• Joe Cooke

A good hour

Updated: Oct 8

Fear of the unknown is the worst, isn’t it?

Ski Santa Fe, following precedent set by Colorado ski areas, closed last Sunday for the season.  There’s still a lot of good snow up there, but the risk is just too great. The owners made a judgment call.  A lot of skiers are disappointed. Most of them are sad but supportive. A few are angry.

It’s okay to be angry.  It’s also okay to be scared.  Maybe your job is suspended, but not the bills.  Maybe your health is in imminent danger. Maybe the funds you’ve saved up for your whole life so you could retire someday just got cut in half, and you have no idea what’s going to happen next.  Or you are a business owner with no customers, and you are laying off employees who count on you for income to pay their bills. Some of the livid social media responses to Ski Santa Fe’s decision to end the season early derided the owners for what that would do to the employees, but it was fairly easy to tell from the tone of the comments that the commentator was more concerned about self than about others.  Disappointed, angry, resentful. All of these emotions are secondary to fear.

I’m angry, sad, and scared, too.  This isn’t my first quarantine. I suppose it may be my last, and I’m feeling down and tired enough to admit that I’m not really scared of dying.  I am scared of dying slowly, but for those of us that have been through years of chemo or whatever, dying slowly or quickly is just dying and it comes to all of us no matter what, so what the hell.

I took a quick look at my medical bills over the past two years.  Two-hundred thirty-three claims totaling $830,364.83, not including the $10-15,000 a month in chemo drugs during most of 2018.  Just in the first three months of this year, $91,670.09. I met our out-of-pocket max on January 24. On Thursday I go in for another immunoglobulin infusion that costs $40,000.  All this to keep me alive for what? Another month? Two? A year? Four years? Who knows?

After massive chemo and a stem-cell transplant, I had to sequester myself for three months.  October, November, and December of 2018. I spent the time sleeping and trying to get some semblance of strength back.  Walking to the mailbox. Balancing on one foot. Walking the dog. In 2019 I could finally, slowly, start reintegrating myself into the world.  Although I worked most of 2018 from home, taking off only the last three months, I had to severely cut back on my writing and consulting (by “severely” I mean “stop”).  Most of 2019 is a blur. I was still weak and foggy from the chemo. Know the old saying, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”? I don’t think that’s always true.  Chemo didn’t kill me, and cancer didn’t kill me, but I sure don’t feel stronger.

We moved to Santa Fe, into the clear mountain air, at the base of a lovely ski resort, where we could ride our motorcycles almost year round, and walk the dog in the arroyos.  We rented a small place on the edge of town, a sanctuary, a place for us both to heal and rest and recover. Summer was beautiful. I taught a few classes online and for the rest of the year we lived off my meager teaching salary and the last of our savings.  Katie enrolled in classes at New Mexico Highlands University so she could get her degree in sociology as part of our long-term goal of getting her a job she loves.

The ski resort opened on Thanksgiving Day and we skied for a month before I got sick.  By New Years Day I was dizzy and barely able to stand. I slept most of the time. Testing showed nothing – no flu, no pneumonia, no mono.  It was an unidentified virus. In retrospect, the symptoms were incredibly similar to those of COVID-19. Is it possible that I had an early, unidentified case?  No one in the US was even thinking about coronavirus at that time. I thought I was going to die. I had to postpone my immunoglobulin treatment because I was too sick.  Finally, in late January, I started feeling better. I picked up a second job that balanced our broken budget, and then a few writing gigs that brought us back into the black, but now I’m working insane hours and my tired body and soul can’t handle the stress.

I keep going because people depend on me, but what I really want is just some rest.  Cancer didn’t kill me, but it weakened me. Treatment didn’t kill me, but it wore me down.  I am not as strong as I used to be, and one day I’m going to have to come to grips with the fact that I will never be as strong as I used to be, back before cancer, back when I would round kick the heavy bag a hundred times with each leg, and then land a hundred more side kicks and a hundred punches, after a half-hour of sit ups and push ups.  And I’m not as resilient anymore, either. The doctors looked at me as they planned the battle against bone marrow cancer and said, “Oh, you’re going to breeze right through this.” Yes, I was strong and fit and tough, but that year of chemo v. cancer took everything I had, and there is no replacing the time or strength I gave to surviving. It was not, in any sense of the word, a breeze.

Often I ask, in my morning meditation, why I am still here.  It would have been so much easier just to slip into that undiscovered country.  I’ve lived a while. Seen my kids grow up, and Katie’s kids, and now I’m tired and I want to lie down and sleep.  What is this part of us that drives us on? I’m not afraid to die. Can I say that I look forward to it? We did an active shooter drill at the college the other day.  The options are run, hide, or fight. The deputy in charge said run and hide are the best options, and that most people freeze up when it comes to fighting, but I’d like to think that second only to making sure people escaped safely, if I had the chance, I’d rush the gunman.  Maybe I could save one life, or even a couple, or maybe I could take the shooter down. I don’t want to survive running or hiding. I’d rather die fighting.

Do I sound bitter?  Yeah. I wrap all this bitterness up and chew on it at night and early in the morning because I can’t sleep.  I’m lucky to be working at home, teaching online and writing, and yet, I’m tired. Bone-tired. My soul is exhausted.  It’s like when they killed my bone marrow it took some crucial part of me. I have not recovered. I’m a shell. I see my posts on social media, and I see my smile there, but I know that underneath that is sadness and weariness that can’t be measured or expressed.  I went through some treatments for my nausea that helped a bit, but still, I live with that every day. It’s just a thing now. And five hours of sleep is normal, even a bit luxurious. I get up pretty regularly at two or two-thirty. Gaze out the window at the gorgeous New Mexico night sky where even a sliver of a moon casts bright white light across the land.  I light a fire, sit on the couch and sip coffee and write in my journal for an hour and a half. I live with my soul mate, but there is a loneliness and a longing inside of me that aches like a hand on my heart.

And, I know that I am not terminally unique.

We’re all scared and uncertain.  I’m only recounting the bits and pieces of these last two years to say, “I understand.”  It’s scary and seems like it may never end, this fear.

Katie and I skied on Saturday in half a foot of new powder.  It was a good way to end the season. The next day it was 60 degrees down in the valley here, so we took a long motorcycle ride.  We made love and slept, and watched the world falling apart around us. And we read about acts of kindness and bravery and support.  Yesterday we took our guitars out onto the porch and played, and the neighbors came out and some played along with their percussion instruments or whatever they had and some just sat and listened, and the street was an arroyo full of music, all of us spread out up and down the block.  A young family driving through stopped to listen. And for an hour, we all forgot about our troubles and our fears and our loneliness.

That was a good hour.

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