A QUARTET OF CERTAINTIES
Please allow me to introduce myself: between the two certainties of death and taxes, I assess the wages, not of sin but of resurrection.
When you were young, your growth was cause for celebration. Annually a cake was set ablaze with an extra flame, to be extinguished by ballooning lungs while a chorus called you dear. Tiny fires shimmy-shook under gusts of breath — each passing year gifting a stronger exhalation — before smoke curled towards a sinking ceiling. Cabinets once positioned at great height, their treasures Himalayan airless and unattainable, descended to eye level and easy access. The door frame contracted satisfyingly when you pressed the back of your head against it to be measured.
Growing, up, you came to look down on your earthbound mother and father with disdain, softening to pity when you were feeling charitable. Your parents were in thrall to gravity, their bodies leaden while they pencil-marked your own climb notch by notch.
Mom and Dad were inert, except to become less useful to an omniscient adolescent. You didn’t need their help any more to blow out the candles; if anything, the outmoded Sherpas were competing for your air supply, making it harder to expand, uninspiring. They fretted about mortgage payments and compound interest when money held so many more alluring uses, evident only to you: you who soared, for whom the sky was the limit, while they seemed dully obsessed with the roof of your shrinking house and the invisible costs of keeping it over your head. Curiously, whenever they wanted to remind you that you lived under their rules, they always invoked that claustrophobic upper boundary, as if you welcomed being restricted, flightless as a clipped fledgling.
But then your bones fused. Tectonic plates ground to a halt as the continents took their stations. One-time neighbors from the womb settled on distant shores, ankles marooned as far from hips as Brazil from the Skeleton Coast.
Your skull stopped expanding too. Its suture lines closed oyster-tight around your pearl of a mind, sequestered but still accreting layers of knowledge and judgment. Nacreous experience laminated an irritant into iridescence, your brain shimmering inside its shell. To the outside observer though, your head just hovered. The graphite etchings on the threshold plateaued. You had reached the summit and planted your flag. Your vital capacity became static, and at elevation you could gaspingly grasp the appeal of an elder’s oxygen tank.
It was all downhill from there. Rebirth lost its luster through familiarity, breeding not contempt but complacency. A jigsaw puzzle is no fun once the last piece has clicked into place. The main way to alter your appearance now was to change clothes, a wardrobe rotating to accommodate fickle fashion rather than an elongating torso and telescoping limbs.
As your body cycled through its seasons, each fresh crop of cells appeared so reliably that they became unappreciated, even resented for the incessant burden of maintenance. The miraculous soured into the monotonous as a bounty demanded tending. Hairs sprouted and were cut; nails lengthened and were trimmed; skin sullied to be sloughed away and replaced with a subtly lesser glow.
Only today, as you reap a grim harvest of bad seeds, do you realize precisely what it was that you took for granted: that you could sprout anew, germinating effortlessly from a perfect kernel, forever and ever amen. Those days of unearned reward are over, and only the most arduous of labors can return you to a yield both abundant and pure.
If you’re lucky, for being born again can prove deadly.
Let me also offer a third certainty: you never wanted to meet me. I don’t take it personally, as everybody feels that way. No one ever intends to require my services. The undertaker fulfills a similarly undesired obligation, but by then you can’t object to his necessity. For now you can still rage, rage that you did not choose this adventure, this mortal affront to your self-determination. With sudden empathy for the also-great Gatsby, you're dismayed by such ferocious indifference to the drums of your destiny. This is an arrhythmia in your chosen cadence.
This is far much disruptive than an off-beat; this is more syncope than syncopation. It’s a plunge from high altitude, ascension interrupted. Along the trajectory you projected for your life, we only collide after turbulence and a nosedive, your great expectations strewn among the wreckage. When we meet, you are a crash-landed pilot who has lost their bearings and command.
I’m not even going to pry open the black box and explain your downfall, at least not yet. The moment I name your affliction, you’ll stop paying attention. I’ve been informed by ghosts of listeners past that you’ll hear the diagnosis and then tune me out, ears ringing with the tinnitus of terror. Some people never dare speak of your imperial malady, leaving it deliberately unsaid like Yahweh. Out of dread they show reverence to an unholy spirit: The Disease Which Must Not Be Named. Others refer to it by its first letter, capitalizing and inflating it into The Big C, a proper noun for a proper menace. A thesaurus enables feats of linguistic dexterity to contort around its mention: tumor, mass, neoplasm. But malignancy is the synonym that comes closest of all to capturing its essence, badly born.
We may never know what triggered this terrible gestation inside of you but through our shotgun wedding we are now bound by the same covenant that unites groom with trembling bride. There will be no annulment or divorce so shed your veil and listen to my vow: until death do us part. My pledge is to defer our separation for as long as possible, by whatever means necessary.
Because you have cancer.
There, I said it, deafening even at normal volume, I know, but try to stay with me. I am your oncologist. I will be with you until the end, which I hope to postpone but could precipitate. It just depends.
I am an airbag, abrading to save. I won’t tell you white lies like others in my profession, those who whisper “you won’t feel a thing,” stabbing only after soothing with tall tales of numbness. There will be no such sugarcoating here, no deceit delivered in dulcet tones before an anesthesia honeymoon. My words are less palatable, bitter truths instead of sweet nothings. They will leave an ashen taste before depositing a lump in the throat.
Which brings us to the fourth certainty.
This is going to hurt.
But then again, pain, like growth, is proof of life.