Having cheated death, I feel alive

Even Ace Hardware and trashy TV marathons feel like small miracles after cancer surgery

Published February 8, 2010 7:09PM (EST)

Oh, what sky! Oh, what Tundra V8 power up Clipper toward Portola and toward the sky! Oh what reverence before rain clouds: Where in the built world is found that color gray? Can it be the sun-silvered look of weathered redwood fenceboards in the low, leaning fences of Sunset backyards? Can it be the pewter of a grandmother's teapot, or the rough pale glint of some ancient beaten metal? Can it be an exact and perfectly ironic replica of Toyota's own Tundra silver-gray? That's the color of my truck that roars up Clipper and rises out of the Mission toward the ocean! My truck is the color of the rain clouds that rush at us off the Pacific.

Oh, what miracle of life has brought me here! That is, I mean to say, I survive, I heal, I celebrate my healing and I wonder: In what skin or bone lies the code of reconstruction? What blueprint is held in what vault for just such an occasion as a partial sacrectomy? How do I heal? Is it I who is doing this healing? All I do is sit around and heal. I do not know how I heal. I live and I heal. I sleep and I heal. I watch teenage crime wave 1950s black-and-white movies on TCM and I heal ("Teenage Crime Wave" was awesome). And besides the cutting and slicing of flesh, what do I heal from? Oh, sheesh: Sacral nerves 3 through 5 severed and removed! Got a clue what they do? No. 2 mercifully saved, meaning that I walk with relative ease, I suffer only minor nerve pain in my left foot (the nerve pain's from the still-intact S-1, says Dr. Ames: We had to muscle it around a bit to get it out of the way, and it's still a bit roughed up). Only the, ahem, functions of S3-5 are impaired. So otherwise I am a laughing miracle of Cafe La Boheme, writing at our sunny table again on a Friday noon after missing only seven Fridays!

Seven Fridays I was out of the game, confined to couch and bed, allowed only to stand, walk or lie, never to sit for seven weeks. Seven weeks without a chair! Seven weeks without relaxing into the plush holding hands of an armchair. Seven weeks without sitting at a desk to contemplate.

Then Monday the doc says go do what you can do. And so I humbly try to get back in the game. I am slow, weak and in some pain, but I take a shot at it.We've still got to schedule a few weeks of proton beam radiation therapy at Loma Linda; that's going to be no picnic. But I'm alive, and I'm outside! I'm spending cash!

I have just gone out for the second time since Dec. 17. The first time -- yesterday -- was a dry run to see if I could drive OK and get in and out of the truck (painfully, stiffly, but yes, in and out). They were only errands but what errands they were! Ace Hardware on Noriega, Walgreens on Taraval, and Kragen Auto also on Taraval across from the tempting stereo repair store. (Really irrelevant parenthetical: Once when the old Quasar set crapped out and Norma said nobody gets TVs repaired anymore, they just buy new ones, but the only new ones were like a thousand bucks so I took the Quasar in and got it repaired for $125. I still get a glow of accomplishment every time I pass that place.) But anyway, on my first foray I was in the zone: Ace for lightbulbs and felt glides for the dining room chairs; then Walgreens for a new razor and the best parking spot possible opened up for me as I pulled up. (Oh, the ecstasy of a perfect parking space; oh, the ecstasy of a new, close shave!) And then Kragen for lithium grease to take the squeak out of the driver's side door (oh how I neglected that truck, synecdoche for my flesh)!

O gods of clorophyl and proteins: to almost lose life and then to get it back! How bright this earth now! How beautiful these faces! I stop at every stop sign and look around to see what new miracles there are.

Oh, I could take it or leave it, life, I thought before this happened. What's so great about this beating heart, these heaving lungs, these eyes through which the world enters and signs its name? But threaten to take it away and see how I change: What pleasure in every heartbeat and every breath! What complexity in the color of a rain cloud!

Look how I can walk again! No cane this time, I threw it off, left it on the back seat. No cane, no shuffling, no shoulder to lean on, I'm steeply soloing up 24th Street toward Guerrero. What neglected gluteus muscles are coming into play! Portions of the gluteus maximus muscles were removed from the resected lower part of the sacrum and tied to each other. Were they tied in a bow? That's how I picture them as I motor up Guerrero: tied together in a bow.)

So the body, temple and vehicle, again gains my gratitude. Me, lord and master, taken down a notch by the wisdom of disease. And driven to new reverence for photosynthesis and light! For the complex yellow of a squash and the red of an apple, the green of chard and the orange of an orange, the yellow of a lemon and the purple of a grape: These colors and their molecules will save me, I am sure. For what brought on that tumor? How have I allowed this deadly encroachment? I am not separate from my "body." I am not some absentee landlord: I was here, eating a bagel and cream cheese every morning for years. I was here ignoring the muted, dour warnings of high cholesterol; I was here, drinking coffee after coffee for the charge and the power, pretending the insane ups and downs didn't affect me. I kept getting warnings: a panic attack in 2004 that I thought was a full-blown heart attack; squamous cell skin cancer in 2008; and then this, the impossibly rare chordoma, a final warning for sure: Get well, my boy, live within biology's rules, with gratitude for the planet's cures; stop fucking around with your body.

So don't laugh if I go vegan. I'm not a halfway man. I could never stop drinking once I started, and I could never have just one cup of coffee or one cigarette, so if I appeal to the wisdom of the plant universe to reverse the machines of cancer, to turn back their deadly aspirations for eternal multiplication, then I doubt that I can have the occasional burger. Also: "The China Study" has me thinking about dairy and not in a good way, though the Cowgirl Creamery and the farms of West Marin are still brilliant and beautiful.

There is no moment now that I do not cherish. My mom and dad are gone, but they can rest easy in their graves: I'm going to be OK.

Also the long, strange nights on sleepless painkillers gave me a new and welcome craziness, allowed me to enter the neglected dark realms, the realms of Rimbaud, the realms of Baudelaire forgotten in the cheesy daylight of good advice. I'm just riffing here: riffing for my life, riffing for the spirits that live within me, riffing to wake them up and wake myself up, riffing to turn me on again, riffing to find a language for my reverence and joy, riffing to revere the engine of language, hoping for maybe an answering cry. Yep, that's it: an answering cry: We holler into the abyss and hope for an answering cry.

Not that we need it: Our riffing is sufficient. We don't need the answering cry. It's enough to ripple our muscles of speech, to sing uniquely in the night. 

By Cary Tennis

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