You’re an egg, and the egg doctor discovers that the yolk isn’t quite right. So he drips a toxic liquid through a tiny pin-hole in your shell to fix the yolk. It will make you pretty sick, but don’t worry too much about that, he says. You concede, because you’re sad to hear that your yolk is problematic. The drops go in, and sure enough, you get sick. And you think, this sucks. But I better keep going, or I’ll lose my precious yolk. Eventually you realize that the drops have destroyed your yolk. But your shell is intact, so you appear to be a fine egg. An admirable one in fact, for staying positive while this terrible poison wreaks havoc. The destruction isn’t so much the internal organs or the endocrine system or the hormones, which are, incidentally, totally fucked; it’s really your psyche, your soul and your sense of yourself as an egg of any worth at all.
Periodically I step into the bathroom to vomit, or shit or both. I realize that the sink is a better place to vomit, reserving the toilet for lower elimination. If I happen to be in the kitchen, that sink also works nicely. I can balance myself on the counter’s edge, toes still on the floor, and retch directly into the drain, which is shaped like a + sign. Or an x. Depends on your angle.
It’s the last day of the weekend following chemo. Today is especially intense because of the rash that has erupted around the right side of my rib cage. This is possibly the worst pain I’ve ever known. The rash is shingles, so named because of the overlapping blisters on the skin that break and crust over. Shingles is caused by a virus that lies dormant after you’ve had chicken pox. Until your immune system is regrettably compromised by, say, cancer. Then it can emerge and burn, like a raging fire on your skin. If there is an upside, it’s that the virus claims a defined space and remains just there, inflicting its torture for weeks. My doctor prescribed an anti-viral medication, a giant pill to be swallowed five times per day. You can imagine, given the current state of my GI tract, what happens to that tablet just after I’ve choked it down. I will go on to have four separate bouts of shingles, years apart, but always in the same place on my body. I think four is plenty.
The steroids they give me to suppress an auto-immune disorder distort my face most of all. I don’t recognize the bloated, panting, crying woman who stares into the mirror after she vomits. The effect is more than mongoloid, my cheeks and throat are darkly discolored, and there are puffy purple skin folds beneath my eyes. I look horrific.
My beautiful mother swooned over and married a young Air Force Captain from a prominent family. Four years later, after the births of my older brother and sister, the young airman realized that pregnancy had changed my mother’s comely figure, and small children meant that she’d have less time for him, so he abandoned her for another woman. Shortly after returning home to her family in Pennsylvania, she discovered that she was pregnant with me. While still sharing her body, she and I experienced together what must have been my first feelings of despair. Later, she told me that I had been the reason she hadn’t jumped from Scranton’s Harrison Avenue bridge. I try to imagine her state of mind at the time. A divorced, devout Catholic woman in the early 1960s, with two preschool-age children, a third baby on the way, her dreams of marriage shattered. Separated from childhood friends, as military wives are, and devoting her energy to child-rearing rather than to nursing, her chosen profession. Returning to a family that now regards her with disappointment; she just could not hold onto her man. I suppose I understand.
She married the priest when I was five. He had been her counselor for marriage annulment. Pursuing my mother, he crossed a few lines in religious ethics, I’d venture to say. The engagement shocked both families. My mother was labeled a seductress; she had lured a man of God from his spiritual calling. So our new family moved far away from Pennsylvania and the input of my mother’s family. Out on the Oklahoma prairie, my step-father soon realized that his three newly adopted children did not love him, and with the inhibition that comes with alcohol, he began a pattern of addiction and brutal physical abuse that would last for decades.
My step-father is beating me up in my bed. I left a candle burning in the bathroom of our new house in rural Oklahoma. He is understandably agitated, but the alcohol on his breath tells me that I am his punching bag for other reasons too. I am eight, but I know this. His thick fists are relentless, and his rage is blind. I just want him to stop hurting me. I just want to disappear. I silently float to the corner of the bedroom ceiling, and I watch the scene until he exhausts his fury and finally leaves. I wait up there for a while, until it’s safe to return to my bruised and bloodied body. Then I slip back in and steel myself against the pain, focusing instead on the liquid all over my face. It’s nice that our blood is so warm, so that we can have this small comfort in the aftermath of violence.
I find writing to be helpful because it gives me a chance to replenish my inner spring with fresh, clear water. My sense of what is right, even with all that is so terribly wrong. Some of the most beautiful gardens in the world have shit at their roots.
After college, I married and divorced twice in the next ten years. Then, in my mid-thirties, I became reckless. Angry and dangerous, mostly to myself. Too many slammed doors, too much unprotected sex, too many close calls on two wheels. Surviving those years without an STD or a catastrophic collision was my first cosmic gift. But even after therapy, even after I had left behind the men and the motorcycles, I was still a frenzied workaholic and an endurance athlete, using sugar and caffeine to get through endless late nights at the office and pushing my body through punishing daily workouts. It was then that the universe offered me a second gift, a prized possession: stillness. A mandatory exit ramp from life’s treadmill. It came in the form of blood cancer. Leukemia stopped me as nothing else could.
Joe came along, astonishing in his goodness, when I was truly clinging to life. He told me that I would beat the cancer and we would get married, he said we’d have a baby and the baby would be a girl. I told him that he was crazy, but I liked him.
After the first remission, the wedding, my pregnancy and the birth of our daughter, I reminded my husband of his predictions. “Did I say all that? Huh. What do you know.”
About the Author
Elizabeth Castronovo has lived with cancer for 22 years. Through tears, laughter, and writing, she clings to the thread of sanity. She maintains a daily sense of awe while taking long walks around the lakes with her dog. She lives in Minneapolis with her family.