The Sedimentary Layers

It started with my mouthpiece. I dropped it. Or more accurately it fell out of my mouth while I was sleeping. My mouthpiece is a hard piece of clear plastic made from a mold of my teeth. Designed by Dr. Darrick Nordstrom, the Nor-Snor treats sleep apnea and prevents snoring. It was a costly piece of plastic, $500 hundred bucks, but it’s created peace in my bedroom and someday my blood pressure will thank me. I’ve been wearing this device nightly for over a year, ever since I felt recovered enough from cancer treatment to indoctrinate myself into a new health regime. For the most part, I love my Nor-Snor, but sometimes in the middle of the night, it falls out on to my pillow where it waits patiently for me till morning.

A couple of weeks ago, the Nor-Snor fell out the night before our housecleaners was to come, and I failed to find it in its usual hiding places in the few minutes I had before racing off to drive the carpool. I figured it was tangled in the bedding and that I’d find it later. But later, it wasn’t there. I grew worried that one of the animals had chewed it up or carried it out into the yard (they’re drawn to the moist smell of saliva) or that our cleaner has inadvertently thrown it away. Karyn, who is universally known as “The Finder” because she rarely fails to find missing items, did one of her systematic searches, even combing through the garbage, but to no avail.

When I left to go on my big Walk, the search had to be put off. After I returned home triumphant and exhausted, I started looking again. I was even willing to do a major search of the no-man’s-land under our bed. I’ve shoved a whole lot shit under there in the two years since I’ve had cancer.

During my months in the chemo underworld, I lived my whole life in that bedroom. Karyn took to sleeping in my office because I was up and down all night, in pain, recovering from surgery, miserable with chemo and night sweats, smoking pot for nausea at 2:00 in the morning. Our room became my own private pasha parlor. And because it was my sickroom, I piled all sorts of things in the bookcase and on the night stand on my side of the bed, as well as underneath. Let’s just say a lot of crap got shoved under there.

Until now, I haven’t ever had the courage to dig it out. But now, my Nor-Snor was at stake, so I devoted a day to it. I started with the bookcase—full of cancer books, healing CDs, meditation tapes and gifts—things like recordings by the Threshold Choir for people who are ill or dying. There were books of cancer art, books that told me how to visualize my way through surgery, memoirs about cancer and facing death. All of it right there in my bookcase.

I sorted the books into piles—ones to keep, ones to donate to the Womencare library, ones to give away. I filled bag after bag with papers to be recycled, old ear plugs and lotions and post-radiation burn creams to be thrown away.

Five hours passed and I had still not reached under the bed. I got there the second day. And in between the dust bunnies and the errant pills, I found my Nor Snor. I cleaned it up, soaked it in some disinfectant, and it was as good as new. The goal of my search had been realized. But now that I had begun, it was time to finish the job.

As I hauled stuff out from under the bed, I realized why I hadn’t wanted to look under there. My whole health history was being fossilized in sedimentary layers. There was a huge white binder from Stanford, full of paper and handouts: the patient’s bill of rights and a lymphodema symptom check list. A report from dmy last post-chemo EKG. My pre and post surgical x-rays. Months of blood tests and infusion records.

Next to the black binder was a red one bulging with the hundreds of bills I received, tens of thousands of dollars worth of bills, each bill with forms in triplicate. I remember laying in bed, bald and stoned and staring out the window, while Karyn sat up late into the night, bent over that red binder sorting through all the requests for verification, the denials, the approvals, figuring out the co-pays and deductibles, the unpaid bills. I didn’t even open that binder. That part of being sick I did not want to remember. I threw the whole thing directly in the trash.

Then there was the black binder Denny and Yosi put together—the care team binder—filled with the names, addresses, emails and availability of the incredible group of souls who stepped up to the plate and drove our children, brought us meals, took me to chemo, drove me to the oncologist, massaged my feet, sang to me, laughed with me, cried with me, kept our family whole. Our whole extended family lived in that binder. That binder had taught me that I was not alone, never had been alone. We had been in need and our friends and family came through for us beyond our wildest expectations. And there was the evidence, gathering dust under the bed. There was even a desiccated mouse left there by Tiger, Lizzy’s cat. God knows how long it had been there.

Figuring out what to keep and what to throw away wasn’t easy. Karyn told me to throw it all away. For her, this part of our lives was behind us. It’s behind her. As far as she’s concerned, it’s over. But cancer doesn’t feel over to me. It still dogs my steps and slows me down, taps me on the shoulder and whispers to me in the dark of night: “You never know, Laura. You just never know.”

The very day I was excavating the ruins under the bed, there was an article in the local paper about a local woman who’d had breast cancer, thought she’d kicked it, then it came back five years later. Then she thought she kicked it again. Seven years went by and it came back a third time. Now it has metastasized. Did that woman throw away all of her old cancer bills and cancer books and the cards sent to her from her friends? Did she keep her x-rays or throw them away? Did she purge all evidence of cancer from her home even though she couldn’t purge it all from her body?

What if my cancer comes back? Will I want my Belleruth Naparstek CDs for chemo and surgery and radiation? Will I want the same dreamy music CDs sent me by my brother and my friends? Would I want to laugh again over the video of Nina Wise telling the story of all of her crazy alternative treatments to a group of survivors at a cancer conference?

No wonder cleaning out the leftovers of my sickroom fell off the bottom of my list for more than a year. No wonder I never made the time or had the heart. It takes fortitude to face the tangible evidence of what has been and what could be again.

 Now it is clean under our bed. All that’s left under there is my Deluxe Scrabble set which doesn’t fit anywhere else. The rest is gone—thrown away, given away, or tucked away for another time.

I find it no mere coincidence that I finally tackled this job a few days after my 60-mile walk. I think the Nor-Snor was gone for a reason. I think a page in my life was ready to be turned.

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