My Wobbly Bicycle, 12

Posted by on Feb 20, 2013 | 15 comments

Third chemo yesterday. My oncologist was a bit late for our appointment  (There’s always a pre-chemo exam). He’d been at the hospital and was obviously frustrated after talking with a patient. He didn’t give particulars, but said something like this: heart disease is the #1 killer, cancer is #2. Even though heart disease has as many variables and is as much a mystery, somehow people assume the doctor is working in their best interest with heart disease, that a stent, certain medications, are appropriate. Yet with cancer, everyone has a different tangent, an anecdotal cure, they think may be better than what the doctor has in mind. Not that he discourages supplements, herbals, acupuncture, etc., but it’s the attitude I could tell he was responding to.  stocking cap

It does seem that cancer feels more out-of-control to us. My many years of meditation training have made it quite clear to me that my very being is “out of control” in an ultimate sense. I can’t dictate when I’ll be born or die. About all I can do in this lifetime is encourage certain attitudes that can help lean me in a direction I want to go.

winter TC bridgeThis chemo doesn’t seem to be giving me much of a grace period of feeling good before the ickys set in. And here it is, full winter. Here’s a photo of a trail near our house in winter. I’m glad to have chemo and radiation this time of year.  Caps and wigs are hot. And I can wear a stocking cap now and feel like my old self when I go outside. But the dark and enclosure sometimes gets to me, no matter how diligently I follow my cheering up routines. I am not all light sabre and optimism. Sometimes I sink. Sometimes, with Keats, “On the shore / of the wide world I stand alone, and think.”

But there are books. I would like to sing the praises of novels and memoirs for a change. I just finished The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe, a publisher with a distinguished career from a prominent  family of publishers and philanthropists. He chronicles the last couple of years of his mother’s life as she’s dying of pancreatic cancer. They’re both huge readers, and they talk their way through a pile of books during this time. You’d think I’d want a more cheerful book. But it did cheer me.

Will’s mother, Mary Ann Schwalbe says, “When you walk around New York, or really anywhere, you see so many people like that young woman [in the book they’re reading]—not desperate, but still sad and lonely. That’s one of the amazing things great books like this do—they don’t just get you to see the world differently, they get you to look at people, the people all around you, differently.”

Great books, not schlock (although some schlock may be insightful, too). I’m not thinking of books-as-moral-lessons, either. I’m thinking of people’s made-up or true stories as “acts of awareness,” as D. H. Lawrence said.  Hawthorne reminded us that the “truth of the human heart” is sometimes more evident in what he called “romance” than it is right in front of our nose. We make up our lives in our minds whether we write it down or not. We live in our illusions. We are as mysterious as cancer. A book takes me deeply inside many different  minds,  helps me see the close details of another life, which in a real sense is my own life. We aren’t separate. We can’t get free of someone else’s suffering—or joy—by ignoring it.

I’ve also just read Shantaram,  by Gregory David Roberts, a huge thick book, a fictionalized account of the author’s escape from an Australian prison. He ends up in Bombay, serving as a beloved doctor in the most horrible slums. He’s thrown into a ghastly Indian jail, gets out, goes to Afganistan to fight the Russians—it’s epic in proportion. I liked holding the book, bought by a friend in India:  cheap paper,  sometimes the print slanted on the page, bleeding through or too light.

I’m now reading The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee. I’m not terribly interested in the clinical, physiological aspects of cancer—I only want to learn enough about that to help with my recovery. I’m more interested in how people have responded over the ages to cancer, the psychology of the research.

And of course as always I have a stack of poetry books I’m plowing through, each one a different angle of the mirror, each a beating heart—mine and its, combined.

When I feel down: first I sit with it, looking into the quality of my mind/body.  I drop the label “down,” entirely. What is there, exactly? It is what it is. Nothing to panic about. (There’s 2500 years-worth of what to say, here, about how this works, its purpose, its affinities with what’s typically called prayer, etc.)  And I get together with friends. This helps a great deal. And I read. My intention is not to “get lost” so much as it is to see more, from different angles. And Jerry and I have just finished our marathon watch of season 2 of Downton Abby. Finally, finally, Mary and Matthew are together!  That brought tears of joy to my eyes, no joke. There is as much subtlety and good writing in this series as in a great Victorian novel. Plus good acting.SONY DSC

And I think of the cottage, my paddle-board stored in the garage along with the kayaks and canoe, waiting for summer. That makes me smile.



  1. Again, thank you for sharing your life., your thoughts, and your love. We are all connected and can learn so much from each other.

  2. I’m glad to have gotten connected with you in a more aware kind of way and love, love, love what you say about fiction in this post. As for the rest, you don’t need advice from me: you are a model for the rest of us.

    • You and I are in the book business together. It’s a glorious business, and brave, it seems, in this media-saturated world.

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  4. Blessings Fleda! Bill 😉

  5. It is snowing here in Alaska, but the light is coming back. Every day we gain 6 minutes. It’s a nice way to think about the day, expanding towards kayaks and summer cabins. I wish you more light, more light!

    • Yes, we have more light here, too. Very helpful. So your wish is slowly coming true.

  6. Dear Fleda – I met you when you spoke to our P.E.O. group last year, and have been following your “Wobbly Bicycle” saga as you have so courageously faced your illness. How I admire your spirit and appreciate how candid you are as you face the reality of this life-altering experience.

    I, too, have read ‘Shantaram’, which I picked up at a free book stand in Paris a couple of years ago – such an incredible story of survival! I have just finished another book which also emphasizes how indomitable the human spirit can be – ‘The Yellow Birds’, a first novel by Kevin Powers, based on his experiences in the army in Iraq, and a National Book Award finalist.

    I look forward to hearing of your adventures on your paddle board, kayaks and canoe in happier times, when winter, with all of its trials, is gone, and summer arrives.

    • Thanks for writing, Jan. I’ll look at “the Yellow Birds.” I always appreciate suggestions.

  7. I enjoy your posts’, but I have learned much more through our talks during chemo. Somehow it makes me feel less alone, knowing someone else feels what I do. I try not to look at this disease as all bad; it has given me a pure joy for small things that I never had before and a bigger bonus is less time fixing my hair. How much time we humans waste on doing various things to our hair; don’t miss a minute of it. Keep walking Fleda, it will lead you to your cabin.

  8. Ah, your attitude! Yes to having chemo-in-the-winter, by a posterior reasoning, yes to having chemo! You have so many good approaches.

    Are you listening to music? I’ve been listening to Monteverdi again. Devotional music and probably there are issues with the Church establishment when he was composing them, but oh, the exquisiteness of the voices, no vibrato, clear, accurate; the heart-melting trumpets and cornetts (not usually thought of as heart-melting). It’s uplifting music.

    • Ahh, music. It got so I looked forward to driving myself to radiation because it was the perfect time to focus on music. Got hooked on Celtic harp…and of all things, Michael Frant’i “hey,hey, hey, no matter how
      Life is today, just one thing I gotta say, don t let another moment slip way.”
      And there were the quiet days when Pema’s cd , Unconditional
      Confidence was better than food.
      I agree too, chemo in winter good., Thinking of canoes, kayaks, and water lapping, even better.
      T he best? You being so real on your blog.
      Thank you, Fleda!

      Thank you for being you, Fleda!

      • And thank you for your message, Margaret. Celtic harp is perfect.

    • Right. Not enough music. That could be a goal. Thanks.

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