After a year-long health crisis that took me completely out of the writing game, I’m on my way back. So, imagine my surprise and pleasure when, during one of Lauren’s Simply Write sessions a full-blown, post-health-crisis writing manifesto emerged. I hope it inspires you as much as it inspires me…
We were driving on the snake-like twisty part of Hwy 17 as it follows the Mississagi River out of Blind River. The sun was full, the car quiet. I was lolling around in the back seat, no belt on as was often my habit on these long rides. Our Chevy Nova was powder blue, both inside and out, with long bench seats I could stretch across.
My dad would often say this car lived up to its name—no va—a “gutless wonder.”
When I tell this story, my Dad’s voice always rings in my mind, his explanation my earliest driving lesson. “It was the end of the trip and I was tired and lazy in that sun—always take breaks when you’re driving.”
The road has two-way traffic with double-solid “no passing” lines down the middle for the kilometres where it follows the river.
We were behind a transport truck, and it was slow. There was a curve in the road ahead but Dad pulled out anyway. He crossed the double yellow line to use the passing lane on the other side of the road.
When we rounded the corner there they were—two transport trucks, one passing the other.
Square headlights and metal grills…
I remember hearing my dad say “we’re dead” before he stomped on the gas.
I remember realizing my seat belt wasn’t on and sinking down into the footwell. Curling into a ball. Waiting for the crash.
“What the hell are you doing?!” My mother’s voice (although I don’t actually remember what she said). I know there was lots of yelling.
My parents seemed to always be fighting when we were in the car but in the retelling of this story, my father says her yelling was the sweetest sound he’d ever heard.
The Chevy Nova had va’d fast enough that day.
I hate this memory. I hate looking back at it because of that feeling. That feeling of waiting for death. It’s a feeling I have averted my whole life. Until last year when I had to become intimate with it. Curled in that wheel well for far longer than it took the Chevy Nova to pass the truck.
“Suspicious for metastatic disease,” were the words on the CT scan that sent me hurtling toward the diagnosis of an invasive ductal carcinoma that had spread to my spine and the humerus bone of my right arm.
I had already been walking around with a compression fracture for weeks and slowly losing the things that mattered most to me, like getting down on the ground to play or cuddle with my girls.
My days turned into the crazy exercise of catching myself ‘doing the math’ then trying to shift my focus to my breath, to being in the present rather than wondering at the crash.
It turns out there is a new chemo pill that has shifted my kind of cancer from being a terminal disease to a chronic one.
Although I’m not crouched in the wheel well, I’m still driving down the highway. And much of my daily activities, from meditation, to physio and walking, to eating mostly vegetarian foods, to letting my feelings flow rather than ‘stuff them down my spine’ are all actually motivated by a fear of death. By the wish to be here for my two girls who are just entering puberty. By a wish to write something I can be proud of.
When I meet people in the street they inevitably ask me, often plaintively, “How are you?” What hangs in the air between us is the question, “Are you dying?”
Right now I want to write, “I’m not,” and then give you the speech I give everybody—that disease is stable; that the biomarkers are down; that there are women out there who have lived with this for 20 plus years on treatments from 20 plus years ago; that I love this diet; that everyone should exercise as much as I do; that I feel great because my health now holds the number one spot among my priorities.
These words and the actions behind them are the shield I hold up to those trucks hurtling at me on that highway. Holding it up takes strength. Constant strength. Strength I didn’t know I had. I’m no longer cowering in ignorance of my own mortality. Instead, I’m challenging myself to sit upright, with my seatbelt on, and look squarely at the road ahead.
When my Dad tells the Chevy Nova story he always ends it: “I stomped on the gas because I figured if we were gonna crash into those trucks we were gonna hit them good and hard—no lingering.”
In my life, I want to be gentler, more compassionate, ask for help, embrace rest, be in the moment. And the tough, sometimes scary stuff, like writing? I think, for me, it’s done best when I, too, stomp on the gas and hurtle down the page.