[Trigger Warning: Cancer]
By Cody B. Strange -
“You know, it’s the worst in the morning. Waking up before the alarm, feeling good about yourself for an instant. You bathe in the time left in the day. Then, boom, it’s twenty minutes later & you’re late as hell. You rush to work, stressing about the day ahead, get there, sit, blink, and it’s lunchtime. Not that you mind the break, in fact you welcome it, a hushed pause to be alone and for a moment you forget that you hate your job and the world’s falling apart, but you’ve still got another thirty – maybe twenty five – years left of the monotony & bullshit, of staring at a screen all day in an itchy, gray felt-covered cube only to come home to stare at a screen again, but it’s OK, because this is home screen, so you don’t feel the pressure of work, just the guilt of not-work. And in the one & a half hours before you sleep, where you’ve recovered from the day zooming past, you review yesterday’s promises that today is the day you’ll start practicing your German, or learn guitar, or read, and suddenly it’s ten minutes before your assigned bedtime and instead you’ll promise in the dark of the night that you’ll do it tomorrow. And then it all repeats, you know. Does that make sense, or am I just rambling?”
I took a swig of cool water, parched from my unexpected monologue. Dr. Featherman finished off the long trail of words she was recording in her small notebook, the blue ink bubbling on bleached paper. She blew on the ink, small drops spreading outwards. I watched as she considered her notes before looking up at me once more, her green eyes a stark contrast to her crimson turtleneck sweater and mottled horn-rimmed glasses.
“No, I understand what you are trying to say, a lot of patients have similar concerns or fears. It’s quite typical to be worried about the time one has left. But I want to dive into this a little more, if that’s OK. Are you conscious of time passing in the moment, during the day? Do you find yourself thinking about time often? What I mean is, that since you started seeing me after Fay’s passing, you talked about feelings of being stuck in time, being adrift. When did things change?”
“When did they change?” I let the question hang in the air for a moment, gazing at my feet. “I don’t really know. I guess it kinda just happened one day. I had felt time speeding up, but I thought that it was just a kind of return to normal, you know? Like I’d been so out of it for so long that I’d forgotten what living felt like. Fay getting cancer made me feel like I, no, we were suspended in honey, slowly drifting to the bottom of a bottomless jar. We didn’t know when or if she would get better, and each day was each day. Nothing more, nothing less. I remember waking up and going to sleep, listening to her breaths, counting them. After she died I stayed there, listening whole days and nights, waiting to start counting, but nothing came. I guess I just lost all sense of it at that point. Time, I mean. I mean, what is time when all you want is there to be no more of it? And I guess it took a while before I could begin to even fathom getting out of bed, of rejoining society proper, but again, I couldn’t, or perhaps didn’t want to, comprehend that span. Then it all just happened, like someone flipped a switch, and the whole world leapt to attention, the conveyor belt starting up once more to damn us all to the meat grinder. But going back to your question, I would say I’m extremely conscious of time passing. Though it’s not quite that. It’s more like I get anxious when I look at the clock and remember the last time I checked. Ten minutes difference, an hour, four, it all feels like I blinked and time’s jumped forward, as if we’ve all just accepted that the intervening period just didn’t exist. Or maybe everyone’s in on it, and I’m just the butt of the joke.” I chuckled, but I wasn’t sure why. “The thing that really gets me is when I knew for certain that I did something in between those two times, but I couldn’t for the life of me tell you what.”
Dr. Featherman smiled politely back as I fell silent. She tucked her short hair behind her ears. “What happened are your glasses?” I inquired.
“Glasses? I haven’t worn glasses in over a year, Trist, not after the Lasik.” She frowned, adding to the mounting piles of words in the yellowing legal pad laid carefully in her lap. The black biro ran out, and as she reached for another pen on her desk, her navy blue dress rustle with her movements.
“But… but I could have sworn you were just wearing glasses a moment ago, and you had on that red sweater, just as you were asking me about time passing & all that.” My voice felt shaky, my palms sticky. Featherman stared back with a puzzled look.
“Have you been feeling like time’s passing quickly again? It’s been a while since you brought it up. Is it because of your recent diagnosis? You didn’t mention anything at the last session. Does it feel like time is slipping faster because of your thoughts of mortality and death?”
I tried swallowing, but my swollen tongue blocked the way. What is happening? This can’t be real. I lifted my hand to rub my head, feeling only sweat-slicked scalp. “Where’s my hair?” I screamed.
Featherman started. “Calm down, Trist, it’s OK. Remember we talked about this. You were so nervous about losing your hair from the chemo, and it was a big step to shave it off.” She paused, more illegible words scribbled down. “But, back to my question: is this all related to you thinking about death?”
I shook my head. This must just be a dream. I’ll wake up any minute now and things will be normal. Just go along with it. A deep breath. “It’s not like I don’t think about death. But that’s not the cause, at least I don’t reckon it is. I mean, I could be hit by a bus tomorrow, have a brain aneurysm in fifteen minutes, or I could die in my sleep a hundred years from now. But it’s not like I can imagine being dead. I’ll just be another sack of meat lying prone on some table somewhere and what is time then? Death and when it happens is just abstract time, you know? I guess sometimes I wonder about the future, toying with the idea of abstract time in abstract ways. I want to see what happens, what transpires. How does life change? Does the system still tick over as it does now, or will it fall, only to be replaced by an even crueler one? Or am I just pessimistic about it all? Will we thrive and love and care better? But again, these are just idle thoughts at idle times. Abstract time doesn’t mean anything to me. It’s when that abstract time becomes real, just for an instant, then before you know it, it’s the past. In the end, I suppose it’s the present that I’m afraid of. The thing we’re always told to live in, to luxuriate in, as if you could, you know, as if it’s possible to grab and hold onto that moment in that moment. It’s the present that keeps me up at night, when all that keeps coming is the present. It’s the present when I notice how long it’s been since the last time it was the present, and it’s the present that seems to be hauling me by the throat and dragging me further into abstract time made all-too-real. And more and more it seems to me to skip a step or two, but the steps grow larger and more certain. I dunno. I just want – no, need a moment to just breathe, but each time I do, I find myself so many more moments further in the present.”
I couldn’t hold it in anymore, the sobs coming thick and heavy. My limbs didn’t seem my own, feeble facsimiles exhausted after sloughing off a minute portion of the burden, aching at the rest I needed to keep carrying. I looked down at them. I didn’t have to look far. I wasn’t in Dr. Featherman’s office, sitting in her too-plump chair. I was lying in a hospital bed, the crisp sheets crinkling against my crisper gown. My hands looked fifteen years older than I remember them, and an IV line was neatly swaddled to the back of the left one. “Where am I?” I hoarsely shouted, tearing at the line. A bead of sluggish, dark crimson blood welled in its absence. “Where is Dr. Featherman?”
A stout man rushed in, dressed in lime green scrubs. His firm but gentle hands placed themselves on my shoulders as I struggled to sit up and out of the bed. He turned his head and shoulders to yell, “Sturm, Loveless, I need a hand.”
Turning back to me, his kind face smiled at me softly. “Trist, you’re OK, everything is OK. We’ll give you something to calm your nerves.” Two more nurses, Sturm and Loveless I suppose, appeared beside the bed, one inserting a needle into my right hand that the other held steady. They reattached the drip, then filled a syringe of pale yellow liquid.
“Please, let me go. I’m not supposed to be here. I don’t know what’s going on. What are you doing? LET ME GO!”
He cooed, “Don’t worry, Trist, we’re taking good care of you. This is just to lower your adrenaline. You’re having an acute episode. We’ll talk in a minute.”
I cast some more words into the room, but the liquid still made its way into my veins. Thirty seconds later, my mouth was numb and my brain number. My ears hummed a pitch-less tune.
“Hey Trist, are you still with us?” I nodded weakly or I replied, I couldn’t tell. “Excellent, I’m glad to hear it.” He nods, and some shuffled footsteps recede into silence. “Do you know where you are right now?”
“No” or shaken head.
“You’re probably feeling a little clouded presently, but it’ll clear in a couple of minutes. We’re at St. Vincent’s Hospice. I’m Vincent, though not a saint.” He grinned with a mouthful of gleaming teeth. There seemed many more than should fit into a mouth that size. “Do you remember me?” Shake/“no.”
“Oh, that’s a pity, I thought I was your favourite.” A mocking downcast face returned to its playful state. “You’ve been with us for a little over a month now. Didn’t we have a bunch of fun going on our walks?”
The haze over my brain cleared bit by bit. I could tell now what was my voice and what was the rest. “A hospice? What the fuck am I doing here? I’m thirty-two years old, healthy as far as I know. You’re lying to me. I want to speak to Dr. Featherman this instant.”
His face was quizzical, or perhaps I just couldn’t parse it. “Hmm. Dr. Oxley warned us about this. Trist, I’m sorry to be the one to tell you again, but you came here because you have inoperable brain cancer. It’s terminal, and it seems to now be affecting your memory. You’ve not seen Dr. Featherman for over five years, at least that’s what you told me.”
I sat with my mouth agape. I burst open. This cannot be. It’s a dream. I’m dreaming, close your eyes and it’ll be over soon. Don’t open them. Don’t listen. If you don’t listen, you can’t hear the ticking of the clock.
“You know, Trist, I really enjoy our walks together. I’ve never had a patient who talked about time as much as you did, and I can’t stop thinking about something you said last week. I feel like I’m having the same thoughts, or same experience. Something along the lines of one day you realize that time has started sprinting, like you were in a race and you are just trying to catch up. Blink, it’s a new moment, and blink you’re neck-deep in a brand new one, then blink, you’re—
Cody B Strange is a particle physics researcher based in Germany. His work has a home with GutSlut Press, The Winnow Mag, Analogies & Allegories, Backslash Lit, and Lot's Wife. You can find him at cbstrange.com and @cbstrange1 on Twitter.