This is a story in 5 parts. Click here to see all 5 parts.
Part 4: Is There a Passport Back to Normal Life?
The pandemic had been going for about a year. Confined to our Brooklyn neighborhood, we’d become dependent on news reports, social media, and a handful of personal contacts for information about the world—for human companionship and a sense of the real. These were dysfunctional connections, for sure: we knew we were being constantly manipulated. Everyone seemed to be parroting one party line or another, and they wanted to make sure we were on the bandwagon too. Feeling overwhelmed by the pandemic and the flood of news and propaganda, I’d begun tuning out the claims and demands. Vaccines were finally rolling out, and we hoped the shots would bring the emergency to an end.
Robin kept on top of things, making the rounds of our local pharmacies, gathering the latest information. We got our shots as soon as we could. I thought of framing my vax card, like a college diploma, but I would be needing it for other things. It was a passport back to normal life, right?
Then—before we’d had a chance to go anywhere; before I’d even used the card—a new emergency began. Like many people, I’d delayed regular medical screenings during the pandemic. Many screening centers were closed; in any case, a doctor’s office was the last place I’d wanted to go. Now, however, I had a breast lump, and the lump seemed to be growing.
The mammography center at the nearby hospital had just re-opened. At least my timing was good. On the other hand, in order to schedule a screening I would need a referral, but my family doctor could no longer be reached. Nothing was as it had been before the pandemic, or so it seemed. We asked around and found a well-regarded primary care doctor in the neighborhood, a woman born and trained in Russia, who took my call herself and offered to see me in a couple of weeks. Notwithstanding my sense of urgency, again the timing was good. I’d just had my second vaccine, and the recommended lapse of time between the vaccine and a mammogram was six weeks. I would be waiting that long for the screening in any case.
A second pandemic spring had come, and with it some promise of a post-pandemic summer. I had resumed going to the gym, where I struggled to break free of my lethargy and get my stodgy body moving again. Local restaurants had opened up, offering outdoor dining, including the frisson of seeing other unmasked diners. We’d been grounded for a year, cut off from nearly everyone, hardly leaving the neighborhood, but we prayed that would be changing at last.
One rainy evening, as soggy April blossoms fell from the trees, I walked a few blocks to the doctor’s office. I had an ominous feeling—there was something abnormal in appearing for an annual checkup just then, as the pandemic dragged on. The doctor sensed the strangeness too. A hard-working woman with a firm but sympathetic manner, she asked me bluntly, “Why are you here?” For a year she’d been dealing with the ongoing emergency; no one came to her anymore unless they were facing a zero hour. Although she seemed unalarmed by the lump I’d found, she gave me a referral. I was long overdue for my annual screening.
For months I’d heard ambulances converging on the nearby hospital. Now I would be going there myself, pandemic be damned.
When I got home from the doctor’s office, Robin was out running errands—her way of dealing with stress. I lay on the rug, feeling the twilight fade around me. Ariel came over and, as a sign of playful interest, began gnawing gently on my hair. She thought we were doing yoga.
The screenings dragged on through the spring and summer. The mammogram yielded abnormal results and was followed by an ultrasound scan, also abnormal, and finally a biopsy. Each stage of testing was agonizingly slow, due to delays in non-emergency care following a pause during the early pandemic. Robin accompanied me to the screenings and kept reassuring me that the lump was nothing; I refused to argue the case, though I could tell something was wrong. I hung in fear and doubt from March through mid-July.
Then one morning, I got a call from the Russian doctor. “I have your biopsy. There is some bad news and some good news,” she told me calmly. “You have cancer, but it’s the good cancer.”
The good cancer?
“Early stage, slow-growing kind,” she elaborated, adding some technical information that I had trouble following. “You must have surgery. I can refer you to a very good surgeon. Go soon.”
As Robin watched from the couch, I struggled to grasp the doctor’s terminology and level of urgency. Pressing the phone to my ear, I asked, “Should I get a second opinion?”
“Your case is not so complicated. However, if you want another referral, I can give you. But you must go for surgery soon.”
We hung up. Soon—I must act soon.
The pandemic had been overwhelming, mind-boggling in its implications—and very boring. I’d never felt such an agony of numbness. I’d been sleeping for a year: cancer was tearing at my dreaming self, roughing me awake in a body and a world that gave sudden focus to my feelings of confinement and despair—my free-floating angst.
Several people I’d known had passed away during the pandemic. Cancer got most of them. Now it seemed that death was coming for me.
The surgeon recommended by my doctor had terrific training, but she was young. We wondered if she would be good enough, even for my seemingly simple case. In fact, we wondered if there was such a thing—if any cancer case could be simple. After all, I had not pulled a muscle or caught a common cold. And so, as we followed up on the referral, we assumed we’d end up choosing another surgeon, someone from one of the city’s world-famous cancer clinics.
Big unknowns were keeping me awake. Soon enough the cancer would spread to other organs of my body—maybe it already had. I’d begun worrying about about the lump in March; it was nearly August. Damn good thing it was slow-growing.
Ariel was sleeping by my feet. In the early mornings she would wake me by walking on my pillow, purring and chewing on my hair, tending me. She was no longer young, but I began to imagine her outlasting me.
We researched and made calls. I spent hours online reading about cancer, trying to game my case. Pressed by a growing sense of urgency, we chose to go with the young surgeon and got a date for surgery—September 1, a long five weeks away. So much for emergency cancer care; so much for summer plans.
As we watched Olympic track and beach volleyball, I wondered if the pandemic delays would kill me.
* * *
Every passing day posed the danger of the cancer spreading. Beyond that, I had to guard very carefully against exposure to the fast-mutating pandemic virus. Although I’d been double vaccinated, the risks were grave: if I got covid before September 1, the surgery would be further delayed and the cancer could escape containment and begin overrunning my body. In that case, I would need chemotherapy, or maybe a spot in Prospect Park’s mysterious Quaker cemetery—though I was no Quaker, I’d seen it years before and remembered the tangled trees and homey plots. By mid-August, fearing any further complications, I’d stopped going to the gym, one of the few normal outings I’d been able to resume. The gym offered an odd camaraderie for the daring few who were willing to go; we wore masks, of course. Giving it up again in summer was no great problem—the park was pleasant, and I enjoyed the outdoors. But the pandemic’s stranglehold was depressing and seemingly never-ending.
Mostly I stayed home with the cat, who was showing signs of clinging. She’d begun following me from room to room, rubbing on my legs, unwilling to lose sight of me. She was not herself; and I assumed she could sense something was wrong with me. Meanwhile, Robin ran errands to keep herself sane. I passed my days reading books and following events in Afghanistan, where the US withdrawal was nearing its ghastly conclusion. For the moment I’d given up contemplating a new writing project—nothing had a through-line anymore. My ideas had been upended by cancer.
The stars were aligning; doom hung in the air. Through the dog days of late August, as the day of surgery approached, omens appeared. Were the omens good or bad?
I contemplated them and saw a world in flames. The pandemic was spinning out ever-more contagious mutations. Wildfires were destroying vast acreage throughout the western states. And in Afghanistan, American forces were giving up a twenty-year war, and the Afghan government was collapsing, abandoning the country’s women to near-enslavement under the Taliban. As the US rushed to complete the evacuation from Kabul by August 30, Taliban fighters were celebrating and Islamic State was on the move. News reports and official pronouncements were full of specious claims regarding the “new” Taliban, but nothing had changed since they’d overrun the country back in the ’90s.
Meanwhile, Hurricane Ida was flooding the Louisiana coast and heading for the Northeast. The hurricane was due to reach the New York area on September 1, the day of my surgery. Whether it would come howling in just before, during, or soon after the procedure was another fast-mutating element—another wallop from nature’s touch-and-go improv. Early flooding would mean delay, a very bad omen.
My surgery was scheduled for nine o’clock in the morning at the local hospital. During those hours the angel of death would pass over—would struggle with me. I was counting on the surgeon and her team helping me through, regardless of weather.
When Robin and I awoke in the early morning, the clouds were heavy and low—less ominous than they’d been during Sandy; less gusting—and the ground was dry. My ordeal would be underway before flooding made the streets impassible. So far, so good: the timing was proving to be sheer good luck.
Ariel was spooked by our early morning hurry. During our preparations she hung back nervously, then lunged for the door when she saw us leaving. I struggled to block her from following us onto the landing.
We walked through the morning streets: the pandemic and the storm had cleared them of passersby. Reaching the hospital, we put on masks and passed through covid screening as though boarding Noah’s ark—a deluge approaching. The winds were beginning to gust. I wondered if we’d get out before the flood began—or if I’d be stranded overnight.
Nurses came by my room. There was prepping, delay. Finally the surgeon came by; she’d already done one procedure that morning. Then they wheeled me to a high-tech operating room whose glaring lights eliminated the shadows. The team closed around me, as someone strapped my arms to the table.
When I emerged from surgery, I was feeling stunned and loopy—barely able to speak. Robin was in the room; soon a nurse came by. So far the storm was holding off. As soon as we could leave, Robin called a cab and got me home just before the deluge began. More good luck.
Ariel was waiting by the door. Aware that something was wrong, she ran to sniff my pant leg for clues to where we’d been. My wound was sore; when I lay down, I could barely move to get comfortable. Robin adjusted the bedding, brought another pillow—but I was in agony. As though in sympathy, Ariel climbed on the bed to keep me company—or maybe to protect me. Choosing a place by my legs, she sat facing the room, ready to defend our turf, our house in the storm. She was the watchman; she guarded me as feral cats guard family, keeping danger away.
By evening, the city was flooding. It would be days before we knew if the cancer had spread.
* * *
The surgery left me feeling wounded. On the street, I found myself flinching at cars and passersby, even when they were too far away to be a danger to me. I walked slowly; my balance was wobbly. I could barely move my dominant left arm, even to brush my teeth. Showering was a challenge; and so, in the early September heat, the stench of sweat clung to me everywhere I went. My body was a fallen angel, trailing clouds of some funky-smelling, has-been glory.
A week later, the lab coughed up its reading of my specimens: the storm had come and gone; I was free of cancer. During a follow-up exam, the surgeon confirmed the good news and urged me to go out and enjoy myself. Then the oncologist—any cancer team’s soothsayer—handed me a graph showing my chances of remaining cancer-free. According to the averages, the chances were very good—as high as 97%. But these were merely averages. It was as if I’d consulted the Delphic oracle only to hear her jabber demographics and percentages.
The wanton gods were done with me for now; like a mosquito with a damaged wing, I would live.
Yet cancer can always have another phase; it’s never completely over. The doctors were determined to destroy any stray cancer cells, so regardless of the good news, I was soon going for several weeks of radiation therapy in a department housed on the basement level of the hospital. Every morning just before eight o’clock, I rode the elevator to the basement, changed into a hospital gown, and caught a few minutes of the morning news on the waiting room TV before the technicians called me in. They would arrange my body face-down on the table, as though handling a slab of meat, and load me into the high-beam machine. I could hear whirring and adjustments as the beam honed in on me. In the beginning, I felt claustrophobic and could barely get through the session. Like a feral animal, I wanted to flee into the landscape and never go back.
Then I remembered Ariel: how calm and cooperative she was after her surgery, as I struggled to remove the cone from her head. Surely I could be as reasonable as the cat.
My team wanted me to have as good a life as I could. When we were through—just in time for the omicron-dampened holidays—my body would be mine again. My remaining time would be mine. I could spend my days pulling the wings off flies, if I chose.
* * *
Rather than tormenting flies, I took my surgeon’s advice. Four weeks out of surgery, I was feeling less shaky and could do most normal things. I could even swing my damaged arm. Robin and I drove to western Massachusetts to enjoy some fall foliage and a local museum, staying in a colonial-era inn near the Vermont border. Back in the city, we got to know a neighbor. We blew off the hyper-contagious omicron wave and had a few courageous souls up to the apartment for an evening of wine and cheese. Though the evening may have been a game of Russian roulette, the mood was closer to a bacchanale: so scarce had human companionship become. And on Christmas Day, we went to see Spielberg’s new West Side Story—an age-old revenge drama made freshly tribal and murderous, a story for today.
In spite of these moments of promiscuous abandon, we made it through the winter. Soon the pandemic would be entering its third year, diminished though not defeated.