September 16th, 2008: Since I hadn’t heard from the oncologist who had been assigned to my biopsy, I called his office to find out the lab results. At five that afternoon, my friend Maureen Kroll (who also happens to be a therapist) arrived for our first visit since I left the hospital. We were settling in to our conversation when the phone rang. Dr. Hufford, the oncologist, briefly told me that the biopsy indicated that I had a sarcoma type malignancy. So, the mass wasn’t a benign tumor or a cyst. I had cancer. Or, as I said to myself as I held the phone to my ear: “I have cancer.” Dr. Hufford promised to get me in for a consultation as quickly as possible. Then I put the phone down and went into the living room to tell Maureen the unexpected news.
When a crisis occurs, I quickly become very, very calm and organized. This can be useful. My ability to cruise through a war zone with an agenda and an identity was a prime coping mechanism when I was growing up in my episodically violent family. It served me well as an HIV caregiver during the first 14 years of the epidemic. I told Maureen that I had cancer, gave it its proper name and told her that I was stunned. Lucky me to have a therapist in the facing chair as well as a close friend. Maureen was splendid; she helped me to contain the shock during the rest of her visit. I had dinner, called Lorenzo in Seattle and gave him the news and decided that I’d had more than enough for one day. But once in bed, I couldn’t sleep.
Although I have worked as a volunteer doing end-of-life care for many, many years, I had never faced my own mortality. I couldn’t do it conceptually. As part of my hospice training, I’d done guided meditations that led me into a hypothetical cancer diagnosis, through various treatments of diminishing success until it was time to saying goodbye to my friends through the final day of my life. The meditation included feeling my spirit rise up out of my body just before my physical death. This was not a problem for me to imagine. In the mid-70’s I had experienced a life-altering out-of-body experience. Briefly, I had felt myself exit my body slowly, I had seen myself lying on the floor while looking down from the ceiling, and after about 20 minutes in some other dimension, I had slowly returned into my physical self. This experience convinced me that the after death state included sensate faculties of hearing, seeing, smelling as well as cognition and the full range of feeling. My interest in death and dying were supported by the advent of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s writings, and when I moved to San Francisco in July 1980, one of my commitments was to start doing hospice work. My destiny led me to learn bedside care from Eileen Lemus who had started a small, hospice program at San Francisco General Hospital. I worked with poor men who had various cancers, and then, in mid-1982 I met Michael Maletta who was laying in a hospital room at SF General with a complex list of debilitating illnesses that seemed likely to kill him in his late 30’s. AIDS had arrived in San Francisco.
I have sat at the bed of many people during their terminal illnesses. I have sat with people as they died and continued to sit with their bodies for a time after their death. But I had never sat at my own bedside until the night of September 16th. That night, I realized that I would die. Not necessarily from my current sarcoma diagnosis, but that I would physically die. This was so difficult for me to grasp that I digressed into estate planning, and deciding who to gift with my rugs, my glass, my furniture. After an hour and a half, I had disposed of my worldly goods. “What now,” I wondered. Then, finally, I burst into tears.