Lately, the morning sky has drawn me outdoors before first light. There, under the comfort of a blanket, I recline in a deck chair on the front porch. The planets Venus and Jupiter are prominent out east this month. And, due to the absence of streetlights in our remote part of the Hood River Valley, an unfathomable array of stars glitter on these moonless nights.
Without fail, my cat Spanky joins me, propping himself like a sentinel on my lap. Together, we watch the day awaken. His hearing alerts me to activity before I can see it. As the darkness recedes, the drone of night crickets is joined by a melody of bird song: Mozart on a branch. Then the stars, one by one, wink and vanish into the cloak of bluing sky.
Star gazing at 4 am is a luxury of retirement. My pension is modest but I am wealthy with the time to enjoy the wonders of life. Some days feel downright decadent. I read and nap without a concern for the time. Occasionally, I wear my pajamas until the middle of the afternoon. Guilt teases me. Like a mosquito, it buzzes my conscience so accustomed to years of working the 9 to 5. Still, I’m comfortable doing what I do best: nothing.
Perhaps this attitude constitutes what might be termed the “retirement honeymoon.” Maybe. I can’t say if this state of mind will last another five months, five years, or longer. However, if living with an incurable cancer has any redeeming features, then the understanding of the relative importance of things is high atop the list. Accordingly, the self indulgent activities: mystery novels or long catnaps with Spanky, to name just a couple, come with a sense of value that borders on entitlement.
August 28th marks four years since my stem cell transplant to suppress the blood cancer, multiple myeloma. I am healthy. I manage the side effects of oral chemo much better now that I am not working. Most people would have no idea that cancer is a part of my otherwise idyllic life. Still, I know that the malignancy, which comprises a portion of the innumerable blood cells in my body, continues to percolate in my marrow. It’s like those stars that disappear with the sunrise. You can’t see them any longer, but they are still there.
Recently, I read, “A characteristic feature of multiple myeloma is that the disease enters a stable, or ‘plateau’ phase – during which time the patient is well, requires no treatment, and measurable disease indicators are stable. This phase typically lasts 12 to 40 months but it can be 10 to 15 years or more.”
That is quite a spread of optimistic supposition. My latest monthly visit with Dr. M confirmed that my disease fits into the above description. Technically, I am not in remission because I need a maintenance dose of oral chemo to slow the cancer’s growth. My quality of life, however, is high. I’ve pursued conventional therapies. I’ve responded well. Additional options, if necessary, wait.
Like it or not, my retirement honeymoon and disease plateau phase seem to be dancing together. It’s a clumsy pairing. They step on each other’s toes. They don’t always get the sequences just right. Both rely more on luck than design in anticipating the other’s movements. But there’s no letting go.
In the meantime, I’ll enjoy the night sky. The celestial bodies, though vast in number, are nonetheless more predictable than biology. I know exactly where to find Jupiter and Venus as they perform their own heavenly dance across the eastern sky. On the other hand, the volatility of disease behavior, lends itself to broad generalizations, a fair amount of guesswork, and lots of hope.