Life, Pared Down to Essentials

Cancer, depression, pandemic: Love v. fear, family edition

I had no idea how hard the pandemic hit me until I return to Paris. Standing in my parents’ bathroom, I catch a glimpse of my hip bones in the mirror. My entire body looks as exhausted as I am, deflated almost. I didn’t know this was possible but flat buttocks don’t lie. Back home in the Netherlands, there’s only one small mirror so high up above the sink I never see more than half my face in it. Good for eye make-up, not so great for lipstick unless I stand on tippy toes. As a result, the last time I really saw myself naked was when I visited my parents back in February. Although I can’t quite remember, I doubt I looked quite so… blah?

On this occasion, words fail me. What the scale reveals isn’t something I can parse. I don’t monitor my weight beyond ensuring my clothes still fit. Until I got properly dressed for travel, I wasn’t even sure they would. I’ve spent the last few months in a makeshift uniform of denim overalls, stripy shirts, and PJs. The suitcases I moved in with on the last day of 2019 remain unpacked for lack of storage — purchasing a train ticket is more important than purchasing furniture.

When I put them on, my regular clothes feel baggy but then again they’re supposed to. Although high-waisted, I notice my trousers are looser than I remember. The inside button must be on its last thread, stretched and in need of repair, I think with a sigh. I do not enjoy sewing at all.

But the naked woman in the bathroom mirror tells a different story, staring at me with a look of surprise.

Here we are. Now what?

The last time I saw a stranger in the bathroom mirror, she was looked as clueless as I feel in this moment. Weight is a source of constant concern with my parents. Cancer is eating my stepmom alive along with her appetite for food but, thankfully, not life.

Unthinkable for a lifelong gourmet and accomplished cook but cancer doesn’t care as it turns previous favorites into objects of instant revulsion, especially anything green. And yet my parents remain undaunted: Tiny portions, real food, one bite at a time. Dad cooks, variety is key. At dinner, the conversation inevitably revolves around this and the Dutch cheese and crackers I brought from Amsterdam miraculously come to the rescue. Without causing any digestive upset. Huge win.

After brain radiotherapy and a lengthy lockdown, my parents are depressed. I know the signs better than they will ever know. Or that I will ever tell them. Our family isn’t ready to let go, it will never be ready to let go but it does take enormous strength to hang on and persevere against all odds. And we’re all in this together. Even though we don’t live in the same country, we’re on the same continent again. Also, I was going to be dead and now I’m not but there’s a part of me that’s been suspended over the Atlantic since that flight from Seattle to Paris in December 2018.

Everyone in the cabin is asleep and I’m stargazing, dreaming with my eyes open, blinking away tears I won’t be able to contain if I don’t steady myself. My laptop is in the overhead bin, I won’t wake anyone so I thumb out an essay on my phone for what feels like hours. And I do not stop. Word after word after word even when there’s no energy for anything is how I live now, in this future I never thought I’d have.

We’re all alive, together. Still, although several of us weren’t supposed to be.

Here we are. Now what?

We celebrate my stepmom’s birthday, five pairs of hands flipping the bird to cancer in person and many, many, many more doing the same thing by remote. Her cellphone doesn’t cool down for 48 hours. Although my parents have withdrawn a lot lately, family and friends haven’t. Survival demands celebration, every new day does so we do exactly that. Once a year, we have better cake.

Since my stepbrother, a former chef, was in charge of catering, he presents me with a box containing two gluten-free vegan cakes of my own. I try not to cry. My heart is so full it’s overflowing, something that has been my default mode since that first flight back to the continent that grew me, amid those who made and make me capable of loving life again. And of thriving in ways forever surprising.

Life goes beyond possible every day.

Second chances are like matryoshka dolls on steroids among my loved ones, odd for staunchly secular folks whose answer to everything is a Frankie Goes To Hollywood song. We cut out the spiritual middleman and let the heart lead even when it threatens to give out. After a year living out of a suitcase in motion between two continents and several countries, my mind has finally capitulated and no longer pushes back against what it cannot understand. If the heart says go, the mind follows, and then your answer becomes a Fleetwood Mac song or a Tennyson poem.

Or both.

Love powers the world and takes innumerable shapes, it’s the light we’re all radiating, glowing bright without a flicker, pure energy binding us together. The pandemic has required more effort from everyone and hit some people harder than others but we still have poetry, we still have music, we still have one another.

Because it didn’t get us and it didn’t get you either, look!

Here we are. Now what?

There was never a total eclipse of the heart, thankfully — it just needed a stent. It’s only the mind that fried for a while, literally for my stepmom, metaphorically for me. Mine will always sizzle, it’s wired that way but there’s a fire and safety protocol now, bootstrapped from words.

And it’s a shit show, probably a little like your life has been or is.

There’s nothing remotely remarkable about human suffering apart from how universal it is. It shouldn’t be but survival is a lottery, much as we like to pretend otherwise. I collect near misses like others collect grocery store loyalty points. Somehow, they led me to a new life bursting with so much love and possibility I still can’t believe my luck. Instead of being dead yet still breathing, my brain works again, my heart has recovered its sense of wonder and enough words to get me back to functional most of the time. Intuition picks up the slack, otherworldly knowledge from a source I couldn’t name for most of my life. With absolute certainty, I could tell you exactly what love didn’t feel like. Lo and behold, my father — from whom I spent half of my formative years away after my parents divorced— proceeds to show me exactly what love is, what it does, and how it works. It’s much easier in person than by remote.

So what if we’re a few decades late?

The gist of it is this: When anything puts your loved ones in danger, you’re on high alert all the time. At least you can see and feel cancer; the ‘rona is invisible. But the combination? Lethal. So there’s been extra stress for all involved, and, well, we’ve all shed weight without trying, our mental health wobbling under the strain of it all. Humans being humans. But there’s strength in numbers, the support chain may buckle but the bonds are unbreakable, my own resilience a gift from those who lift me up day after day, no matter how corrosive the darkness which inhabits me gets.

Love is as love does.

We learned the hard way today is all we’ll ever have so we make it the best it can be under the circumstances. We embrace what is is by focusing on what there is to appreciate, not what’s missing. There’s always some good in the now if you begin to look: You’re alive. To people whose body and/or brain are prone to betraying them, this is always a little extraordinary and the novelty never wears off.

When you take the time to pause and look around, you will eventually see something that wows you, perhaps a simple detail you had overlooked, beauty amid chaos, or simply a pair of eyes — be they your cat’s — reflecting back this life force bursting out of you.

Acceptance is the key to greater ease. Why expend energy and effort pushing back against a reality you have no control over? You need this energy to imagine what could be and keep working on it despite [insert predicament].

Here we are. Now what?

I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor now based in the Netherlands. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.

The human condition is not a pathology・👋ASingularStory[at]gmail・ ☕️

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