That we are imprisoned by our well-earned routines has never been a question. After I switched from a 1967 Camaro to a 2016 Prius, it took me months to remember not to reach for a key. Sometimes, when driving down 30th Avenue, I’ll make the wrong turn into an apartment complex I lived in forty-nine years ago. In the early morning hours I might jolt awake drenched in sweat, having spent the night in the angry clenches of a former wife. Today, waking in a resort villa the likes of which I’ve never imagined, I step into the shower, focus my aging eyes on the bottles in the soap rack, and remove the lid from the shampoo in preparation for a nice lather, like I’ve done my whole life. Then I lift a palm full of thick liquid toward my head, only to be reminded that I haven’t had a beard or hair since the ninth round of chemo. It makes me laugh out loud, and I lather my shiny scalp anyway.
There was a time I considered myself a role model: for my students, their parents, my fellow teachers, my family and friends, anyone who’d listen and pay attention to what I had to share. I wrote books, presented ideas to teachers in their classrooms and at local and national conferences. I was pure, dedicated, driven in my quest for knowledge and truth. But something shifted, as if the tumblers in locks had magically been altered. It may have had something to do with the Loma Prieta earthquake and the loss of lives. It could have been the insanity of the Gulf Wars. Or working for a corporate monster like Apple for eleven months. Or simply the rotation and replacement of brain cells. Thirty years later I can hear the brass tumblers realigning themselves. I may publish another book. This time it will be about what I don’t know.
The Extra Year
The poet Brenda Shaughnessy read at Peace United Church last week. She said that she’d been struggling with writing an opera libretto, but had just been given an extra year to finish it. What would I do if I was given an extra year? The first week I would make a list: (1) travel to Mürren, Switzerland, take a tram into the carless town, eat frog leg scampi at the restaurant with the view of the Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau; (2) while in Europe, revisit the Rodin Museum, admire The Gates of Hell; (3) return to Amsterdam to hunt for the houseboat with more than fifty cats; (4) write a minimum of 365 new prose poems; (5) spend more time watching birds; (6) add items to this list; (7) continue to add more while doing nothing.
My wife has taken Pepper to the vet this morning. She is losing her hair, doesn’t like her food, has growths on her skin, moves slowly after eighty-four dog years. I’m ordering a blueberry-banana smoothie with whey protein at New Leaf Market on 41st when the text comes in: “Pepper is almost done.” I double over, weeping. We’ve known her only a couple of years, but we’ve become close. She’s ours. The second text follows, after I’ve righted myself: “She’s getting IV fluids, antibiotics, and going home with special food for her upset stomach.” After twelve weeks of chemo I know how she feels. Will someone text me when I’m almost done?
I have a port in my chest, buried beneath the skin, with a small plastic tube that runs up to my carotid artery and back down to the right atrium of my heart. The port makes life easier for the nurses who draw my blood and fill my veins with Abraxane and Gemzar every Wednesday. It seems a waste to access it so infrequently, so I’ve made my own use for the port: I bare my chest, lie flat on the bed, close my eyes, and plug into the universe, the accidental and intentional light shooting down into the port, through every cell in my body, cycling through and around my pancreas and lifting gently the tendrils wrapped around arteries and veins. I allow the doctors their established protocols to shrink my tumor, but I retain my right to use other methods, ones that fall outside their means.