Cancer, coronavirus, and crisis: the privilege of small things

It’s not that the small things don’t matter. Oh, they do. It’s just that sometimes the siren is screaming so loudly that you can’t enjoy the sound of the thumping paws of cats on the floor above you chasing each other.

On some days the small things are the only thing. Like chilled half-n-half swirling in hot coffee. Or a crisp Jazz Apple. Or the satisfying task of splitting open the toilet paper package and delivering all the fresh rolls to the bathroom cupboards.

As I moved cautiously through the grocery store today, trying hard to keep six feet between me and the next person without seeming to brand them a threat, I found no half-n-half, no Jazz Apples, and no toilet paper. I’m no hoarder. But I am usually a week ahead of running out of things.

We’ll make do without these things. They are, after all, small things. We have canned milk, honey crisp apples and enough toilet paper at home to get by.

In a time of crisis, sometimes the very best you can do is to survive, and survival is a blunt thing. It is staying indoors and making do without milk or apples.

I remember being in the grocery store the October after I was diagnosed with cancer the previous August. Two young women were fussing over the snacks they were going to buy for their Friday movie night. I remember looking at them blankly, not being able to fathom caring about snacks or Fridays or movies. I remember the anxiety that I felt in that moment, the gnawing need to be able to care about such small things.

When survival is called into question, my view becomes narrowed to tunnel vision. My tight, telephoto focus is on me and mine. It’s amazing what you can shuffle to the back of the deck when you need to.

But it’s also amazing how quickly your quality of life diminishes when you keep shuffling and shuffling.

Time gets distorted during a crisis. People tell you to live in the moment, and I’m here to tell you that sometimes the only place you can live is the moment. And the moment is hell. It is filled with a loud voice on repeat, “Danger, Danger, Danger, Danger.”

But sometimes time stretches out like the hallway in a terror flick. You’re running, running, and the monster is chasing you and the hall gets longer and longer. Time has no end. Like in the waiting room at the hospital or the doctor’s office. You keep thinking, “If only I can get to the CT machine, I’ll make it.”

In times like these just waking up feels dangerous. And that feeling steels away the joy of a first cup of coffee.

So we’re going without small things. No working in coffee shops, no meeting and hugging friends at a restaurant, no surfing the web during a boring meeting and buying new shoes while two colleagues fuss over a policy.

Human beings aren’t a distant kind. We need each other. And when we feel threatened, we need each other to be close.

But here we are, living in the midst of global crisis and in the midst of our own personal crises. You may be in treatment and wondering if you’ll be able to continue with it. You may not know when your next paycheck is coming. You may live alone and need the physical embrace of a friend.

I wish that you are able to find some joy in small things, that you can turn down the screaming siren, and that you stay safe and well.

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