, and how much exercise I got. Some day I would go back to making all the clothes I've had swimming around in my head. Some day I would start taking advantage of living in Italy and go see stuff more often, get to know more people, get more into living here.

Some day I would do as much as I could, rather than as little as I could get away with.

Like everyone, I figured I could leave all this to some indefinite point in the future. I assumed that I would be living, if not forever, then very nearly so; at least, indefinitely and for a really long time. So the list languished, and there it might have remained if not for cancer, when suddenly it started to dawn on me that I might never get to do any of it. And if nothing else, there was going to be a long time when none of it was possible. It's one thing to procrastinate; entirely another to live with restrictions and disability.

The one thing that the last year has successfully drilled into my lazy head is that I'm not going to live forever. I don't have any idea if I will live a long or a short time, but either way, I know without a doubt that there is now a finite amount of time in which to accomplish the things I hope to accomplish, large and small.

It came home to me that if cancer was going to take me, there were a whole passel of things that absolutely had to be done, and a much larger list of things I really want to get done, none of which were now going to happen. I was weighted down with a terrible sense of failure and dread that this was all my life was going to amount to.

Now of course, I realise that a good part of this was the result of depressive thought patterns. I'm a big believer in the cognitive behaviour model of depression, that we have a set of habitual thoughts that drive down our mood and self-image. These thoughts are not an accurate reflection of The Real, and I have worked for many years, with admittedly limited success, to adjust my thinking, to force myself to accept what is actually real, and not the skewed ideas my Evil Brain comes up with to make me miserable.

But of course, the sense that I had not done enough with myself, had not accomplished a number of specific tasks, was real. There are certainly a lot of things I want to do, and one of the gifts that has come from the cancer experience is that I've learned what things are and are not important to me.

In all of this, it came clear to me how important the art is. I started taking lessons two years ago, and in the first year, I wasted much time. I didn't practice as much as I could have, and did not keep my class schedule steady. Took lots of breaks, skipped portions of time. I had started when I was going through a difficult period, and I did it mostly because it made me feel better. Those three-hour sessions of quiet and peace in the studio calmed and focused me like nothing else ever has. The lesssons made it possible to keep working steadily, even under terrible emotional and mental stress, and kept my life pointed forward and outward, away from myself and my unhappiness, in a way that I think nothing else could have.

But it was not until the diagnosis that I realised I very much wanted a future in painting. It was not until that possible future looked as though it might be closed that I started understanding how much I wanted it. I don't know how long it will take. I don't have any idea at this stage whether I will be able to succeed as an artist, even if I do have the time. But the idea that I could have the chance to try taken away filled me with grief. Much more than I had expected.

When you're having terrifying and debilitating medical treatments, with an uncertain outcome and when your life is in the balance, you tend to think a lot of Big Thoughts. And one of the biggest was what I was going to do if the treatment was successful. I was aware all along that even if the cancer was defeated this time, there was always a chance that it would return. So when it was finally over, when I got the call in January, and the confirmation in March, that there was no more cancer, I was still acutely aware that the clock is ticking.

One of the big things in Catholic spiritual writing is the notion of the Memento Mori. The words the priest says (or used to say) over you when you are getting ashed on Ash Wednessay: "Remember man that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return." The great spiritual writers of the Church have always known that it is very harmful to forget that time is limited. There really isn't a Some Day. There's only a This Day.

A few weeks before the diagnosis, way back in January 2011 while I was starting to have truly alarming symptoms but before I had said anything to anyone, I drew a little sketch of a skull, the skull that appears in Caravaggio's painting of St. Jerome that hangs in the Borghese Palace. And as I was drawing it, the thought came to me, "Stay alive until you die. Don't die until you're dead."

These thoughts coalesced into a plan. Everyone with a serious illness does this. We make a Big Plan for what we're going to do, the way we are going to live after successful treatment. When health returns, we are going to live the way we were always supposed to, not looking back, but making as much as possible of the here and now. I suppose, though absolutely everyone goes through some variation on this theme, that a lot of people let it slide. They go back to the patterns that have governed them their whole lives. It's human nature.

But I'm a Catholic, and I have aspirations to be a serious one, and one of the big things that Catholicism teaches is that with a combination of will and grace, fallen human nature can be overcome. We can rise above our previous selves.

I worked on my plan for months. All through chemo and surgery. All through the arduous recovery periods. And through all the time when we didn't know what the outcome of it all was going to be. In fact, I made two plans. Plan A for a successful outcome, and Plan B for continued cancer. There were times, funnily enough more often after I knew it was over, when I looked upon Plan A with a certain amount of dread. I know myself only too well and I know what the obstacles are that I now am obliged by being alive to overcome. Still, those obstacles were there all along, and there is not now anything more to do than there was before cancer. It's just that now, I feel much more keenly that I want to try.

Phase one of Plan A was simple recovery. Eating and sleeping and taking tests to see how my body was going to be after treatment, to get an idea how long it was going to take, how much energy I could expend each day, what tasks were possible, and how much they were going to cost the next day. Judging limits and building up as much as possible within those limits, then setting the goal posts a little further back. I gave myself until Easter, because Andrea was coming back then.

I'm keeping careful track of what food I eat. After several years of fiddling about, I've finally become serious about entirely cutting out sugar and grains (insulin and blood sugar problems galore all my adult life, but did I think I needed to do something right now? Noooo!) and starting an exercise regimen designed to ward off osteoporosis, the dreaded side effect of surgical menopause.

Phase two starts tomorrow. A reorganisation of my days to take the best possible advantage of time every day. Andrea has agreed to let me start taking classes every day, five days a week. Mondays I'm booked for a full day, two classes with a one hour break for lunch, from ten am to five pm. Tuesday to Friday, I'm in class in the mornings and working in the afternoon, either at home or at the office, and then working an extra day on Saturday. Work has kindly allowed me to shift my work week over one day, to go Tuesday to Saturday. We've been needing someone to monitor the world on Saturdays, so this will work out well for LSN too.

Rest and recovery time is over. Time to get back into life, full time. It's like a scientific experiment. Can I use my will and intellect, and the grace available to me in my current state in life, to put myself back together and live a complete, completely human, life?

We'll see.


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