Written by George Celia, Fall of 2013, following surgery for primary brain cancer. George died on July 15, 2014.
One day life changed. The tsunami of life came at me and nothing has been the same. No control. No independence. My lifestyle changed in every way. Can’t drive, can’t ride a bike, can’t stay living in my home. All that was familiar is gone. Nothing to hang onto for reference. No desk. No musical scales in the morning. No C chord to F chord to B flat, to E flat to A flat to D. The beautiful sound of the cello gone. The ducks on the lake all gone.
On a distant leisurely day back then before the tsunami, I was on the lake shore watching a Blue Heron with its fierce 6-inch long beak stabbing a bullfrog to death for a hearty Heron breakfast. Yes, that was it for the frog. Life can just fiercely come at you randomly. In my own way, cancer has stabbed me like the hungry Blue Heron’s beak stabbed the frog.
Maybe a helpful lesson for me is to imagine the world of a Blue Heron as the frog’s life is taken by its stab. My life taken over by the stab of brain cancer. Me the stabbed frog in the Heron’s belly. My cells being digested and absorbed, nurturing this majestic bird and literally becoming Heron. Could I somehow know and become the life, flight, and beauty of this magnificent bird as I become Heron? Is this the end or a beginning? Can I soar now in some new way?
At least I can think of this and in some way find comfort. Can the stab of cancer open for me an awareness of a flight into a new life of horizons and vistas and experience never before seen or known to me? Is the Heron’s beak really so different from the lion’s pounce on the Gazelle, or the acrobatic swallows and the little brown bats’ nightly feast on the mosquitos and moths each sultry summer evening over the lake? “Nature, red in tooth and claw,” has visited me too. Perhaps it was naive of me to have thought that I might have been exempt from this mysterious dance of life. Such hubris. Frog, mosquito, gazelle, human. Same.
Part of my brain missing. First to the stab of the tumor, then to the surgeon’s skilled hands and precise perception, removing just enough, not too much, making that call moment by moment, stroke by stroke, as the master sculptor does when chiseling away the marble stone from the image it conceals; from the beauty awaiting that only the artist sees. Not an overly aggressive removal. But a hammer blow against the chisel placed at just the correct, perfect, practiced angle, just right. The blow, the angle, just right, or else bang, whoops, that was good brain, gone forever. That was a mistake.
But I’m not an inanimate piece of marble. I’m George. My first thought when I awoke from surgery was literally, “I’m still me.” The surgeon’s skill made me remain me, and not a post-op surgically-caused deficit-laden patient. How can one praise enough the surgeon-artist who literally carved a masterpiece hidden in my head for only me to know? Scalp, skull, layers peeled away until there it is, the tumor clear as daylight to the surgeon. And now comes the carving away. But when to stop carving? Is that good brain? OK stop. No, a little more over here. OK stop. Good brain? Yes, no, and yes no, and yes no. Chisel to hammer, the perfect blow, the stone yields, chips fly, the shape reveals. A masterpiece. I can only say ‘thank you doctors’ because I’m still me.
Now I see a new horizon as I soar in the Heron’s belly. No longer the frog I had been. That life is over. But it’s not easy to be carried in this way into a new world of unfamiliar sights and sounds and feelings. It’s frightening. I’m unsure of how to rely on another, or of even how I’m becoming this other. Dependent. Without control. Constantly in unfamiliar places. No external points of reference to who I was.
My only path to sanity is to go inside to thoughts, concepts, understandings. To places ironically in my mind, which is in my brain—where the cancer is. Paradox of all paradoxes that I must trust the center of my perceptions, my brain, which has cancer and has been literally made smaller by the removal of the tumor, the tumor made up of what had been good brain, and now what’s left of good brain is changed by steroids and anti-seizure meds in ways that affect me physically and emotionally and mentally.
These challenges are in and of themselves enormous. Add to these the sense that I’m in the Heron’s belly, like the frog, the old life dead forever, and am being transformed by a random event just like the frog. And because I’m not really the frog, will the advances of modern medicine keep me from being digested completely? Will the radiation/chemo work? Will I survive beyond the statistics of 6 months to 3 years? Will I have what’s euphemistically called in the language of cancer statistics, a “better outcome,” which means I live a bit longer?
The cancer cells are dividing, invading. I know this. I know they can kill me, just like a Heron’s belly can consume a frog. OK, we all will die and somehow participate in the dance of life. OK, death does not frighten me. But I want to live. This I can feel even now as I imagine soaring with, and as, the Blue Heron. The gift of a death sentence is unwrapped now for me in this: Gratitude for each moment before the final moment in store for each and every one of us. My challenge is to see this, to awaken to this beauty. Even to thank the Heron’s beak as it plunges through me, and to ride gracefully as this majestic bird’s flight takes me to new places that I would never have seen as a frog, stuck in some metaphorical muck and darkness, where I learned what I needed to learn there, so I could contrast that with this world of my death-flight into a new life of strange gifts that I want to accept with grace and strength and all the wisdom I can manage to embody before the final bell tolls.
I now see that my partner of 33 years, Peggy, embodies all the things ever said of the importance of love and friendship that define the human experience, embodies all the values of generosity, kindness, selflessness, respect, love, and affection. This experience asks me to cut through my judgments, wherever they pop up, and to see to the core of the other person. What’s there to see in the core of each other? A perfection hidden only by my fears and judgment. Unlock my fears and judgments and every person becomes my teacher and somehow a living work of art suddenly seen in the gilded frame of this extraordinary calamity. They each are Masterpieces. I’m somehow enjoying this museum tour of an exquisite collection of Masterpieces donated by some kind, anonymous benefactor that I hope to grow to better understand each day as I travel this mysterious path.
I can’t honestly say that I want to linger. But I am getting a really good tour, and the museum guides are beautiful, talented, and articulate! Each and every RN, doctor, scheduler, clerk and 4th year resident; every neighbor or family member. All of them framed in service to me.
I see their core humanity. I only want to reflect that humanity back to them now. Have I lived in a way that I deserve this moment of opportunity? Perhaps now is the time to live as an example of gratitude and grace, and this is the moment given to me to repair my flaws and to heal my regrets, and to atone for taking too much and giving too little. It’s not too late to learn these lessons while soaring in the Heron’s belly.