I read an essay a few months ago by David Rakoff called “Another Shoe,” which details his second bout with cancer at 49. His first was lymphoma in his twenties, and now there is a tumor in his shoulder, probably caused by the radiation he had the first time around. This newest cancer threatens to cause the removal of his entire left arm, which, you can imagine, is a particularly daunting notion for a writer. (The best part of the essay comes when he practices what life would be like with one arm, literally tying one hand behind his back and trying to go about his day.) The biggest thing he takes away from the experience is extreme gratitude for not losing his arm, and this: the decision to live without letting the fear of death swallow him whole. He also accurately observes that we are all dealt a fair amount of crap in this life, and the best way to respond is to simply get back to the business of grocery shopping, getting our hair cut, paying our parking tickets, and loving the people we love—because life continues on, whether we are participating or not.
I wanted to steal everything about this essay, right down to Rakoff’s assessment of “the depressing neutral almond color of all aids designed to help the ill and infirm.” And recently, his acute observation struck me anew as I stood in the middle of a horror show called The Beaverton Pharmacy. I was there looking for a new sling for my mom’s paralyzed right arm. She’d already gone through a few since brain surgery left her unable to use her right side, but most were uncomfortable and needed constant adjustment. I was on a mission to find something better, armed with the will and purpose of a completely obsessed caretaker. The obsession originates from the feeling of helplessness that lives within me while I watch my mother actively dying. I have no power to take that away, so I will do whatever I can to improve some other small corner of her life. The almond-colored everything at the Beaverton Pharmacy personified all of my fears about getting old, death and dying, brought to life as they were via compression socks, commodes, walkers, thinning hair, and even thinner skin. But on this day I held my fear at bay while searching for the perfect sling, resisting the urge to sprint out the door, past the scented candles and stuffed pigs and mint candies at the register.
Back at home, the new sling fit perfectly and eliminated the constant pulling and straining. I had solved a tiny problem in the grand scheme of my mother’s dying. This made me feel better for about an hour. It was worth it.
As I consider the sling and Rakoff’s essay together, I am lead almost inevitably to the concept of karma. Why is Rakoff sentenced to two bouts with cancer, one perhaps caused by treatment of the other? Why is my mother not only dying of brain cancer, but paralyzed, entirely dependent, losing her memory, her thoughts, and her ability to speak more rapidly each day?
When I asked my mom to explain how someone as healthy as she gets terminal cancer—thirty years of yoga and meditation, not smoking or drinking for nearly as long, twenty of vegetarianism—she said it was all “bullshit, really” when it came up against her karma. She meant not only for this lifetime, on this plane, but for all those other lifetimes she’s lived. She believes that for whatever myriad reasons, her soul chose the particular set of circumstances with which she is currently grappling. All of it is difficult for me to reconcile on any plane or lifetime, but I try, given my respect for her beliefs and the ways in which they have so influenced my own.
Until my mom got sick, I lived with a linear idea of karma, as in: do good, do right, and the same will be done in your direction. My family had already survived what appeared to be a fatal cancer a few years before, when my sister was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer at 28. When she came out clean and clear, our family united in ways we never had before, and I foolishly assumed that we were now safe. We had shown the universe that we could overcome, and therefore our lives would be easier from here on out, and hopefully a bit more normal. My naivete was quickly undone when my sister’s remission almost caused the demise of our relationship. And my skull was nearly crushed by the stupidity of my assumption when my mother received her diagnosis.
This did not, however, stop me from doing some karma math more recently, on a much smaller scale. Last winter, I applied for the Stegner Fellowship at Stanford (2,000 applicants for 5 fiction slots, 5 poetry slots—”long shot” does not even begin to describe it). I had been living with my parents for a year by then, helping to take care of my mom, and miraculously, she had already outlived her prognosis. I was grieving, caretaking, trying to find the time to write, waiting tables (miserably), all while maintaining a long-distance relationship. It was starting to feel endless, and I had no clear sense of what to do next. I figured karma and the Stegner people owed me the fellowship as a solution to all of these problems, as getting it would create a deadline for when to leave my mother, put me in the same city as my boyfriend, and give me the time and money to write. Voila! Life simplified.
Alas, I did not get the fellowship, and was informed via a very personal email which began “Dear Mims,” and went on to describe a talented applicant pool and please, do apply next year, as we love to see writers progress. Oh, fuck you is what I thought—and then: fuck me—because the onus of my future was once again upon me. Although it took me a couple of days to stop hyperventilating, I got over it. This doesn’t mean I’m not still terrified about my career prospects or making the decision of if/when to leave my mother; it’s just that when I’m calm enough, I’m able to remind myself that it’s simply the unknown—nothing more, nothing less. This too, I’ve realized, is all part of my karma.
What I’ve had to accept, especially in light of my mother’s response to her illness, is that what happens is supposed to happen—this is the part of life we can’t control. We can only control our reactions to events, and throughout her life and particularly now, she has chosen to live, love, and laugh while doing her best to give up her worrywart tendencies. As a result, she is almost completely present and her moments of suffering are just that: moments.
Last spring, I was reminded how few of us live this way. Shortly after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, I was in line at the grocery store in Portland as rumors of radioactive milk swirled on the news. My checker was laughing about how much kelp and iodine he’d sold that day. I asked him why people were buying that stuff, and he told me radiation poisoning. “From Japan,” he said. “Because of the ocean tide patterns. I was in New York on 9/11, surrounded by people freaking out, buying duct tape and bottled water. Honey, I am over the panic.”
I nodded, thinking about my ex-boyfriend’s reaction on 9/11. I was living in Hollywood at the time, he in Santa Monica. He wanted me to drive out there and buy gas masks along the way, thinking we’d be safer by the sea. I refused and told him it was senseless to react this way. As a result, we spent the day huddled in our separate apartments, watching the footage, struggling to understand what it all meant.
Truth be told, I continue to struggle to understand what any of it means—life, death, love, fate, etc.—but part of what I’ve learned over the last few years is that sometimes, it’s useless to ponder why. Living with the prospect of things that are difficult to prepare for — the earthquake, the tsunami, the terrorists, the diagnosis, the radioactive fallout, the loss — has mostly to do with giving up control. And expectations. And fear. If I am living only in anticipation of a moment in the future when my mother is going to die, I risk losing all of the moments I still have left with her. So I have to make the conscious decision every day (sometimes every ten minutes) to not let fear of the future swallow me whole. As Rakoff so eloquently points out, there’s not a hell of a lot more we can really do.