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KNOWING TOO MUCH BUT NOT ENOUGH

Cindy Maddera

We are in lab meeting and one of my colleagues is doing a presentation on a couple of projects she’s working on with another lab. This research is cancer research. I sit there and listen to her talk about the proliferation of cancer cells in the presence or absence of a certain drug or inhibitor. I stay focused to what she is saying, really listening to this very interesting preliminary data, but somewhere in the back of my brain the voices of past doctors start to whisper. On the outside, I look normal. I sit there nodding my head in understanding, asking questions. On the inside, it feels like pieces of myself are just breaking off and dropping to the floor. By the end of the meeting “there’s nothing we can do” is roaring in my head and rage is boiling under my skin. I find myself sitting on the toilet in a bathroom stall, sobbing. Hot tears burning my cheeks.

I sit and listen to these research talks and think how is it possible that there was nothing that could be done. This is followed up with guilt over not trying hard enough. I failed to exhaust all resources and just listened to what the three different doctors had to say. I didn’t load us into the car and drive across the country to one of the best cancer treatment facilities. I didn’t even try any crack-pot cures like flushing Chris’s system with wheat grass. I had a woman I used to work with ask me if she could come and do a laying of hands kind of healing. I politely declined the offer, but now I wonder if that would have been the thing to cure him. Instead, I let Chris die. In The Mountain Between Us, Idris Elba’s character is a neurosurgeon whose wife died of brain cancer. The guy was top in his field and he couldn’t save his wife. I’m mediocre in my field and think I should have been able to perform miracles.

These are moments when I hate my line of work. I hate knowing how white blood cells are recruited to dead tissue and inevitably trigger cancer cells to start dividing. Your own healthy cells do you in. Chris wrecked his scooter and cracked a couple of ribs. Was this when it started? Did he damage his liver enough in the accident to trigger cancer cells to start dividing? We would have had a better chance of winning if I had pushed him harder to go to a doctor earlier. Could’ve should’ve would’ve. This one research presentation can send me spiraling down into the great unknown of things I should have done better. It’s like stepping into quicksand, except I don’t struggle. I just give into the undertow of being sucked under. Actually, that’s not true. Quicksand isn’t really that hard to escape and people only die from quicksand drownings in the movies. Also, I have no idea what it feels like to step into quicksand. I can only imagine that it is very much like the slow sinking feeling of become cold and numb on the inside.

The next day, I’m sitting at the counter at Heirloom, writing in my Fortune Cookie journal. I catch the lyrics of the song that is playing.

“Well, sometimes love is all it’s supposed to be. But it can break you. Remember, take care of your heart and cry. Oh, somehow we’ll survive.”

I think about all of the chest opening poses I do in my yoga practice, always trying to open my heart. I went to a yoga workshop this year that focused on spinal alignment. The teacher’s cue for pulling the bottom ribs together was to push your chest back, closing the heart a bit. This was the opposite of what I had been taught and what I had been practicing. It was painful and by the end of the workshop, my ribcage ached. I’ve opened my heart so much now that it is flat. I picture the structure of the heart folded from origami paper, slowly unfolding and laying itself open. Wrinkled, but spread out flat. What can that unfolded origami heart hold? Not much. My heart is laid out flat, not holding much of anything. I haven’t been taking care of my heart. I pretend that I am. I plaster a smile or at least an optimistic look on my face and go about my day as if my heart is normal and not made of paper and crumpled.

Remember, take care of your heart and cry. Oh, somehow we’ll survive.”

I’m prepared for the paper cuts I’m going to get while folding my paper heart back into shape.