Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Saying Goodbyes

For the approximately two weeks between the discovery of my tumor and the operation, I did my best to keep others from knowing.  After a few days I managed to act more or less like my usual self, and distributed any additional information on a need-to-know basis, which meant that my manager, my CEO and my HR person knew, but very few others.  I work for a family-owned business (though not owned by my family) and so each of these people knew me personally and was very supportive, particularly HR, whose son had won a fight with another sort of cancer.

I also told a good friend and co-worker, let's call him Sam.  We chat frequently, so he knew that I was having visual problems and he knew that I'd been scheduled for an MRI.  I felt it only fair that he know the results.  He was out the week of the 17th, but the following Monday I asked him if he could step outside for a moment so we could speak privately.  There, behind the emergency exit, standing on an untended grass field beside some rough woodland, I told him about the mass they had found.  For a time, he spoke to me delicately.  We went and got some burgers for lunch a few days later, something very unusual for him as he typically brings his own lunch. 

As my job demands adherence to a publication schedule - regardless of an editor's health - I had to train our research assistant to cover for me in my absence.  Now, he's not a bad guy and I have nothing against him, but I wasn't entirely comfortable handing over my book to anyone like that.  I had inherited it from my friend and mentor years ago after he died of pancreatic cancer, and I turned it from a side-project into a stand-alone product successful enough to justify my salary.  This research assistant had a reputation for convoluted writing, and during his brief training he didn't even respect the work enough to take down any notes on the fairly complicated procedure of updating one of my reports.  As such, I had to show him twice.

He knew that I would be taking about a month off but no one had told him why, which was by my request.  I ran into him at the supermarket and he asked me if everything was all right.

It was a reasonable question, and also a difficult one.  It's one that should only be asked with the expectation of an honest answer.  I told him, simply, "no," and refused to go any further into detail.  Of course he would eventually know the full story.  Everyone would.  I arranged with the HR person to have a message distributed after I left, one with minimal detail other than an assurance that I had taken a necessary leave for medical reasons.

I spent a lot of time thinking about who I should tell, and how much.  I tend to deal with problems alone so I needed my personal space, and my parents kindly kept my other relatives in the dark or otherwise at bay.  I began to collect a list of names, of people who wanted to be kept up to date, and wanted to know how things turned out.  I e-mailed two of my friends from university, with whom I hadn't communicated in nearly two years; I was convinced that I'd done something wrong, or that they'd tired of me and no longer wished to know me.  Still, we had been through enough that I felt they should know.   Two hours later, the three of us were getting dinner together.  One of them lives an hour and a half away.  Just like old times.

Up until the afternoon of June 28th, during my last two hours of work before leaving, my co-workers thought I would be taking a vacation in Canada.  I'd wanted to go for some time and made no secret of it, and as I'm not the sort to take time off often I had about a month of vacation saved up.  I had actually planned to take a trip just like that earlier in the year, but fortunately kept putting it off.

That day we had a little ice cream party in our cafeteria.  I attended, though it was unrelated to me or my departure.  About two dozen people came, then eventually wandered off, back to their own work until there were only five of us left.  Sam, two others I'll call Jack and Jill (who will have their roles to play later in my story), a fourth, and myself.  A bit of good luck, as I those were the four I wanted to know the truth before I left.  So, quietly, standing by the refrigerator beside a sticky table, I told them that I was not going to Canada.  I told them where I was really going.

It is truly amazing, how good people can be.  Or at least, it is truly amazing how good people can be to me.  I had known them to be my friends and I had known I could trust them, but in part due to my disease I had never realized how much they cared about me.  I didn't know anyone cared about me that much, and that was the hardest part.  For most of my life, this cancer has blinded me to my own worth.

Everyone now obviously knows that I did not go to Canada, and what really happened.  There are only a few things that can make a scar like that, after all.  They say they understand why I lied, but I think they only get part of it.  It wasn't just about privacy.  It was for the same reason I started wearing a bandana when my hair began to fall out: I did not want to be a disease to them.  I did not want to be a constant reminder that brain cancer exists, or that their friend has it.  I wanted them to see me, instead of what may come.

Even as I got my affairs in order, another thought occupied my mind in the days leading up to the surgery.  I do not believe in such a thing as a soul.  I believe that personality, memories, and identity are derived from the brain.  Primarily, the frontal lobe.

And I was about to lose nearly half of mine.

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