Sunday, October 23, 2011

A Cancer in Our Midst

Sometimes in the middle of the night I wake up suddenly and think, “I’m 65; there’s no one else in the house, and I have cancer.” The notion rises, echoes like a shout in a deep canyon, leaves me feeling slightly stunned. The first two statements I can accept, the third remains problematic.

I spend an average of 20 hours a day by myself. I’m single and live alone. Writing is generally a solitary preoccupation, and the truth is that for the most part I enjoy my solitude. In recent times, though, it has come to be wearying.

I’ve been sundowning lately. I’m familiar with the manifestation because I saw it in my father who, late in life, would become depressed when the sun set. Whatever his mood during the day, he would lapse into melancholy in the evening and his feelings were easy to discern. Sundowning typically occurs in people with Alzheimer’s and dementia, but it’s my belief that it’s not uncommon among normal people who’ve experienced some sort of physical shock. I saw it often when I worked as a counselor—drug addicts in the first few days of withdrawal would crash when the sun set, and friends in the nursing profession have told me it’s common among the bedridden in hospitals. It may, or may not, have something to do with one’s circadian rhythm, and it has not been studied extensively. I do know it’s very real, and not an imaginary ailment.

Here’s something else I’ve begun to notice. Some people, friends and acquaintances I’ve known for a decade or more, are avoiding me. I mention this over breakfast to my friend Deirdre, an eminence grise at the Kennedy Center in Washington, who herself suffered a nasty bout with cancer some years ago. She laughs, says, “Oh yes! I noticed that too. People would turn away from me.” Her husband, Kim Peter, nods in agreement. “They think you’re contagious…” I recount one instance where I faced such a person and she refused to look me in the face, sidling away as quick as she could. “This is where you know who your friends are,” Deirdre says. And it’s true. Though some people have been amazingly supportive, others have preferred to act as if nothing has occurred. Personally, I think that’s due to a recent social phenomenon that has taken the nasty and painful moments of life and sequestered them away from the public eye. We no longer deal with life’s phenomenon—birth, death, illness, breakdown—at home. We hospitalize, we send to the hospice, we pretend nothing is amiss.

Kim’s comment was humorous, but I also think the fear of contagion is probably planted deep within our cortex. No one knows how many millions have died from communicable diseases, but it would make sense that we would innately be afraid of anyone carrying a potentially lethal illness. 

Still, it’s weird, and I’m tempted to plant wet splotchy kisses on those whose body language reads, “Don’t get near me.”   But I probably won’t because I really don’t want to catch what they might have.

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