I was taking all advice from anyone who’d been through chemo. One bit I had no trouble accepting: eating a carb load the night before a treatment. So on the evening before Round Five began, I drove to a nearby town with two friends to have dinner at a popular Italian restaurant before going to the cultural arts center. One friend was reading some of her poetry to what was a larger group than I’d expected to turn out, given that we were under tornado watch, and it was raining and chilly. Driving was a perk, making me feel competent, all the while knowing that I had a friend who would drive my car home if I needed her to.
For me, the strangest part of the evening was that for the first time in months I wasn’t the focus of attention. We talked only briefly about chemo, rightly concentrating on my friend’s success and this opportunity to read her work. I felt that I should have welcomed the change, a signpost on the way back to Normal. Instead, I felt off-balance, a bit lost for conversational topics. It was a good reminder of “real life,” where I am not always center stage and the station had a playlist of tunes other than all me all the time. My friend Ben had said all along that I shouldn’t get used to this level of attention—it would end. I was getting just a taste of that reality and finding the adjustment surprisingly difficult for a person who claimed she didn’t like the spotlight.
Feeling cold is a common side effect of chemo. I was three-fourths done with the treatments, and I was experiencing more side effects, which are cumulative. It was the end of April and 68 degrees in my apartment. Still, when I sat in my recliner, I turned on the heating pad. In the mornings, I wore a thick robe over flannel pajamas and wrapped up in the heaviest of my prayer shawls, a cap on my head, a heavy throw on my lap, and the biggest, fluffiest cat on top of the throw. Didn’t break a sweat.
The neuropathy had begun in my hands as well as my feet, a slight tingling, as when a body part wakes up after falling asleep. That it was more pronounced in my left hand worried me, because I am a lefty and dependent on my hands to do my work. It caused me to remember a friend who’d lost feeling because of multiple sclerosis and the way his hugs grew too tight because he couldn’t judge his own grasp. I didn’t want to suffer the same fate.
I passed on an invitation to a concert on Sunday evening, letting the free ticket go because I was too tired. I was still trying to walk daily, though, between rains, believing that being in the woods was healing. I’d learned not to wait until evening for my walk, because by then I’d be too tired to coax myself. The neuropathy made me feel as tentative as the tiny wildflowers that were cropping up. Still, I was unwilling to give up the perhaps-foolish attitude I have about walking: I have no cell phone and no pepper spray, not even a dog, and I nearly always walk alone.
On the last day of April I took my walking stick, even though I was going along a relatively flat route. Along the North Rim trail, the trillium had gone, but wild phlox purpled the path. At the bridge where I usually turn around before the trail gets onerous, I sat down in the shade. I listened to a stream running over the rocks and admired the Virginia bluebells. Finally warm, gathering strength for the twenty-minute walk back to the car, I took off my hat and allowed my bald head to enjoy the breeze. The summer before I had been jogging those trails. Now I relied on a stick for balance and support, but at least I was there.