letter to sensei glioblastoma on our third anniversary

July 22, 2022

Dear sensei glioblastoma

            Today is the third anniversary of discovering your presence in my brain. I thought you disappeared last October when I said with amazement that I was clear for a year. But this week’s MRI shows you are back with a few little friends. The R word has changed from remission to recurrence, at least for now. Apparently, my attempt to bribe the MRI technician to erase any spots wasn’t enough.

            I wonder what you want of me. Is there some lesson I have not yet completed? Or is there some new lesson about which I’m not even aware that requires your renewed presence?

            I tried to picture you as a little cartoon character, bristling with growth, a little cartoon bubble coming out of your mouth saying “I’m baaaaack” just like Randy Quaid says when he flies up the asshole of the alien spacecraft in Independence Day. It’s good for a short laugh.

            Maybe you have returned to help me figure out a kinder strategy to deal with those who hear the news and make statements like “you must be devastated.” “You must feel gut punched.” “You must have some difficult decisions ahead in terms of quality and quantity.” Maybe the news hasn’t really registered yet, maybe I’m in denial, but right now, what comes out of me sounds snippier and snarkier than I’d like. I need to practice saying something like thank you for your concern, but no, I don’t feel devastated. No, I don’t feel gut punched. Some of the decisions might actually be simple to make, like today I need to water the trees, later this afternoon we will hang the garlic we harvested this morning under the porch to dry. I trust that my body will continue to take care of basic decisions such as nap when I’m tired, eat when I’m hungry, drink water even if I’m not thirsty. My heart takes care of the rest — keep working with my incarcerated students, make art when the visions come, walk out into the field and bow to Esperanza, and most importantly, stay connected with those I love, especially my best friend Henry.

Sensei, maybe you can help me deal with the Western attitude towards cancer. I don’t appreciate the militarized language, in particular the word fight. I bet you don’t either. I see you and your kin as teachers to learn more about spirit, soul, love, mortality, and the big question — why are we here? I don’t think it’s to fight. I need to say please don’t put words in my mouth. Please don’t project your anxiety on to me. Please don’t tell me how to feel based on how you feel. It’s not my job to make you feel better because you are scared and anxious to hear what’s happening with me. I need to say “if you really want to help me, face your own mortality. Deal with your own fear. Be present. Do your job.” But usually I’m left feeling that unless someone has faced cancer or some other mortal illness, or unless they have been sensitized to these issues, they are just not going to get it. And I have to forgive them for that.

Watching PBS the other night, Henry and I were mesmerized by the new images from Hubble, infinite galaxies spinning towards us from deep space, dark matter giving birth to stars, black holes swallowing everything. Somehow these images superimposed themselves upon the images Doctor Monroe showed us of my own brain – the reinvigorated spiral galaxy in the right parietal lobe, and the little bits of star babies showing up as white spots here and there. Infinity without and infinity within. Beautiful. Thanks for that.

Sensei, I am counting on you to help guide me through round two. Clearly you are not done yet. I’m not either. Maybe there’s another book and another carving. For sure there are more paintings and many more glorious sunrises and sunsets. We are both star stuff and we are both still alive. May I remind you that since you have chosen me as a host, that means if you kill me, you will die too. Let’s work together, Kathy san

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