It is fading all the time. The fear, the fragility. The pain and loss. It has been days, and then it has been weeks, since I was enveloped by the emotion and paralysed by the fear. And for some moments I really truly completely forget. I am peaceful. Laughing with friends. Gazing at the bare branches of a tree. I am calm and consciously grateful. I exercise. I bask in the love of my son and my man. I work and then work some more. I read. I have ideas and ambition. I am absorbed. I make dinner and peel a banana and hold a cup of tea with two hands, fingers intertwined. I am doing this – this life thing – and I forget the cancer and its heinous resolve and my once almost certain demise.
And then, without notice, it chooses to remind me.
And when it does, a frenzy ensues.
Shooting across the sky in a tightly-packed Boeing, I am hunched low in my chair, captivated by Coldplay in concert. This is a nice change. I am being reacquainted with my working self: consultant and frequent flyer. Me, but more. Same, but different. I am tired, but I am content. All it takes is a wobble of turbulence to topple it all. Formerly serene-at-38,000-feet, my delicate mind jumps to fight. This turbulence can’t be normal. This is a crash. Death is certain. My life is being snatched from me. Planes fall from the sky, just like 32-year-old mothers get terminal bowel cancer. Nowhere is safe. Nobody is immune.
My pulse races and I feel hot and there is no stopping this now. I am overrun with blazes of the most sombre and distressing thoughts. More than anxious. Panicking. I feel immediately ashamed by the audacity of my hope. I see Tim and Josh holding each other tight, alone, their bodies warm but our home cold. I read the tragedy of the headlines – the life that was never going to live, the death that seemed fated in the stars despite every best effort. I sense the wing dipping and the plane free falling from the sky. I feel a twinge of shoulder tip pain and a swelling from my abdomen. My heart beats out of my chest.
I am jerked from my private hell by the thrust of an ice-cream into my line of sight. I am bewildered for a moment. And then, I glance up. A Qantas uniform and a lean arm and a strained smile and tired eyes. The ice-cream is re-thrusted. I shake my head heartily with an apologetic smile. I am sorry, I was tuned out just then, I was thinking about dying, it consumes me sometimes, I find it difficult to escape, but you are trying to do your job and you are only at row six and already people are ignoring you and I apologise and no thank you I am fine for ice cream.
I am in limbo now. Vulnerable. Not panicking but also far from safe. I feel exposed and pull my jacket tighter around my shoulders. Where does this come from? How does my head get so out of control? And after everything I have been through, every new label that has been assigned to me, do I really now have to add nervous flyer too? This is not me. My eyes prickle as I contemplate the extent to which I just don’t know myself anymore.
Coldplay croon Up&Up through my headphones. It is a song that I listen to when I am blue and sad and broken and spent – fairly reliably on my playlist, then. As soon as I hear the first few bars of music I well up with tears, overwhelmed by the exhaustion of it all. I can’t do this anymore, I just cannot do this.
It last for three seconds, maybe four. This is the bottom.
It is just so hard, to fight like this constantly. But I know. Yes, I know. I need to lift. I need to work through the pain and the sad. It is time.
And so I start a process of unpacking why. Just to understand. To learn about me, this version of me, my normal. I restart my Coldplay concert and I close my eyes and take three deep breaths.
I guess I know too much. This is not normal, to know what it is to be dying. To have to come to terms with how such a devastating end could possibly be dumped into the centre of my beautiful narrative. To have to accept that can just happen. No matter your plan.
I can no longer think about living without anticipating dying. The peaceful indulgence of supposing I will quietly grow old has been stolen from me and there is no undoing it. Because it might not be cancer. It might be a plane falling from the sky. This stuff happens and it is random, and it is sure, statistically unlikely, but that really means nothing to me anymore. I simply cannot unlearn what I have learned.
Breath. More. In and out. Let’s keep going.
Because really, that can be a positive thing, can’t it? Nicole? In truth, isn’t that a privilege to know and understand? Don’t you have a quiet advantage, actually? To know just how fragile all of this is?
Yes. I do.
Okay. We are getting somewhere now.
That’s right. Of course you do. And what you are facing now is just another chapter of normal for you. This is all normal. For you. This is what you have and you only have this and you will never have anything else, so this is the time to make it work. It is okay to feel anxious. You will feel overwhelmed. It is natural to panic.
And again, quietly, it recedes. The cancer and the angst. The cognisance. The starkness, the anxiety and terror and physical manifestation of those things in my tired body. Sao Paulo applaud raucously, and I can’t help but smile. I love this song.
It takes all of me, all of my effort, most of the time, to do this. To work through it. It takes constant conversation and self-assessment and righting of my wayward thoughts. There are those moments up there, where we started tonight, of mindfulness and freedom and space. Because of course, time heals and time is ticking and I am healing. So the pain is fading, everyday – and sometimes, I do forget entirely. But anxiety is still crippling when it chooses to strike. And the fear and panic generally assault with very little warning. Meaning it is inevitably self-talk – a disciplined practice of self-talk, a routine of kindness and focus and reflection and challenge – that keeps me going.
And it is necessary for me to capture that conversation, that hard work, and package it up and convey it to you. To the person who watches me on television and likes my selfie and reads my posts and declares me an inspiration.
Sometimes I feel inspirational. Sometimes I feel like I have challenged and conquered, beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. But mostly, I just feel normal, and normal is hard.
Nobody said it was easy.