Compartmentalizing for Sanity


Picture Credit: Edith Levy Photography

Having two cancers makes you really good at compartmentalizing. Your brain transforms itself into one of those old timey apothecaries, filled with hundreds of tiny drawers and bottles with stoppers. Each drawer holds a different fear, anxiety or feeling, excitement, happiness, wonder or thrill.

You go there every day, stay all day long, and slap your own hands when they reach for the wrong drawers. There are black drawers and white drawers. All the black ones contain cancer related stuff and all the white ones hold the normal life stuff.

At night, it is hard because you can’t see anything and it is just a mere chance which drawer floods your mind with its contents as you sleep.

During the day you try to distract yourself with sweeping the front of the store, re-arranging the rows and rows of medicine bottles, weighing the new herbs, talking to people, counting the coins from the cash register.

However; there are times when there is no one at the store and you sit down on your stool and swivel around to face all the drawers on the wall. You scan the labels on each of them, a blur of dates and events. Then your hand ventures out and brushes the black drawer’s handle. You snap it back as if the handle is on fire and scold yourself for even wanting to open it.

But then you look at the wall of drawers in front of you and all you can see is black, as far as you can reach. So you stand up, balance on your tippy toes and reach high above your head for that one white drawer you glimpse. You fling it open and happiness lights up the store, meadow flower smell swirls around you and you stand there smiling.

For a while.

Then your phone rings and you are reminded of your upcoming eye cancer checkup.

Immediately, the white drawer sucks all the golden air around you back inside and slams shut.

Then all the black drawers around you start shaking and vibrating like in an earthquake, yearning to be opened.

You don’t want to do it but the black force pulls you in, like a black hole, and you sit on your chair and start pulling. One after another.

The July 2, 2012 diagnosis, the July 6 surgery, cutting your eye, the following chemotherapy that ate your eye away, the April 2013 re-occurrence, the May 2013 radiation therapy that left you stranded, at home, radioactive with a sewn shut eye for 5 days.

You sit there trying not to peek into the last black drawer in that row. But it slides open a few millimeters, urging you to continue. You feel paralyzed but yet your hands, like robotic extensions not belonging to your body, pull the handle.

A dark grey cloud of doubt oozes out and settles around you. In it, you see words pop up. Words like another re-occurrence, losing your eye, losing your sight, metastasis, no cure, few months left to live.

You try so hard to close that drawer but it grows in the meantime and it is now a deep, heavy, metal filing cabinet compartment and you are heaving it closed with your whole body, first pushing with both hands, then leaning on it with your back, sweat rolling down your forehead.

And it’s no use.

Then the first few tears fall from your face onto the ground and you slowly release the tension and give up, sliding down along the metal front, hugging your knees, everything blurry through the tears.

And you hear people coming in to your apothecary but you can’t get up, you can’t read their prescriptions. You watch them reach out to you, but your arms are lead heavy and all you can do is watch them to eventually turn around and walk out, confused and disappointed expressions on their faces.

And you sit there.

And you sit there.

And you know that you are the only one who can make you get up.

So you close your eyes and you think of the one you love to bring back the golden happiness glow into your store. You find it hard to concentrate to squeeze out all the grey and black thoughts from your head. But you try over and over again. Sometimes, it goes quickly, but sometimes you get stuck sitting there like that for days.

When it finally does work, you suddenly feel the metal filing cabinet drawer soften up behind your back, like a pillow. It becomes light and fluffy like a marshmallow and you turn around and push the drawer back. And as you push it, the drawer gets smaller and smaller until it is the original tiny black drawer in the wall of your apothecary.

And that’s when you can again go about your business. Until the next phone call, the next letter, the next appointment, the next scan.

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