cancer and a hurricane

‘Rainstorm Over the Sea’ by John Constable

(As I write this, Tropical Storm Gordon is rolling over our area- yay, Florida!)

Okay, so one year ago-  cancer and a hurricane. All in the same week! Good times.

As far as Tom’s cancer… you think when you get that kind of news it kind of knocks you over, and it does, but you’re so focused on addressing it medically that you kind of force your focus on that. I can’t speak for Tom personally, and I won’t because this was absolutely *his* experience and his agony and his everything.

Diagnosis in itself was a very long, drawn out process. Not because the doctors weren’t doing it as quickly as they could, but because the doctors know it’s cancer from the first round of tests but still need to send you for the next series of tests to absolutely confirm it. So it’s not like one day Tom’s living his life as normal and the next day it’s cancer diagnosis. It was kind of a few months building up to it. All you can do is hang in there while that’s happening, but you can’t escape it- it’s at the peripheral of everything you do and think and feel and it’s sort of acts as this weird measuring stick.

When the diagnosis came, it was terrible but it was also a relief – one thing that could have happened was the doctors saying “this looks suspicious but nothing conclusive so we’ll come back in 6 months and retest all over” and Tom would have felt like he was sitting on a time bomb. He wanted it out, and he was going to be able to get it out.

Surgery was scheduled and happened, but then there were complications- infection from them not bandaging one of the the incision sites (!!!! I could speak volumes about this, and I was reeling when I saw they hadn’t done that, but … whatever). Tom came home and then a few hours later was in the emergency room with a 104 fever.

As he was hospitalized and recovering from said complications, Hurricane Irma showed up on the map. It was not some storm front lingering off Africa and *maybe* hitting us. It charged up into this big, strong, intense, fast moving hurricane that was absolutely going to come our way within the week. The question was whether it was going to hit directly or not.

Weather Channel image

(I wrote a whole series of posts on this experience, they are here.)

So Tom’s back in the hospital, doctors don’t know yet it’s infection, and my parents start FREAKING OUT about the hurricane. My parents aren’t usually here for summers and Tom and I have weathered a ton of these storms and storm warnings by ourselves, and most of the time they either dissipate or turn, plus CANCER SURGERY so we couldn’t do anything about it but wait until we get more concrete new on where the storm was headed. I just didn’t have the energy to freak out about it because whether or not I broke down over Irma wasn’t going to influence whether or not it hit us. I think in that moment more than anything was where all my Buddhism practice came through. Normally storms freak me out, but I knew I had no control so I just kind of let go and went moment to moment. My parents were furious with me for that, but I don’t see how me not like digging a hole in the ground and hiding in fear would help anything- I had Tom in the hospital, Grace home with me (her dad was in the hospital with cancer, a storm might be coming- I had to keep my shit for her sake) and I just wasn’t going to lose my head.

I’ll be honest- a part of me was absolutely convinced Hurricane Irma was going to turn because A) that’s what 95% of hurricanes do in Florida, and b) cancer. Seriously. But as soon as it was clear there wasn’t going to be a turn, I focused more.

Tom comes home mid-week, and we can’t evacuate because he’s at risk for blood clots and infection, so no long car rides, and the roads are jammed with people trying to leave the state. So we pack up as much as we can, try and secure the rest, we head for shelter and prepare for the worst.

So, three days after Tom came home from the hospital and is supposed to be on bedrest, Irma hits our island.

Let’s be honest- we were *so* fucking lucky that there was not significant damage. I will not gloss over that, not ever.  The storm was supposed to wipe the island I live on off the map, destroy everything on it, so the fact that I am typing this on the same computer in my house almost a year later is NOT lost on me.

Everyone thinks that when I say that it’s an exaggeration, but Florida is a peninsula and not some solid block of land- the influence of things like excess water from rain and tidal surge from storms can actually make or break significant parts of the state. It’s not very comforting that our state government has literally BANNED any mention possible catastrophe in state communication. Florida is state that is driven on tourist dollars, so they won’t let the idea that it could all be washed away at any point be entertained. They want people to come down here and spend money, to buy land and houses and pay their taxes. But that’s the current emphasis of our government, all over the country.

Image result for florida global warming
Florida’s future – Image from Popular Science


Marco Island from above


And Marco Island is just a a tiny barrier island- something like 6 square mile of land that is off the southwest coast of the state- kind of like a little square boat in the Gulf of Mexico. This isn’t some bedrock, stocky, strong large island like the UK or something- this is a little tiny speck of land with water throughout. Basically the island is just a big marina at this point- tiny fingers of land with boats tethered to it.

So, yeah, if Hurricane Irma had been as intense as they predicted, that would have been that. But the island made it through. There was lots of damage, recovery is still happening, but most people were able to return to their houses after the storm and attend to repairs. When you think about what Irma did to other islands before it go to us, and what Hurricane Maria did to Puerto Rico… it just could have been so much worse.

But it was traumatic. It was hard. It was so scary. Not in this intense, jump scare horror movie way, but just this very long, drawn-out sense of “I’m in unchartered territory in so many ways”. The idea of loss was too much.

When you’re in the midst of it all your life goes kind of into tunnel vision because there’s nothing you can do and you just focus on this minutes and then this minute and then this minute. You focus on things like being sheltered from the storm, things like your family is together in one room things like the pets are okay.

So anyway, the hurricane passed and then there was unnecessary, absolutely bullshit family drama (I’m still pissed about that, but that might take some time…) and then Tom, Gracie, and I had the week without power.

We got ourselves together. We cleaned up from the storm. We started repairs, working our way back. Tom recovered from surgery and his diagnosis. Grace went back to school.

Then P.T. (one of our birdies) died. Then Knuckles (my parents’ cat, who we adored) died.

A few months ago Herbie (one of our other birdies) got diagnosed with liver disease, and then last week Chester (one of our cats) got diagnosed with diabetes.

Today it’s a Tropical Storm (not too worried about anything but the possible flooding, and the loss of power- I think when they repaired from Hurricane Irma they did a bit of patch job and the infrastructure is badly damaged and going to be repaired over time, so every time we have a storm I wonder if that might take it out.) Tomorrow, … who knows?

… just a lot to process. But that’s life. That’s how life works. 

And shit has happened before, and I bounced back. And in the months a while after the cancer surgery/hurricane I was telling myself “this is all just a lot of stuff to deal with in a very short time, so of course you’re going to take a while to feel okay. As long as you are not struggling to get out of bed or take care of yourself, you’re okay.”

Everything just feels tender right now.

I think that a lot of the stuff I held back during the cancer and hurricane surfaced in the last few months. And then stuff from my childhood surfaced unexpectedly with it. I had a stable family life, but medical stuff and peer stuff and self-identity stuff was rough and most of it got crammed way down inside me. I think that right now if a kid was born with Spina Bifida, talk therpay would absolutely be included in the treatment plan, so just the kid has a safe place they can go to express what’s going on and what they are feeling and their fears. In the late 70’s, early 80’s, there was none of that. I finally started seeing someone when I was 17, but there was so much going on at 17 that we didn’t work much on childhood things and medical trauma from the past. Plus, there was this whole ethos of “being strong”. You just got through whatever you had to get through, however much pain, however much bullying, however marginalized you felt because it was seen as a *blessing* that you got to be in the game so much that you could feel those things.

I can’t count the times my doctors and my parents told me “don’t complain because you are lucky, it could have been so much worse.” If a doctor ever told Grace that, I’d be tempted to punch that doctor in the face. If a kid is in pain or uncomfortable, there’s no guilting or shaming that away. But it was different then- the experts told you the best thing for health-challenged and disabled kids was to make them strong and resilient.

Now it’s different-  the whole Cult of Optimism/Strength is starting to be dismantled, scientifically. Neuroscience is starting to prove that being strong and resilient no matter what is not the way the brain is designed to recover from stressful events. So I’m making up for lost time, and letting myself have space to do that.

photo via Bored Panda

I think it’s good for me, in a way, because as this stuff comes up and unpacks itself, I finally have a chance to sort of look at a lot of it with some perspective and resolve it and take a step forward. But it’s a very challenging and draining process. My identity is changing because of it. And while it’s this weird kind of abyss opening up, it’s *so* liberating. I think that’s why it’s so intense, because I’m starting to finally feel some sense of autonomy for my own life, and I’m discovering what I REALLY want (clue: it’s NOT living in Florida, but that’s part of the 5-6 year plan).

And I’m kind of going way back to when I feel I lost myself at every stage and picking up the pieces a little bit and combining them with what I know and feel right now, so it’s a little bit like this weird emotional alchemy. There’s art, there’s my little family and my pets, there’s writing, there’s psychology and science, there’s spirituality, there’s this weird obsession I have with trees all of the sudden (which is not so sudden at all because I did my Ap Art focus on trees in high school, even though I didn’t really *think* I had an affinity for them? I love those sorts of weird connections that pop up…), there’s new ideas and options and possibilities for the future and there’s some old crap kicking around in my emotional storehouse I need to excise, as well.

It’s not an easy process, but it’s still a process. I feel like I’ve done a lot of these transitions in my life, but this one is more involved and I think I’m more invested. I’m not willing to drop myself anymore because it’s just easier to “go with the flow”.

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