Lonely: II. Together
The loneliness of cancer derives most of all from its particularity. Speaking the respectful language of support groups, survivors repeat the truism, “Everyone’s cancer is different.” At this juncture two roads seem to diverge: Everyone’s cancer is different; therefore each of us is alone. Everyone’s cancer is different; therefore we are conjoined in and through our isolation. We walk alone with the same steps that allow us to walk together.
On Saturday, we drive past Baltimore, leave the main road, head into the woods. Amanda guides us along a muddy trail to a small waterfall that tumbles down into a calm pool. We lay out beach towels on an overgrown slope, eat gazpacho out of coffee mugs. Everyone has brought a package of tiny carrots and a container of hummus. Sated, we venture into the frigid water one at a time. Someone makes a joke about folk wisdom, but no one waits a full half hour.
Then as now, it occurs to me that the normalcy of this occasion should feel strange. In an examination room eight days earlier, my surgeon tells me that I have likely been living with cancer for a year or two, maybe more. It was discovered, as thyroid cancer almost always is, largely by chance, not because it asserted itself. Slow to metastasize, it presented little risk as those unknowing months piled up. I imagine it puttering about inside me like a new college grad, unsure what it wants to do with its life. Should I get a masters? Is it too late to go into consulting? At night I occasionally worry that the diagnosis has somehow made my cancer more aggressive. Rationally, I know that it is as languorous as ever. On Saturday, I float in chilly water and it floats with me. It is unhurried, so I allow myself to be so too.
Time passes. Someone points, showing us that Dave, already made small by the space between, is slogging upstream. Impulsively, I swim after him, clamber over the waterfall, stand in the shallow stream above. Following at a distance, I leap from rock to rock, improbably committed at first to keeping my feet dry, despite my soaking shorts. Up ahead, I see Dave sit down for a moment and then stand again before continuing on his way. I am puzzled by this action until I reach the same spot a few minutes later. Suddenly unsure of themselves, my feet slip out from under me into newly deep water and I am sitting too. Like Dave, I begin to move more carefully, eyes on the ground, sometimes crawling.
Dave and his wife Brittany were the first friends that I spoke to after I heard the news. I told them in part because they were there and in part because I knew they would respond with calm. Following Dave upstream, I am reminded of why speaking to him felt right. His path is not my own, but I take something from the determined way he walks it. Sometimes he cuts along the bank while I struggle against the current. Sometimes I trace his damp footprints over dry rocks. I neither hurry to join him nor call out for him to hold back. If he knows I am behind him, he shows no sign.
We have traveled maybe half a mile before I realize that I too am followed. Turning to review the route already taken, I see Patrick a hundred yards back, see him crouched low to maintain his balance. Somewhere behind him, Ron is also coming along, still in the spot where the rocks jut out of the water with the regularity of paving stones on an old Roman road. The four of us trudge along like this for a while, a caravan of solitary travelers. Here the stream is wide and slow, here it is narrow and fast. Fallen green ash trees reach from bank to bank, meeting to form organic arches. Small fish and tadpoles dart about in the shallows. At times we trip and fall. At times we swim, hands ahead of us to guard against submerged rocks. None of us has brought a camera. We do not need one. We will wear our cuts and bruises like memories.
Hours later at the waterfall, I mention that I swallowed a mouthful or two of the stream when I faceplanted half way back, just before I came across Catherine who had ventured out after us. Dave jokes that I have dysentery, suggests that I’ll have to make friends with the new residents of my stomach. I laugh and I do not think of cancer.
This is how I envision our loneliness. We reach out to and toward others, others we cannot touch. We do without contact, but not without their company. We are making our way upstream, making our way alone, making our way together.