“The bitter drink of death is still before you.” – C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce
A late-stage cancer diagnosis has become an unwanted challenge inviting me and my friends to walk in a uniquely odd journey of hope through a minacious and evolving terrain. I have become a prisoner on cancer’s death row, where each 3-month scan, like an appeal, determines how many more days I will walk on this earth.
It demands that I suffer others’ care, and live in a more exposing way that challenges my heart’s long-standing vows about protection and safety. I am in awe and gratitude of committed friends who journey with me in this marathon illness infused with sprints, who take sick days when I take sick days and pick up my groceries along with their own.
Days are odd because they are filled with competing questions like “does dying hurt?” with “what should I wear to work today?” My heart is drawn to poetry by Mary Oliver and theology by C.S. Lewis. Its forced clarity to my beliefs about heaven (that it’s beauty is born out of truth, not jewels), healing prayer (where spiritual healing is miraculous and immediate), and a deeply profound sense of gratitude (where worshiping the Artist eclipses admiring the work).
I wonder if I have lived my life well and with purpose and, when necessary, will I have the courage to end well, also?
And I worry for my dog, Picasso. He smells the chemo when I come home and paws at the port under my skin inviting chemotherapy to dispense its poison effortlessly into my veins.
It’s a morning just like any other morning. You wake, shower, dress, grab a coffee and head out the door to work. You’re on autopilot and barely paying attention. You disable the car alarm and open the door. HOLY SHIT!
A goddamn cyclops is in the drivers’ seat. His roar scares the hell out of you. You drop your bag slam the door, and start running down the driveway. Damn! What the hell?! He’s lumbering behind you. You text a friend who sees the cyclops and yells “What’s going on?”
“Damn! OK. Running is good! Keep running!” You run toward Medusa’s labyrinth because, of course, Medusa can kill the cyclops.
Word of your problem has spread to other friends, who are on the sidelines, cheering you on like a long distance runner in a marathon. “I hear cyclops don’t like ginger-infused Ensure drinks!” one yells. They throw you a 30 count box and you start chucking the bottles at him over your shoulder.
You hit the edge of Medusa’s Labyrinth and realize why you don’t want to go in: nobody’s sure of the route through the maze, and Medusa may just as easily kill you as she will the cyclops. You’ve got nothing to lose because he is undeterred, so you grab your courage and dive in.
The cyclops is closing the gap, even though your friends have done their best to slow him down. Some have hacked off his arm, but it only pisses him off. Now he’s plowing into them and they go flying like pins down the bowling lane of a perfect strike.
So now you’re encouraging them. Big smile, “Thank you!” you yell. You give a fist pump and a thumbs up. They get up and smile back, “Keep running!” they yell and hold maps in the air like posters. Others are clearing the underbrush of the path ahead of you, holding out water cups, making your marathon a little easier.
You’re getting really tired now; time reassess the situation. The cyclops – who has now grown his arm back because he has the power to regenerate (who the hell knew?) is breathing down your neck and you feel him grab hold of your side. “I’m starting to think this isn’t going to end well!” you shout. And your friends shake their heads, inspiring you to press on: “Gotta keep running!” they yell.
Finally, Medusa has begun wandering her halls with a knowing sense. Her head of snakes slithers excitedly when they smell the cyclops. She comes up fast behind him, striking at every chance.
“Score!” you yell every time one of her snake’s fangs bite him and he roars in pain. Something is finally beginning to drag him down. This is good news because you’re really tired after this marathon run (because you’ve never trained for anything in your life) and you’re sucking down oxygen from canisters friends are giving you while they run with you.
Finally, you feel the labyrinth walls shake and hear the cyclops scream and fall to the ground in a loud rumbling thunder. Thank God! Some of the walls are caving in and you find some extra energy to pick up the pace because Medusa now sees you. Thankfully, she decides you aren’t worth the effort, and if you survive the collapsing labyrinth, you just might get to start searching for a way home.
You’re looking for an exit. No more labyrinth. No more Medusa. No more cyclops. You just want to go back to your normal life. The one where you get up, shower, dress, have a coffee, and drive to work—without a cyclops waiting to greet you in your car.
Friends point you toward a path lit with the light from the outside world and call for you. Many are doubled over, out of breath from all the running they have done alongside you. Your feet finally hit the familiar pavement of your driveway and you come to a halt. You’re finally breathing on your own and trying to figure out what the hell just happened.
That’s what it’s like to get cancer, and you wonder if the cyclops will greet you at the car door again tomorrow.
AJ Keller is a confessed Allender Center groupie who has a crush on her dog and hopes to become the person he seems to think she is. She loves taking long walks with Picasso, reading, writing, and listening to friends’ stories.