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Lions Roar : July 2006
SHAMBHALA SUN JULY 2006 75 hadn’t quite absorbed the news, when I didn’t quite have can- cer yet. Afterwards the thing that struck me was the feeling of nakedness with people, of falling into their eyes and swimming in the spaces there. In the end, this intimacy seemed to be more significant than the news about cancer—the response to a very interesting call. At the same time, there were patterns that were the contrary of this nakedness. I noticed that I wanted people to be okay with where I would get surgery, which distracted me from the question—I wonder where I’ll get surgery? There is a slightly craven piece in me that wants to be liked. I don’t much like that part but there it is. For me, this is a big good thing about cancer—cutting that imagined thread, not thinking that love is turning aside to manage other people and how they feel. 2 It’s so obvious, once you know the trick. If you walk up to a cliff, a door will appear. The obstacle is itself the gate. This only happens if I’m willing to keep walking. Each wall is a large, rather smooth, dark expanse. I keep walking toward it without knowing what will happen, and then a doorway appears. This is like calling out, “Master!” and hearing, “Yes!” WHEN YOU GET A DIAGNOSIS you enter a different coun- try with different habits and laws. The customs officials don’t care who you were wherever you came from, what the spring flowers were like, or whether you walked by the sea with your child, counting the waves. They are not so much heartless as de- terminedly uninformed; their iron rule is that you will conform to the laws of the new country and that you must find out these laws for yourself. Your initiation begins with insurance—what methods will be paid for, how much will be paid, to whom, and who is allowed to treat you. The density and heaviness of these tasks was puz- zling until I realized that bureaucracy is just a feature of the un- derworld. It is just a set of customs and ceremonies that gathers around diagnosis. The Sumerian myth of Inanna describes the journey fairly closely: As you descend, you come to guardians at each gate and, though you negotiate, you surrender something— your crown, your jeweled belt, time, an idea you had, the belief that you would be able to function in a certain way for the rest of your life, the thought that you could avoid this journey. The prize for surrendering is to go farther down, to the next gate and the next surrender—in my case, closer to surgery. The initiation phase took a couple of months: informing myself about the customs and treatments, wrestling the insur- ance guardians into opening the gates to the surgeon I wanted. Sometimes I knocked on doors with no one behind them, and at other times I had the image of stumbling in upon bird-headed beings making cuneiform incisions on clay tablets. This phase was devoted to the idea of the body as matter, money, plumbing, pain, something that involves time. The guardians were devoted to searching out and recording details that are minute and trivial in the land before diagnosis. I began to appreciate and even enjoy the monotonous repetition, the theater of it, the endless walking across an essentially featureless landscape. It occurred to me that perhaps this endlessness is the appeal of bureaucracy, a kind of false immortality that comes from immersion in trivia. Hello, I have cancer and have been referred for a second opinion. I’d like my medical records. Who wants them? I do. Which doctor? Well, I was hoping to hand-carry them. Where to? To Stanford and Duke. Why Stanford? Well, they answered my telephone call; UCSF didn’t. What is the address for that? I was hoping to hand-carry them. We can’t give you the records. I think you can. We can? Yes. Hang on a minute ... I’m back. OK, come in and fill out a form and then we’ll put in a request. You’ll get it in four to six weeks. Um, my appointment with Stanford is tomorrow morning. I was hoping to come in this afternoon ... etc. Or a variation: What kind of recovery rates do you get? Forty to sixty percent of patients get good functioning after a year. Um, how many of these surgeries do you do per year? About twenty. Is there somewhere that does more surgeries? Not that I know of. The quest became essentially about timing, a dance. People said yes or no or send more paperwork—just like the colleges my daughter was applying to at the same time. I came to feel warmly toward the people involved. It was a secret society, and gradually allies who knew the hidden passwords appeared. The obstacle inside myself was also the gate. The thought that this or that bit of me wouldn’t function after surgery or should function was refusing the call. It was like trying to see the gate before I was right against the cliff. When I just didn’t know I was much more lighthearted. It’s the joke of life, a funny joke, not a bitter one. I have stepped off an edge and am falling, happily, toward an outcome, like Alice down the rabbit hole.