Dread and terror are best dispersed by mundane reality.
At the age of 15, as I made the final steps into my isolation room for a bone marrow transplant for Hodgkin lymphoma at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, my dark visions, my fears, of deranged patients chained to walls, moaning and groaning, were dispelled by sterility, cleanliness, orderliness, and fluorescent light. The bed linens were bleached, starched, and perfectly white. The sink and toilet were bleached and white. The plastic drawers for my underwear, pajamas, and sweatpants were empty, cold, and hard. Perhaps the world was empty, cold, and hard, but it was not malevolent. It did not have evil intentions. It was as neutral as linoleum tile. It was precise as a needle and syringe. Now I had to make a place for myself in it. Something human, rumpled, messy, with a little color, a little spirit, a little humor, and a little individuality.
I had similar irrational fears as a fifty-three year old approaching my first systemic treatment, chemo and targeted therapy, at Cross Cancer Institute in Edmonton. This was not spring in Seattle, where the sun shone and I caught a glimpse of Puget Sound from the window. Snow and ice were in the air and coating the roads. The sky was gray. Nevertheless, inside the building, it was the same sterility, banality, and orderliness. Lines, forms of identification, process, administration, waiting, release. It was not the dark hellhole my subconscious spewed and spread. The institution functioned. The staff were helpful, filling the time like the patients filled the time, until it passed and we could all go home and breathe easier.
So much of life is a gray area, when my natural tendencies are extremes of white and black. If it’s cancer, it must mean torture and probable death. But perhaps I will get a chance to live a toned down narrative, one that rides in the middle of the stream, that proceeds more centrally down the path. Not a battering between exhilaration and despair, although I’m sure there will be some of that. More finding my way with each step, with each breath, living not in perfect confidence or in certain futility, but with a mix of hope and trepidation, startling, human, adult, and resolutely clear.