brain tumor, fear, Jack, lessons, reflections

a multitude of anniversaries

Late September and early October have always been an odd time for me, at least since 9/11. While everyone was affected by that time in some way or another, I have a particular set of sadnesses that have very little to do with terrorism or loved ones dying at its hands.

(I am working on a piece about those events, which will be included in a package–with two other stories I’ve written–published as an ebook single. Suffice it to say that while public tragedies are on the main stage of our collective consciousness, there are often smaller heartbreaks that happen in individual lives. And while the events of September and October 2001 that hurt me the most have nothing to do with 9/11, my recollection of the attacks in NYC and on the Pentagon will always be associated with the other things happening in my life at that time.)

In any case, the time surrounding 9/11 was traumatic and painful for me, made no less so by what would have been my grandmother’s 74th birthday, had she not died in the spring of 2000. In late October 2004, I was in a major car accident that — it is surmised — jump-started growth of a benign tumor in my brain. Meningiomas are “normally” (I use this term loosely) so slow-growing that they are found in elderly patients only incidentally. Even then, many doctors choose not to operate to remove them… chances are good patients will die before the tumor causes any ill effects.

But for whatever reason, my meningioma caused a lot of problems. The car accident not only probably caused it to start growing rapidly but also left me to suffer from post-concussion syndrome. It’s a miracle, in retrospect, that I was able to stay in graduate school after the accident. The months that followed were painful and scary — I couldn’t drive for more than 10-15 minutes without having to pull over on the side of the road to take a nap.

The meningioma was discovered, incidentally, after I signed up for a traumatic brain injury study on my university’s campus in the early summer of 2005. As part of the neurological testing for the study, I was given an MRI — and that MRI is how the tumor was found. I received the news on September 2, 2005 — the same day my younger son was having surgery to correct a congenital curly toe (yes, that’s a medical term)… he was slow to come out of the anesthesia, and we were waiting to make sure he was okay when I got the call to go into the neurologist’s office. She was next door to the hospital, so I popped over, thinking there had been a change in the study protocol.

To say it was upsetting to find out I had a brain tumor is an understatement. It was even more so given that my son was one building over having a hard time waking up from surgery.

In any case, I’d just started my second MA program a week earlier, and I didn’t know whether I’d be able to take time off to have surgery. After consulting with a neurologist, it was determined that the tumor was pressing on my primary motor cortex. I’d been complaining of motor problems on the left side of my body for some time, and my doctor had said it was stress or driving too much. I was also having facial tics and beginning to experience absence seizures, in which chunks of time were missing. Given the motor and neurological issues, the neurologist urged me not to wait until the December break in the university calendar to have surgery (my initial plan). But after talking to the head of my graduate program, it became clear that I would only be allowed to take two weeks off or else I’d have to leave the program (and, with it, the insurance that would be paying for the surgery).

In the course of a few years, I had lost my grandmother, experienced the grief of 9/11, been in a major car accident and suffered brain damage, seen my son through surgery, been diagnosed with a brain tumor, and had a craniotomy after which I went back to both work (teaching) and school ten days after getting out of the neurological ICU.

Then in September 2007, I got sober. And in September 2009, I made the tough decision to break things off with Jack until he was able to get sober again, at which point we could continue where we left off.

I mention all of these things not for sympathy or to relive the pain, but just to get it out there that this is a weird and sometimes sad time of year for me. Every year around this time, I remember all of the things that have befallen me as summer turns into autumn… and I get wistful for a time before I knew what it was like to experience such pain. I also look forward to winter, a time of fewer such memories, even though I lost Jack in January.

There are new difficulties, now, in New York City. There are the same financial issues, of course, though things are getting better every day. The job I had found in September ended up being situated in an environment that was unhealthy for me, and the parting of ways was mutual. But I have freelance work to keep me afloat for a while and I’m slowly making the connections I need to keep progressing. And I am certain that one day, perhaps in the near future but maybe in the far, I will look back at these early days in NYC as part of the pattern of my life: things are difficult in the autumn, but then I have the winter to process them and by spring things seem hopeful again.

For there are always difficulties in life, and I’m beginning to realize that it isn’t the fact that they crop up but how it is I handle them. It is objectively true that several things have happened in my life that have been less than positive. It is also true that I have been able to walk through them all and get done what needs to get done. It is not always easy, and I am often discouraged. But I have people in my life who show up and give me the help I need, sometimes help I don’t realize was there until a long time later. And this is what I hang on to when I worry about the future: I have had difficulties in the past, about which I had similar if not more serious worries, and I am still here to write my stories. This is what matters most, or at least what matters enough to make it all the struggles worth the while.