Negotiating remission: life after the storm

Negotiating remission: life after the storm

I’m wearing my 15-year-old jean jacket today, two days after my university closed its doors at 2 in the afternoon and I drove home in white-out conditions. Two days after spending a couple of hours shoveling wet snow off my driveway, tossing it higher and higher onto icy berms. Yesterday and today, though, the sun is dazzling. I sat next to my cat yesterday in a patch of warm sunlight and looked straight into the source of all that warmth.

This morning as I left, I almost drove past my neighbor’s car sitting in her driveway until I realized that she was stuck. As I got out and tried to help in my worn jean jacket, I sympathized with her frustration. She hadn’t gotten stuck when a foot of snow was freshly fallen, but a shiny black asphalt driveway tripped her up. She underestimated the snow berm and backed into it just enough to get stuck.

Remission has been like this for me. I’m in the sweet spot right now, enough time past my last all-clear tests and far enough away from the next set that I feel almost normal, like the old me without cancer. That sweet spot is a dazzling sun reflecting off of shiny black asphalt.

As anyone with cancer knows, however, remission isn’t always living in the sweet spot. On some days a smell or a sound or a word will trigger memories of the idiot doctor who first told me I had cancer. I get stuck in the memory of his cruelty, in the fear that a cancer diagnosis can bring. My tires spin.

If ever you find yourself stuck in the icy berm of anxiety and traumatic memories, let me encourage you to live like Alaskans do during the big thaw after a long winter, which we call “break up.” Break up is the season between fall and spring, when river ice breaks up and water flows. Piles of snow become piles of dirty ice.

Rivers of water flow everywhere. Every filthy thing you can imagine reveals itself as the ice melts back in reverse chronology. The dog pile left in November awaits under that snow, as does the abandoned fast food wrappers, the bird that flew into a window and died, and, if you’re lucky, the keys you lost.

Alaskans know how to move from winter to spring. Let me tell you what I’ve learned.

Enjoy the sun, bask in it, look directly into it so that when you turn away you see spots of light everywhere. Breathe deeply, and keep track of how the daylight is increasing with every single day. In Anchorage, just about everyone knows how many minutes of daylight are gained every day. It’s recorded on the front page of the newspaper.

Learn to do the Alaska shuffle. Shiny black asphalt has a way of putting a spring into our steps, but remember the clear, deadly ice that you can’t see. I don’t tell you this to scare you. Not at all. Get out there and enjoy the ability to walk outside again, but do the shuffle until you find the dry places. Walk like you’re ice skating. The more contact your foot has with the icy ground, the less likely you’ll take a spill.

Rock the car when you’re stuck. If you can’t move forward, don’t keep your foot on the accelerator. When your tires spin, you just dig deeper. Get some back and forth motion going to get some momentum.

Better yet, ask someone to push you. Not only did I stop to help my neighbor this morning, but I enjoyed helping my neighbor. She and her husband have helped my family many times, and I loved being able to at least commiserate. When another neighbor joined, not only was it fun to see everyone, but her car eased right out when we pushed.

I guess it boils down to this. Remission is a relief and I wring every bit of joy out of it that I can. I bask in its warmth. But I know there are hazards. There are ruts in the road and potholes leftover from treatment. The aftermath can create flooding and standing water and reveal muck.

I try to embrace the joy and remember my boots. I realize that I might need to shuffle over the icy bits and ask my neighbors for a push. And, I’m relaxing into my well-worn jean jacket.

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