Woman in the Rain
Photo: Thinkstock
I swim lean, vigorous strokes through an alexandrite blue ocean. I laugh and dive and let the sun wash over my face. I sprint and swoop and ride the waves. And then I wake up.

My bedroom develops like a Polaroid, getting sharper as it comes slowly into focus. There on the night table are nine different pills and a syringe I've set out for the morning. Beside them are the sterile gauze and Betadine I use to clean the catheter that's sewn into my chest. The bottle of Betadine not only disinfects, it also serves as a paperweight for the dozen insurance forms that need to be filled out and mailed before the weekend. On the other side of my bed hangs an IV drip for nutrition and hydration. What doesn't kill me sure does keep me from riding many waves.

I've had cancer for a third of my life. I've watched people get well and I've watched people die while I scramble from standard drug to new procedure to experimental protocol, buying time till the next big breakthrough. These treatments chip at my body bit by bit. They've screwed up both of my kidneys and damaged my heart. They've made the soles of my feet burn and my fingertips numb with neuropathy. There's no vision in my left eye; my digestive system is shot; I've become severely anemic, prone to depression, unable to have a baby or a frozen margarita or any long-range plans. What's that old joke about the ad for a lost dog? "Blind, incontinent, no teeth, missing right leg, tail, and part of an ear. Answers to the name Lucky."

I'd love to say that you've caught me at an off moment, but the fact is I whine a lot. (A fellow patient once told me he'd never heard anyone complain so much—and he'd spent 19 months in the Hanoi Hilton.) It seems one of the unspoken side effects of cancer (at least for me) is extreme crankiness. My body has betrayed me and I'm mad as hell. But wallowing in righteous indignation only gets a girl so far. So these days I'm focusing on what this decidedly soft, slightly used, utterly ridiculous 41-year-old body can do. This body, after all, is me.

And what I can do is make the best kid I know laugh hysterically simply by feigning shock and revulsion at the sight of a plastic tarantula. I can pitch a baseball, though word on the street is that I throw like a girl—or worse, like Chuck Knoblauch. I can cook a chicken Marbella that makes people from Marbella (okay, Brooklyn) beg for the recipe. Furthermore, I have what can only be described as a superhuman gift for picking ripe pineapples. I can listen closely to my friends, my instincts, and Glenn Gould playing the "Goldberg Variations"—which I'm told Bach wrote for a Russian count with severe insomnia. On my better days, I can do laundry, dishes, and all things sexual. I can hold down a full-time job, hold up my end of the conversation, and shop with the kind of abandon seldom seen outside of Times Square on New Year's Eve. The time will come when I can't do all these things, but what I know for certain is that I will maintain my identity, which is still rooted in my body—imperfect though it may be.
Control isn't always possible, but feeling and imagination and a touch of transcendence are. I've taken to grabbing a cup of tea and heading for the roof of my Lower East Side apartment building on mornings when sleep doesn't seem to be an option. Last Thursday at 6:40 A.M., it was pouring. The drops of rain pelting against tin flowerpots sounded like bacon frying. The air smelled like geraniums and lasagna—the old Italian restaurant on the ground floor was already prepping for the lunch crowd. My sweatpants were soaked, my hair was dripping, one of my slippers was floating away, but lights were starting to switch on all over the neighborhood. Oyster-colored trench coats and black umbrellas were beginning to make their way down Second Avenue. Here were people and puddles and pigeons and trees and taxis, and I got to experience every deliciously drenched inch of it.

I have cancer but I also have windy summer mornings in the rain and an active sense of awe at all that I can still touch and taste and see and hear and breathe in at any given moment. I have the crystal-clear understanding that recovery is worth only as much as the life you're recovering.

Lila Keary is a frequent O contributor.

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