Spring is finally here. It’s too warm and sunny to be indoors in the waning hours of this mid-April day, so I shut down the computer, tug on a pair of worn blue yard gloves and a Tilley hat. I bought the hat for my nomad year, but I wear it now as a homebody. Now that the neurosurgeon has taken me off the leash, I am finally free again to go where I want to go and do what I want to do. But it turns out that I don't want to wander; what I want is to root myself more deeply at home and live a bigger life here.
I head outside and position my rusted green wheelbarrow at the edge of my front garden and survey the neglect, then take up the rake and start scraping at the thick layer of dried oak leaves tucked around the azaleas. Easter is five days away and my garden is coming alive. The periwinkle is in full bloom, the bright green leaves with their small lavender faces rising above the rotting ground cover. I think I’ve never seen a more resilient little plant. I think if there is a living thing more optimistic than periwinkle, maybe it’s a woman with a rake in her hands, feeling cheered by the sharp metallic ache two inches above her right ear, taking it as a sign that the nerves are regenerating around the titanium plate in her head.
My neurosurgeon has recommended six weeks of radiation, five days a week, to prevent a recurrence of the tumor, an aggressive Grade 2 meningioma. I agreed to start the radiation in early June after my next visit with my clients in Canada. On realizing I’d be grounded for at least six weeks, I had one thought: Now would be a good time to get those chickens I've been promising my granddaughters.
When I am finally back in my own small house, surrounded by four oaks that have seen the Civil War, I wake to the resonant call of a mourning dove. I look outside my bedroom window and wonder, what’s next? I am grateful to return to ordinary days, but I’m altered. Finding work to replace the projects I’d had to give up, paying the medical bills, taking care of the house and my little patch of land—these are small matters. Mortality is no longer an abstract thought, but I place that thought aside, knowing it will come up again. As Anne Lamott says, peace of mind is an inside job. I’m the only one who can acquire it for myself. I find it as Death’s newest apprentice.
In February, when I am finally cleared to drive again, I act on an uncharacteristic impulse to take an improv class. I resume work on the children’s picture books I’d begun a few months earlier. My client in Canada calls with an offer of work; I accept with gratitude and plan a trip for late March.
I visit my son and daughter-in-law and walk with their two eldest daughters to the park. I tell them I am thinking about getting chickens in the spring—how would they like to pick out their own chicks? It turns out they would like that very much. They immediately start thinking about names.
Theirs is a loud, lively household with crayon on the walls and Cheerios in the couch cushions. If Sean is sitting on those cushions, he’s apt to have three-year-old Virginia perched on his shoulders, five-year-old Eleanor snuggled by his side, and one-year-old Caroline on his lap. It amuses me to watch this man’s man raising three daughters, “feral princesses,” as Christina, my daughter-in-law, calls them. When I thank them for taking such great care of me when I was in the hospital, Sean draws a shape on the table with his index finger. “There’s a little circle and you’re in it.” That is all he says. It’s enough. It’s everything.
My dear friends Deb and Denise braved a wicked winter storm to fly from New Brunswick, Canada, to spend a few days with me two weeks after my brain surgery. They brought wonderful coffee and other gifts from Acadie. They cooked gorgeous, healthful food and took me on outings (since I wasn't yet cleared to drive). They even tried to repair my dishwasher. In spite of a call to Deb's husband, Phil, the attempt was unsuccessful--but O! the entertainment value!
I had bold plans for 2019. I am self-employed and can work from anywhere, so I decided to embark on a Year of Living Nomadically. I invited friends and family to suggest places I should visit and songs I should listen to while on the road. Not a soul suggested I spend a week in a Northern Virginia hospital owing to the discovery of a brain tumor. No one thought to recommend the Patty Griffin song, “Don’t Let Me Die in Florida.” The discovery of the large meningioma and emergency surgery four days later forced me to come up with another plan.
Before I knew I had a tumor pushing the right side of my brain across the midline of my face, I made plans to visit family and friends in Colorado, California, and North Carolina. I spent time with clients in Maritime Canada and started working on a merger integration for a client in Florida. I was going where I wanted to go, doing what I wanted to do, spending time with people I loved, and working on interesting projects, but I felt an encroaching sense of malaise, a free-floating discontent that I didn’t understand.
On a flight from Denver to D.C., I typed out instructions for my son, Sean, on where to find my financial information in the event of my death. I created a screen saver on my mobile phone that identified my daughter-in-law, Christina, as my contact in case of emergency. Once home, I hired an organizer to help me clear out the rooms in my house. Never much of a pack rat, I wanted to get rid of as much stuff as I could and neatly arrange the rest. Without realizing it, I was putting my affairs in order.
By mid-December, I had gone through three rounds of antibiotics for debilitating headaches that I assumed were caused by a persistent sinus infection. As the headaches intensified, my mood darkened, and I withdrew deeper into myself. Meanwhile, my son and siblings had been calling one another to discuss what to do about the problem that was me. My personality had gone flatline. I had less to say and took longer to say it. I listed to one side; I was unsteady on my feet. Over the Christmas holidays, I played a board game with my granddaughters, ages five and three. After they went upstairs to bed, my son and daughter-in-law observed me alone in the room, still pushing the playing pieces around the board.
“You were fading away,” said Sean. “We thought we were losing you.”
On New Year’s Eve, I flew to Florida for what was to be a two-week visit to my client’s site. I felt overwhelmed and fatigued, oppressed by constant headaches, unable to focus or think clearly. The morning after I arrived, when I emerged from my hotel for the half-mile walk to the client’s office, I couldn’t figure out how to get there. I pulled up a map on my phone but couldn’t follow the directions. Finally understanding that something was very wrong, I took a cab to the office and told my client I needed to get home. I flew out later that day.
The next morning, my sister Monica drove me to the hospital. I don’t remember arriving, or going through registration, or being taken for a CT scan. I do remember hearing a doctor say, “You have a large tumor on your brain.” I didn’t notice how my sister turned away so I couldn’t see the look on her face.
I do remember thinking, “Well that’s unexpected.”
I was admitted to the critical care unit on a Thursday. The surgeon scheduled a craniotomy for Monday. Meanwhile, I was pumped full of intravenous steroids to shrink the tumor. Within hours, I felt flooded with energy and optimism.
“You’re back!” said Sean.
A few years earlier, in graduate school, I studied positive organizational change, which has some powerful neuroscience behind it, and I used what I learned to face the diagnosis and surgery with optimism. My family and friends made it easy, rallying around me and arranging for someone to be with me at critical moments around the clock. Sean took charge of my care, stepping away from his practice as a trial lawyer to support me and confer with my medical team. My brother Al, sister-in-law/BFF Karen, and nieces Rachel and Kelly flew in from Colorado. Famous for her comfy beds, Karen replaced the horrid itchy hospital sheets and blankets with soft bedding.
The neurosurgeon warned my family that the operation could take several hours, and I might need rehabilitation or physical therapy as part of my recovery. In fact he finished in less than four hours, and I came through with no impairment and no pain—just the sensation of a mild toothache. Two days later, the bandage was removed from around my head, revealing a shiny set of staples that ran from above my right temple to behind my right ear, and I was released from the hospital.
I am one of the lucky ones.