Joy and Grief Remind Me I Am Alive

Battling cancer can be a very lonely experience, even for people who have big families and lots of friends or celebrities who have millions of fans around the world, like Alex Trebek.  I mean, no one can hide you from the Grim Reaper, and the best oncologist in the world can’t save a cancer patient from an aggressive and incurable form of the disease.  Feeling fearful is a natural reaction to facing our own mortality or that of someone we love.  The problem is that many of us don’t know how to cope with fear, so we end up giving it enormous power by trying to push it away.  Unspoken fears fill the space between the sick and the well pushing them farther and farther apart until they inhabit different universes.  When people confront the possibility of losing the cancer battle and the dying feel free to talk about their transition to the next realm, Fear loses some of its power.  That’s not to say that the pain of loss will be diminished by talking.  Human beings who love, hurt and grieve.  Trying to avoid the pain of loss just creates more suffering.

Born with a sensitive nature that I had no idea how to manage, I suffered from chronic heartache as a kid and got stuck in perpetual mourning.  I mourned the birds that died when they flew into the picture windows of the house.  I cried when a pet hamster and gerbil died in the night, and I found it belly-up in its cage in the morning.  I bawled when friends I adored moved away never to be play “In The Giant’s Tummy” again.  But when I really snapped, I think, was in 4th grade when mortality became real to me while sitting at a library table in science class at Butler Elementary School.  We were watching one of those reel to reel films that grew brittle and broke and had to be spliced back together at least once during every showing.  Back in the day when Pluto was still a planet, Our Mr. Sun, starring Eddie Albert and Dr. Frank Baxter, was a science class staple.  Bored with facts about hydrogen and helium, I was probably daydreaming about which boy in class I would marry when I heard Eddie Albert ask Dr. Baxter, “How long before he runs out of this here hydrogen fuel?”  I snapped back into the present.  Run out?  The sun is going to die?  Then we will all die!  I looked around the room at the other kids.  No one seemed to be alarmed.  Most of them just looked bored, but I wanted to scream, “Hey, didn’t you guys hear what he just said?  We’re all going to die!  So what if it’s 5 billion years from now.  We’re gonna die!!!”  I think at that moment, Fear took up residence with Grief in my heart, and together, they ran my life for the next thirty years.

I had no tools for coping with Fear and Grief, or any other emotion for that matter, so I stuffed my feelings and numbed out using whatever I could grab at any given moment: sugar, nicotine, alcohol, drugs, relationships, or shopping to name a few.  Eventually, these diversions no longer worked.  Dogged by chronic hangovers and haunted by a long trail of failed relationships, I reached my breaking point.  I was 38 years old, and I wanted to die.  Actually, that’s not exactly true.  What I wanted was the pain of the hopelessness that is depression to stop, and I thought death was the only thing that could kill it.  Fortunately, I lacked the courage to commit suicide.  Instead I sought help, made some changes to my daily habits, learned some strategies for coping with my sensitive nature, and slowly, one day at a time, recovered from a hopeless state of mind and body.  Then cancer came calling.

It’s ironic that just when I was learning to really live and enjoy my life, I was diagnosed with a potentially fatal disease.  In 2005, the average survival time post diagnosis for chronic myelogenous leukemia was five years.  I indulged in a thorough freakout for a few weeks.  I was a mere 44 years old and had only begun to get my head together, and now I was facing a bone marrow transplant, a process that cured some, killed some, and left many with life-long debilitating health problems.  Then I learned about Gleevec, a miracle drug for CML patients that had been fast-tracked by the FDA for approval in 2001 because of its life-saving potential.  The drug was so new no long-term data on survival rates had been collected, but it appeared to be helping people avoid transplants and extending their lives by years.

Within a short time of diagnosis, I started taking the daily oral chemo.  While the side effects were unpleasant, serious fatigue, leg cramps, and diarrhea to name a few, I was lucky; the medicine did control my cancer.  Still, I sometimes plop on the pity pot and whine about the limitations imposed on my daily activity by the chemo that I will be taking for the rest of my days.  When those days come around and I start singing “Gloom, Despair, and Misery on Me,” I know I need an attitude adjustment.  The other day I Googled “world’s population” and learned that 7,714,576,923 people currently inhabit Earth.  Then I searched “access to health care.”  In 2017, according to the World Health Organization, half of the world’s human beings lacked access to basic health care services.  For the very old, the very young, and the infirm, a simple case of diarrhea can be a death sentence, yet these people cannot get a dose of Immodium to save their lives.  In contrast, I have health insurance that pays most of the costs associated with regular trips to the oncologist and the $60,000 annual cost of my oral chemo.  I am blessed.

Another cancer-created situation that sometimes gets me down is living on disability.  Medical events of 2016-17 robbed me of the little physical stamina I had left after 11 years of cancer treatment and intensified my chemo brain so that teaching became too much for me.  I had to go on disability.  So now, the last four years of my teaching career which should have been my most lucrative years of teaching and the ones upon which my pension would be based are reduced to $28,000 a year, before taxes and insurance.  Again, I needed to get some perspective on my situation and turned to Google.  Nearly half of the people on Earth live on $2.50 or less per day.  Almost one fourth of all humans live without electricity (dosomething.org).  In contrast, I live on $76 a day which is enough to scrape by and keep the lights on.  I am blessed.  Still, my monkey mind often pings around with thoughts about my own selfish wants and needs and petty grievances.  When a real loss occurs in my life, such as the death of my elderly father last spring, my mind screams at all of the people busy living their lives, “HOW DARE YOU SMILE AND LAUGH! DON’T YOU KNOW THAT I AM SUFFERING? CAN’T YOU SEE THE PAIN IN MY FACE?”  Never mind that they are total strangers who just happen to be at the grocery store or the gas station at the same time that I, Alice Sue Armstrong, am there.  The world should take notice of my grief, dammit!  I am of sounder mind than I was at 38, but I still have moments.

I know it’s not rational to think this way.  What I don’t know is if I am the only one who experiences grief this way.  Is it human nature to want the world to stop and acknowledge my pain, or am I more self-centered than the average human being?  And does it even matter how others react?  After all, my thoughts and feelings create my reality.

Over the last 17 years, I have learned a few things.  1) Painful emotions will not kill me.  2) I must experience grief in order to move past it.  3) Without knowing pain I can know no joy.  However, I can’t always differentiate between processing grief and wallowing in self-pity.  When I can’t see where I am, I have to seek help to figure it out.  Sometimes I turn to a friend, sometimes a counselor, and other times literature.  One benefit of having been an English teacher for almost 30 years is the exposure to great minds I may have missed if I’d stuck with accounting in college.  One of my favorite units to teach in American lit was transcendentalism.  Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Nature” is a glorious read any time, but when I am struggling with some sort of pain or misery, I reread parts of “Nature” and soak in his wisdom.  Emerson writes, “In the presence of nature, a wild delight runs through the man, in spite of real sorrows. . . In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, — no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.”  Walking in a park or the woods, hunting sea shells on a beach or canoeing down a river, reminds me that I am not the center of the universe.  I am not apart from Nature but a part of Her and the great whole of existence.  Spending a few hours away from civilization looking up at the infinite night sky or out at the vast ocean helps me to put my life’s events into perspective.  So in June 2017, when my monkey mind chattered incessantly about the reappearance of my chemo rash, I headed for the Grand Canyon hoping Her magnificence would silence Fear, for at least a little while.

At a gas station on the edge of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico on a mild June morning, Renee and I say our goodbyes.  She is headed home to Santa Fe, and I am headed for Williams, Arizona.  Originally, I had planned to take a leisurely scenic route to the Grand Canyon, but I revised that plan.  First, I am sick and tired of driving.  Whacked out on massive doses of prednisone when I planned my trip, I considered only where I wanted to go, not how long it would take me to drive there.  So there’s a tip for readers.  Never make travel plans while taking steroids.  I had also entertained romantic notions about seeing charming mountain and desert towns in the Southwest, but as I discovered driving across Northern Texas, quaint small town America with Mom and Pop diners is just as dead in the Southwest as it is in Illinois and Missouri.  The towns I drove through ranged from small groupings of trailers where a few people lived in grinding poverty to a handful of dilapidated structures completely abandoned to birds and vermin. Gas stations were scary miles apart, and being stranded with an empty gas tank on a little-traveled road in the desert wind and heat does not strike me as an exciting adventure.  Finally, the sun blaring through the windshield felt like scalding water being poured on my fingers and the backs of my hands where the chemo rash had reappeared.  Finding a place to hold the steering wheel where the sun didn’t shine on my skin was tricky, so I wanted to get to Williams as fast as I could.  I took U.S. 60, to I 40 where the speed limit was 75.  I figured I could drive 84 without getting a ticket, and I hauled ass all the way to Flagstaff where I hit heavy traffic.

By late afternoon I arrive at my motel in Williams, check in, and take a stroll down Route 66.  While this six block stretch of town is definitely touristy, it is also quaint.  The locals have been wise guardians of history maintaining the original architecture of the buildings, some of which are constructed of flagstone from nearby quarries.  I contemplate my options for dinner and choose Rod’s Steakhouse despite the fact that I don’t eat red meat.  It’s the neon sign in the shape of a steer that wins me over.  I receive excellent service and eat a delicious shrimp dinner.  I strongly recommend Rod’s to anyone going to Williams.  With a happy belly and satisfied taste buds, I leave the restaurant and walk across the street to my motel room for a good night’s sleep.

I wake the next morning, excited about the day ahead.  On the recommendation of a few friends, I had decided to take the train up to the southern rim of the canyon rather than drive.  I heard parking can be difficult and the trek from the lot up to the rim arduous for a medically challenged 55 year old.  Besides, I think, on the train I will be able to enjoy the scenery on the way up instead of focusing on the road and the vehicles all around me.  Not long into the trip I regret my choice.  The mountain scenery consists of pine trees, brush and cactus.  And the train chugs sloooooooowly up the mountain.  For a moment I think I am on The Little Engine That Could, but it can’t.

To prevent boredom, an attendant who is both a story-teller and historian staffs each car.  The attendant in my car is a perky young woman in her early thirties who teaches kindergarten in Phoenix 9 months of the year and spends her summers working on the Grand Canyon Railway.  Her lively narratives are punctuated by the appearance of guitar-strumming cowboys, gnarly-looking train robbers, criminal-stalking lawmen, and photographers offering to take the family’s photo and sell it to them for a pretty price. The woman with the camera asks every group in the car if they would like their photo taken, but she does not ask me.  In fact, she doesn’t even look at me.  I guess my solo female presence makes her uncomfortable (I am the only person riding the train alone today) or she assumes that a lone traveler will not be interested in commemorating the occasion with a souvenir photo.  She was right about that of course, but feeling invisible was a strange sensation.

Two hours and fifteen minutes after departing Williams, we pull into the station at the southern rim.  By car, the trip is only an hour and a heck of a lot cheaper.  However, as I climb the steps from the depot to Grand Canyon Village, my train regret vanishes.  Between the thin air at the altitude of 7,000 feet and my cancer-induced fatigue, I barely make it up the first set of steps.  People a few decades older and lots of pounds heavier than I stroll easily past me. Mildly embarrassed by my lack of physical stamina, I find a rock to perch on and catch my breath before I tackle the next flight of stairs.  Later I learn that the heavy dose of prednisone I was on for months destroyed a lot of my muscle mass, but at the time I thought I was just pathetically out of shape.  Anyway, if I’d driven I may not have made the long walk from the parking lot to Grand Canyon Village.

Now, one might think that after driving 1,900 miles and riding on a train for 2.25 hours to see the Grand Canyon, I would head directly for an excellent viewing spot, but that is not what I did.  Instead, I made a beeline for the El Tovar Hotel dining room for sustenance.  After eating a big salad and an order of fries, I felt my strength was somewhat restored and then went outside to explore.  The view was worth every mile I drove.  Neither word depictions, nor photos, nor videos can do justice to the Grand Canyon, so I won’t even try to put my experience into words.  What I can say is that Ralph Waldo Emerson is right about Nature.  She can make you forget about your problems for a while and remind you that you are a part of something much larger than yourself.  I took in the view from various spots, watched a troupe of Native American youth perform some stunning dances, and toured the shops.  It was a fabulous day.  Exhausted on the return trip, I dozed while the cowboys entertained the kids.  Someday I would like to return and drive the perimeter of the Grand Canyon.  It really is something to behold.

I spend one more night in Williams and then head for Santa Fe where I will spend a week in the mountains with Rod and Renee, two of my favorite people on Earth. There I will hit the trifecta of enjoying Nature, laughter, and love all in one sweet home.