It was the best of times, it was the …
No, I can’t say that. It wasn’t. It wasn’t the worst of times. Any cancer survivor knows the worst of times. It’s different for everyone (The moment of diagnosis? When the needle slides in for that first unknown chemo? Waking up without a breast? Watching the cancer spread across your chest? Feeling yourself numb up and slipping away?), but of all the things we lose, we gain one thing: perspective.
And no matter how much things hurt later on, we know what real pain is, what real fear is, and we also know, THIS ISN’T IT.
So. With that in mind. This week was pretty incredible. WonderDaddy and I went to Houston for four days for our annual conference. We had an amazing time of work, conversation, more work, and hugs from colleagues far and near. (In truth, I got most of the hugs. But after my cancer, I hug everybody, from the undergrad I’ve met once to high-ranking NASA officials. I can’t help it. I’m just so damn glad to be here, and to see these scientists again, who once I thought I’d seen for the last time. The gratitude just comes flowing out, and I hug. If you’ve met me at BlogHer or at LPSC, you know what I’m talking about. I am SO glad to see you again. And I mean that.)
WonderDaddy led an amazing Early Career Workshop, and I did my best with someone else’s slides for a bit of it, so that he could rest his voice. I led an amazing Women’s Networking Breakfast a few days later, and 155 women came to eat, to talk, to share, to listen, and to make new connections and hear new things about being a planetary scientist. I made bold statements, and watched heads begin to nod and smiles spread across the room as I said the unsayable. The NASA Division Director spoke after me, and instead of rejecting my thesis, he paused, he smiled, and he said, “Susan hit so many of the right points.”
And I was relieved.
I smiled. I introduced my fellow bloggers, calling them a “community working group” in accordance with the lingo of my field, and welcomed new members to the working group, encouraging them to join us as we talked about these issues, these side issues, these things that distract us from our science. Together, we could find solutions and keep the younger women from leaving our field for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of their science: Child care. Nursing mothers at conferences. Stipends. Travel grants. Dual careers. Promotions. Joining flight mission teams to explore the solar system.
Woman after woman got up and spoke and made announcements, offering resources, promising help, telling the young scientists there that there were people who could help them move ahead, and that there were answers to these problems that seemed insurmountable. If we weren’t part of the old boy’s network, that’s okay. We would network ourselves, sharing what we needed to hear, and clear the decks of these distractions so that we could concentrate on our work. Our science.
We do good science.
I was so happy, I floated through the air back to my hotel room, where I lay down to rest my back. It ached and that spot, that third vertebrae down from my neck, on the right, began to burn. After a while, I went back down, did several interviews for the book project, and then slept again at lunch. Three more interviews and a fast-paced brainstorming session, I was ready for dinner with my husband (the first since we’d arrived!) and it was lovely. But back at the poster session, I sat down with my 7th interview, a woman I’d known since her postdoc days, and I began to fade. She told me all about her life and work and work on NASA missions, and I squinted, trying to concentrate, trying to hear her, to put myself in her shoes at each step, and I failed.
I pushed my back against the stiff red couch and concentrated on sitting upright, smiling, and listening to her as best I could. When we were done, though, as she turned to go back to the poster session and then out to the Hawaii party, the annual beerfest where friendships are renewed and collaborations are made, I turned and walked away. The other direction. Back to my room.
Something had begun to go very, very wrong with my body. The pain in my back had intensified, pushing, pushing me away with that dull pain just to the right of my spine, third vertebra down. The pain had spread through my back and up to my neck, and my arms felt funny. Prickly. Sensitive. Tingling.
I took my pain relievers and went, fitfully, to sleep.
The next morning, I was drenched in pain. Every part of my body, from my belly up, was tingling, prickly, painful, and sensitive. My hands trembled, and I could not grip my iPhone. I pulled myself up to sit, hearing myself cry out in pain, but I wanted to get up. I needed to get up. I did, but standing was worse, so I lay back down, propped on the pillows as my physical therapist had taught me, and WD brought me my medication. I took it. I waited.
7:00. No better. 8:00. I missed breakfast. 8:30. I missed the first set of talks, including one of a friend, interplnetsarah. 9:00. I missed my first appointment of the day, with the planetary scientist in charge of curation of the nation’s premiere collection of meteorites. 9:30. Couldn’t move. 10:00. I dressed and went down to meet the retired planetary scientist that I had pre-arranged a talk with more than a month ago. I tried to talk to him. I tried to tell him that I just wasn’t feeling well, and could we please talk on the phone another time? I tried to hold it together. But another colleague happened to be standing there as I walked up, a friend who has also lived through pain and chronic illness, and she saw the pain behind my eyes. She met my eyes, and said, “You’re not well.” I wasn’t well. Every part of my body, belly up, was tingling and painful, and I didn’t know what was happening to me. I was calm but overrun with pain, and I was in no shape to do this interview or anything else. I admitted that I was not well, and that the pain today was too much to bear. Both of the scientists knew that I had battled cancer and had afterpain, but they were surprised, saying, “I knew that you had bad days, but I’d never seen one. I’m sorry. This is awful.”
And yes, it was.
I apologized over and over again, and then walked slowly, carefully back to my room, every step jolting my spine and sending waves of pain through my body and down my arms over and over again.
As I passed her, I said goodbye to another friend who I had known since her postdoc days, now in a powerful position at a research center. She saw the pain in my eyes, and gave me a hug and words to comfort me. I tried to be strong and reassuring, but I could feel the tear forming in my eye, so I turned away.
Unfortunately, the person she was speaking to saw it too. This senior person, who I most respect and least wanted to see me in my weakness, saw the tear in my eye, and I steeled myself for the biting comment that may come.
It didn’t come. Instead, a hug. Words of reassurance. Offers of help.
I went back upstairs to lie down until WD finished his meetings and packed us off to the airport. The flight home was torture. I was on more pain medication than ever, and yet I couldn’t see past the pain enough to make a to-do list or read an article. I couldn’t wrap up my notes from the breakfast or lists from the interviews. All I could do was sit, head in hands or back straight against the curved airline seat, waiting, hoping, desperately wanting the plane ride to be over so that I could lie down in my own bed, snuggling my own little boys, waiting for the pain to go away, so that I could be myself again.