It is 1:21 am. Objectively, this is too late for a cancer/chemo patient to be awake the day of an infusion — I’m tired, sore, have a weird pain/swelling in the back right corner of my mouth, feel like I’m suffering a continual hot flash, and my skin is tight and sensitive.
I also can’t sleep because I’m still floating with the energy of the day — and the night.
I don’t expect infusion days to be fun. But every so often — and more and more often, given the wonderful company I’ve had for the last five or so — they surprise me. My chemo entourage (or posse or minions, depending on which chemo nurse you’re talking to) is a group of fabulous gals who accompany me each week. We spend my infusions eating way too much food, watching bad TV (today was a series of horrifyingly weird children’s TV shows), playing card games, and joking around. We are the loudest and most obnoxious people on the chemo ward. We get in the nurses’ way, steal heated blankets from the machine, and hoard way too much free food. We are loved by everyone.
These girls are my life raft these days.
But even in the midst of what I’ve come to expect is going to be a fun day, there are still moments that surprise me with their loveliness and joy. The entirety of today and tonight was one of those moments. Tonight in particular.
After a bittersweet goodbye dinner for Super Roommate (one of the entourage and one of the greatest girls I know), Climbing Buddy Twin and I decided to brown bag it down to the reservoir and sit by the water telling stories. “I want to tell you my ontology,” she said to me, “And I want to know yours.” And so, in true summer fashion — because I have always ornamented and so associated summer with long walks, long talks, and hours spent sitting in moonlight — we took three hours of the night and tossed around and played with the orientation of ourselves in a wider world, our ideas about time and the lessons we learn in it, our sense of what’s true and what’s right. It was reaffirming in the way that only articulating your sense of self can be — and I needed it, especially in the face of this diagnosis. And I walked away with this.
I’m a secret keeper. This has always been my job. I collect what those around me want to tell me — I learn the ways they situate themselves within their lives and the events around them, I listen to the lessons they’ve learned and the experiences they’ve lived. I collect stories. I hold them in my head and let them resonate with me; I pay close attention to the words people use to articulate their lives. I love hearing others’ stories — I love hearing what they believe, why they believe it, what struggles have given them depth and texture, how they came to evolve into the people they are.
And somewhere, in the middle of all these stories, I find the outline of myself. I’ve always imagined that I’m using these stories to tend and grow a great tree and that, in the empty space between a series of branches that imprints across the sky, my sense of self is drawn. Like those “find it” drawings in children’s magazines growing up, where a fox or an airplane sit silhouetted against the drawing’s backdrop, I am defined by what’s around me.
My second diagnosis severely upset this balance. Suddenly, my tree seemed to shake and crack — none of the stories I collected made sense or helped me take shape. The ground beneath me slid and fell in a sudden, dramatic tectonic shift that upset my roots and threatened to topple the tree itself. In those first few months after my diagnosis, everything was a terrible, mobile panic, and my tree wavered and kept trying to find new shapes that would accommodate this sudden new reality. I could not make sense of the cancer returning, let alone a terminal diagnosis. My tree was dying — and too quickly.
But I’m a secret keeper. And my secrets were still intact.
And at some point tonight, while I was sifting through and piecing together these ideas — thoughts I had not articulated for years, but had known silently, and so no longer as well as I once had — I remembered my senior thesis on Gravity’s Rainbow and the intricate folds of my final chapter that held the piece as a whole together. At the end of the novel, Pynchon’s protagonist transcends into the Veld and undergoes a sparagmos that sends the remnants of his body and soul across the novel’s playing field. In the strictest Greek sense, sparagmos is a kind of sacrifice or grotesque dismemberment, but I always imagined Slothrop’s sparagmos as a kind of letting go or dissolution. Something he underwent as he moved to another plane — something that expanded and then released his totality to those left behind.
I know I’ll die relatively young. I don’t know that I’ve always known this, or had some sense of it, but it stands in such sharp resolution now that it feels like a permanent truth. But my tree of stories was never bound by time or even my body anyway. And my sense of who I am that the tree outlines is not fixed by the branches — it lives in the sky, out there. And as I stumbled through these ideas with CBT tonight — much like I’m stumbling through them now — it hit me that I’m okay with that. I will die before my friends and family. And my tree will burst apart, scatter its stories among my own life’s playing ground, distribute the narratives that give me shape among those about whom I care the most.
And while we were sitting there, at the edge of the reservoir at midnight, CBT took my hand and said, “Kiara, I will be there. I won’t need a day off, or a week, or a month, or anytime at all. I will always be here with you.” And it hit me then — the stories I collect, the closeness I cultivate with those I love through those stories, will survive me. I am a secret keeper, and the bonds those secrets grow are what give me shape. That tree of stories, of secrets, of narratives, keeps growing despite the ground shifting beneath it. In fact, that mobility is crucial to the way we experience our lives — that unsteadiness, that sense of being unsettled makes our shapes more flexible, dexterous, and agile. Because in the end, we only have each other, and the constantly shifting relationship of ourselves to that wider, alive world defines who we are. We hang onto each other as rafts because we can only stay afloat with the support of each other; I can grow that tree only with the stories and lives of others who design its branches, its leaves, its trunk.
And soon, my stories will scatter, expand and dissolve into the space I leave; but they will never disappear. My tree is light, and bending, and so at that point its new shape will have as much — if not more — resonance than its current shape. It is almost 2 am now and, despite the discomfort and pain of treatment, I am still a secret keeper; I still have the bonds of those stories and those who I share those bonds with. And so, I am still, and will be, okay.