And What Dr K Had to Say
Dear Friends —
Thanks for all the lovely encouragement from my latest post; I have all kinds of renewed hope after learning Moxie’s aim is true, but I gather even more energy when I hear the good cheers of those helping to push me on, ever higher.
In recent days I had a chance to check in with the ever-wise Dr K from UCSF. Some of you may remember that Dr V from Stanford is a champion of chemo breaks, and the ever faithful Dr C from Palo Alto has a bias toward hitting me with as much chemo as I can tolerate, which as it turns out happens to be a lot.
But Dr K has always had a knack to find a magical middle route. After carefully studying the smattering of itty bitties and teeny tinies in my lung, Dr K suggested I build in more buffer weeks in between Moxie rounds this summer. In other words, keep going, but at a slightly slower pace. This will give me more time to exhale at the switchbacks, savor the view, hydrate, eat an M&M or two, and be ready for subsequent treatment cycles. We’ll scan again later in August, and by then I’ll probably have completed 10 or so rounds. If Moxie keeps up her moxie, perhaps we’ll begin a new chapter of maintenance or maybe some sharp shooting to address a stubborn itty bitty or two. It’s a smart plan, and it also enables me to tuck in a summer adventure or three.
And speaking of adventures, this weekend Connor and I spent our time in La Jolla celebrating my mom’s 81st birthday (she doesn’t look a day older than 64!) and also visiting his college choice, the quite sparkly Chapman University. Two spectacular milestones worthy of fully vaccinated hugs.
I also had time to catch up with a friend who is equal parts imagination and courage. We found a bench and gazed out at the mighty Pacific to compare notes and catch up on all the twisty trails of our different paths. She asked me the most important question: “So how are you doing today?”
And I answered in the most truthful way I could: “Well the good news is quite good. The treatment is working in my lungs, there’s no activity in my abdomen, and I tolerate chemo better than most. Many days are fabulous and full of goodness. There’s a lot to celebrate. And also this: some days I feel lousy, tired, and defeated. I wonder — all the time — is this how the rest of my life will be? If so, that’s a smidge terrible. Both things are true, and they are somehow linked into one larger story. But I’m still sorting out this paradox. I seem to be living in a chapter with constant contradictions.”
As I had more time to look out on that gorgeous ocean, I took stock of how far I’ve come over these nearly two years. Back in December 2019 I had this massive abdominal surgery: Dr V removed the right lobe of my liver, my spleen, gall bladder, and a small part of the upper part of my colon (what we used to call the large intestine, and why on earth they changed the name is a question for another time) where it curves near my lung. Since that surgery, I’ve always felt a quiet sense of pride that I now am the proud owner of a semicolon, doing terrific work.
Flying home, I wondered: could a semicolon hold some kind of deeper truth about this paradoxical time? Stick with me here, because we’re going to go down a mini rabbit hole to discover some nuggets of semicolon pixie dust.
First of all, many of us loathe semicolons. I get it. Who wants to take the risk of getting that little punctuation mark wrong when a durable dash is waiting in the wings to do its work? Kurt Vonnegut even said once: “Do not use semicolons … all they do is show you’ve been to college.” Yet, according to the fascinating book Semicolon, Italian humanists invented the punctuation mark in the 15th century “as an aid to clarity.” And for a while, it had quite a run; apparently in the 18th century, the mighty semicolon was downright trendy.
Anyhow, for the past three centuries or so, I imagine most of us have hesitated over how best to tuck in a semicolon into our written prose. Maybe because it’s so easy to misuse. Or maybe it’s because a semicolon’s job is to note a pause in between two linked — but subtly different — ideas. And if you think about it, capturing that pause is actually harder than it might seem.
We all yearn for clarity in our individual stories. Am I sick or well? Is my career stable or not? Is this friendship full of truth, or not? And on an on.
My particular kind of cancer, alas, does not provide robust clarity; rather it’s a constant trek of discovery, of pushing hard, of pausing, of course correcting, of gorgeous days, and of horrific days. Many days I think I inhabit the Castle of the Semicolon — that often intimidating but unpredictable space that links the worlds of sick and well together, into one mysterious story.
Some days I gaze on young families — couples with a toddler and infant in toe — seemingly beaming with health and longevity. I think they might inhabit the Castle of the Exclamation Point. Yay! Life and health in abundance.
And it’s true. Some of us are living exclamation point chapters. If so, please do savor and give thanks for it. Ride that horse for as long as you possibly can, and be generous to others not as fortunate.
But my guess is that more of us than we probably know are wrestling with contradictory pulls, bursts of joy and sorrow intermingled in ways often too hard to describe when someone lovely asks, “So how are you today?”
Perhaps the sweet semicolon can give us permission to draw closer to articulating both the mess and marvelous in equal measure; the place to pause in order to link the two together in a way that’s more transcendent than paradoxical.
Victor Hugo captured this idea this way: “Have courage for the great sorrows of life and patience for the small ones; and when you have laboriously accomplished your daily task, go to sleep in peace. God is awake.”
May we all sleep well tonight, with mighty courage for all the contradictions that tomorrow will bring.
And may God, with the best exclamation point of all, forever remind us what it means to be awake.