Sunday, September 14, 2008

A Birthday of Sorts

I remember what my adolescent brain understood on my first visit to my soon-to-be cancer hospital, and the rest is a blur. The main floor was enormous. It had an auditorium, a coffee bar, countless waiting rooms and at least three sets of elevators. The floor was granite tile.

Then there was the other half of the main floor with standard hospital flooring and countless corridors where the sick people came and went. I stayed in the former half.

The strange thing is this: of all the things I could remember, my clearest memories involved me pooping. Pooping is a constant, an action we must perform forever, which makes it easy to understand. If it was a clean poop then it must’ve been a good experience. If I ate Long John Silver’s and it was messy, then that might mean I needed to find a different hospital. Our minds like to find neat causes and effects, and though the quality of the poop and the quality of the hospital may be completely unrelated, I didn’t perceive it that way.

Fortunately, the facility was sparkling with more granite tiles, relative privacy, and the excrement itself was well-bound. It was the perfect start to my relationship with my hospital.

Dr. Dunks took me and my parents to the blood bank and said I’d need transfusions. He told me what side effects to expect from chemotherapy. But I can barely remember, because I didn’t understand. Maybe if he had told me in the john I could’ve produced a transcript.

It wouldn’t be long until I became familiar with both halves of the main floor and many more restrooms. Within weeks I would be able to walk from the parking garage to the pediatric cancer clinic, from the pediatric hospital wing to X-rays, with my eyes closed. I would learn the fastest route from nuclear medicine to cardiac imaging.

Seven years ago today, after too many poops in too many public restrooms, I became cancer-free. I have two of these “born free” days—September 14 and April 24—which are about half a year apart, and are two too many, or maybe just right. These days and years are piling up, and I’m now at the point when I must double-check how long it has actually been. I do this by subtracting 2001 (or 2003) from the current year, leaving me my years of freedom. It has come down to subtraction, just as I subtracted my cycles of chemo that I finished from the total I would receive. As much as things change—like my old hospital has been replaced by a newly constructed one—things stay the same.

I’m not used to the kind of long-term great health like I’ve had over the last couple years. It’s another new beginning for me, another freedom. It’s no longer necessary to count down to my next cancer anniversary. Now I can count up and take pride in being a seven-year cancer survivor, or even better, not worry about counting at all until it’s time to celebrate my next one.

Maybe I should count down to 100 years as a cancer survivor. I can live to 117 years old, right? Seven down. Ninety-three left.