What’s Normal Again?




I went to Kaiser yesterday before work to have labs drawn, a normal
procedure, checking to see what my blood cell count levels are, if my white
counts are up yet, since they’re really an indicator of my post-chemo health. Afterward, I
drove to work (thankfully, and gratefully, using my co-worker’s car for the
month) and got to the tasks I do, and then I got an email from my doctor that
said, “Call me.”
Please, for any of you who will ever be, are, or have been a
doctor, PLEASE do not ever write to a patient, “Call me,” with no further
explanations, ever. You know what happens? Fear. Panic. Terror.
My stress level only got perhaps as far as fear, not panic,
as I didn’t expect to hear anything other than what I knew from looking at my
labs online: my white count dipped back down from earlier this week. So I
called my doctor from my work phone, which was perhaps not the best idea on my
part either. And she said that likely the low counts are due to the antibiotics
I’ve been taking, and that my oncologist interprets, that as the rest of my
blood cell counts (red blood cells, platelets) have recovered well, there’s no
reason this result should indicate anything. Anything like cancer, are the
unspoken words.
And so, I spoke them. I asked her, in a straight voice,
sitting in a non-ergonomic chair, in an office with people walking by, and
other phone lines ringing: Could my low white counts be an indication that there are leukemic cells? 
She said no, and repeated what she said earlier about the
other cell lines recovering, and the antibiotics having a tendency to reduce
white cells. And so, she took me off the antibiotics, told me to come back in a week for follow-up lab tests.
And I got off the phone. And I tried to do my work,
updating calendars, making copies, and I couldn’t hold it. I couldn’t hold
that line, that dissociation, that compartmentalizing, that managing. I couldn’t manage. And so I went
to lunch, which meant I walked to a nearby park, sat down in the grass and bawled.
I  don’t  know  how  to  do  this.
I don’t know how to be on the phone with my oncologist one
minute, asking if I’m fucking dying, using the words “Leukemic cells,!!!” and then answer a question about an item
in our gift shop the next. I don’t know how to hold that. That inevitable
reality of life and death at the same time. The “normalcy” of “real life” and
the abnormality of what’s happening in my own real life.
When I was leaving the lab yesterday morning, my nurse, whom
I’ve now known pretty regularly for 6 months, who’s seen my hair fall out, my
weight drop 15 pounds, my color fade and return, she asked if I was heading to
work. And I said yes, “back to real life.” Then I asked her if that was really
more real life than this. More of a “real” world than the room where people
sat getting infusions and machines beeped to keep others alive.
She said she didn’t know how to answer that. And I
responded, maybe it’s all the real world.
There is nothing that makes answering phones and creating
pamphlets more “real” than cancer. It’s just that it’s the more “normal” world,
the more accustomed world. For others. For me, right now, the “normal” world is
like an alien planet, where I’m aping the motions and actions of those around
me, those actions I know to be interpreted as normal. As average. If I act like
one of you, I’ll be one of you.
But I’m not.
No, I’m not special, different, have more or less pain than
anyone, but at the moment, I’m not plain, average, or managing.
When, after work (which I left early, following another
mid-afternoon meltdown, unable to stem the flow of confused, angry, exhausted
tears) I went to a nearby friend’s house, and sat on her couch crying, and I
sobbed that I don’t know how to do this – to integrate these worlds, to manage
this situation, to walk from what was into what is – she replied kindly, You
are doing it.
So, this is it. Messy. Uncomfortable. Jarring.
This is how you walk out of acute trauma: slowly, inexpertly,
and by being honest when too much is too much. 

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