This Yom Kippur marked six years to the day since I was diagnosed with leukemia.
As dawn broke that morning in 2012, I was wasting away. I’d had strep throat for almost a month and couldn’t swallow much food. My tonsils were white with infection. Down at the other end, I could hold nothing in. I felt frail, had rippling spots in my vision, and for several days had been suffering night sweats and chills. My brain was fuzzy.
The antibiotics I’d been prescribed weren’t working. Clearly, I was sick. I finally accepted that eating yogurt, drinking chicken soup and swallowing herbal pills were not going to cut it, just as the Western meds had not.
On Yom Kippur morning, I called my friend to drive me to the hospital. When I opened my apartment door she said, “You look like shit.” (God loves true friends.) During the ride, she pulled over so I could puke out the open door.
I lay for several hours on a cot in a private ER room at Kaiser in Oakland. The nurses had put in an IV of saline and I was feeling remarkably better. Maybe it was just extreme dehydration?
Near midnight, a doctor walked into my room. He rolled the tan pleather-covered stool over to my cot and sat down beside me.
“You do have strep throat. You also have leukemia.”
That night, the sun set on Yom Kippur, sealing us all into — or out of — the Book of Life for the coming year. This man told me I now faced death.
He told me a few more things, like I wouldn’t be going home that night. Like the next day they’d take me to surgery to insert a “port” in my chest. Like the kind of chemo they needed to give me couldn’t be fed through my paltry extremity veins; it had to be dumped directly into my heart.
Two days later, the radioactive liquid that nurses and doctors would deliver wearing thick rubber gloves and a yellow Hazmat suit would begin pouring into me.
I heard one of my oncologists tell me my cancer had a 20 percent mortality rate. Later I discovered that he’d actually said I had a 20 percent survival rate.
I’d spend 10 of the next 24 weeks in a hospital room. Because of the type of cancer and treatment I’d receive, I needed to be hospitalized for a full week for each infusion of chemo; after the first round I was hospitalized for an entire month.
I marked my 31st birthday in a hospital gown.
Then … I began to figure it out, if there was such a thing.
First, I started writing again in my daily blog. I asked one of my best friends to post what had happened to me on Facebook, and to ask people to come visit me. My family lived on the East Coast and I was not going to go through this madness alone.
And visit they did.
The nurses told me that they’d never seen someone with so many visitors. There was not even one day that I spent without a visitor to my hospital room.
There were friends I hadn’t seen in several years since moving from San Francisco to Oakland. There were folks who didn’t know me directly, but had heard of my call and came, in droves, to sit with me, laugh with me, read to me, cry with me.
That first week, a petite woman I knew only by sight came tottering into my room laden with an enormous, fuzzy blanket because I’d told her friend that the hospital blankets were threadbare and depressing. I’d lose 25 pounds that first month. I was cold.
Slowly, the “figuring it out” thing looked like: visitors (but also a sign on the door that read, “Do not disturb — Meditating”), blogging, a subscription to Netflix for the first time, my first smartphone so I could check the Kaiser app, a clock radio tuned to the 24-hour Christmas music station as hospitals are a cheerless place, markers and notepads, get-well cards from the whole country taped over the staid hospital paintings, a garland of dried flowers as live ones weren’t permitted because of my vulnerability to infection, earplugs, an eye mask, many warm hats, normal street clothes instead of a hospital gown as long as they could access the port in my chest.
When I felt able, I walked around the glassed-in circumference of the floor trailing the IV stand I’d named “Fred” because he was my dance partner. I had towels and soap from home so I didn’t feel like an inmate (I still can’t abide the scent of Kaiser hand soap). When my chemo brain permitted it, I had books to read, comedy DVDs to watch, and a yoga mat so I could stretch my bedridden body on the cold, germy, linoleum floor.
Visitors would tell me how brave I was, how courageous. That they’d read my blog and couldn’t believe how strong I was being.
At the time, it did not feel like bravery. Bravery involves a decision, something you’ve chosen to do. This did not feel to me like a choice — it felt natural, like breathing, like Of Course I would reach out, accept help, eat chocolate-chip banana bread. Of Course I would make brand-new friends. Of Course I would laugh. Of Course I would rail. Of Course I would upset doctors’ orders and go the hell home when it was marginally safe to do so at the end of my infusion weeks.
OF F*CKING COURSE I would dispel that darkness back from whence it came.
Come on, man, who do you think I am?
Well. I’ll tell you. I was not a woman who would have predicted she’d perform with grace under pressure. But I am also not surprised by it.
The forge within which this graced power was found was both existent and new. The iron and lace with which I juggled trauma daily and hourly was both inherent and gifted. The ocean of love that I sailed atop was both revealed and materialized.
What makes a man? Is it the resident components of one’s constitution, or a sum that is worlds greater than its parts?
What does the Book of Life record: our past or our future self?
I must trumpet the acres of new growth and discovery that have germinated from this hardship. But, too, I must acknowledge the seeds, roots and redwoods of faith and fortitude that were already existent.
I am, at present, who I always and ever was, and I am, at present, who I never imagined I could become.