After Cancer, Everyday Miracles by Dana Jennings


The New York Times

April 6, 2010

It has been two years since I learned that I had prostate cancer, and a bit more than a year since I had any treatment for what I eventually learned was an aggressive Stage 3 cancer.

Being from the sticks of New Hampshire, I’m reminded of a woods that has burned. There is still plenty of scorched earth and charred deadfalls, but, more important, the green scrub and optimistic wildflowers of normality are creeping back.

I’m in pretty good shape these days. I live from PSA test to PSA test – every three months – and so far, so good. I still get more tired than I would like because my body chemistry is still in ferment from hormone therapy. And, to get an erection, I have to inject my penis with Cavereject, which stimulates blood flow. (It’s not as bad as it sounds. Honest.)

But those are just physical details. I’m more interested in what I’ve learned from my cancer, how it has actually – and unexpectedly — changed me. Cancer is a hard teacher, but a teacher even so. More than ever, I know that I am blessed in sons and my marriage.  That on a cold winter’s night a pint of porter in the company of a good neighbor is a bounty in this uncertain world.

Yes, cancer is about an unwanted mutiny in the body. But, too, it’s about love and transience. Post-cancer, I love who and what I love more deeply than ever. And I keenly feel in my bones the sheer evanescence of our existence.

I’ve also undergone changes that are more obvious. The anger that raged within me after my diagnosis has mellowed to a simmer — I don’t bellow at speeding cars anymore. I do admit, though, that my tolerance for jerks and trivia has vanished as time’s arrow pricks at my back.

I’ve become more myself these past two years, having shed the need to impress anyone. Cancer cells also knock the ego down a peg or two.

I’m even more obsessive about my, well, obsessions. I binge-read, gorging on books and tearing through genres like some kind of literary wolf: fantasy (Tolkien, Rowling, George R.R. Martin), crime (Leonard, Burke, Stephen Hunter) and poetry (Li Po, Tu Fu, Basho).

And when I realized recently that the last baseball season that truly floored me was in 1975, when the Boston Red Sox and the Cincinnati Reds played their epic World Series, I galloped to the stacks to gobble up books about the primal days of the major leagues and the Negro leagues. (Yep, Ted Williams still hit .406 in 1941.)

That reading, in turn, led me to Ebbets Field Flannels, and the wool replica of Satchel Paige’s 1942 Kansas City Monarchs home jersey that hangs in my closet. Like ol’ Satchel, I don’t look back, because I don’t want to see what might be gaining on me.

Most important, I think, I continue to consciously slow down as our maniacal culture speeds up. I’m constantly on the lookout for those miracles in a minor key that present themselves to us each day.

I crave a certain fierceness of perception, am more open to the fullness of life seized in one small moment or gesture:

  • Bats carving inky compulsories in the purple-black dusk. Fern, the sweet apricot cockapoo up the street, who likes to plant her petite butt on my foot.
  • The topographical hieroglyphics of moss and lichen thriving on rock and stone.
  • The eternal summer conjured by Dick Dale’s feral surf guitar.
  • The dank musk of rain on the wind.
  • The down-home holiness of bluegrass gospel sung by Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers.
  • A wicked curveball just nicking the outside corner of the plate.
  • The puppy breath of our two new golden retrievers, smelling like wet and bitter grass.
  • The daredevil gray squirrels that tap-dance along the back fence.
  • April snow, which my country-boy father calls the poor man’s fertilizer.

So … what are your miracles in a minor key?