By Eli Ryder
My father died of a brain tumor at the ripe old age of forty-five, and if that hadn’t taken him down the cancer in his lungs would have done the job. I don’t remember if anyone connected the two, calling one a metastasis of the other, or if they were separate issues. What I do know is that his age threw a cloud around my own longevity, because the other thing no one ever discussed is whether he was genetically predisposed or if he’d brought all of that on himself.
The brain tumor could have been the drug use throughout his life. The lung cancer, maybe the two-pack-a-day habit he had since before I was born. Or, he could have passed to me a potential for illness I would have to carry around in the back of my mind.
I smoked for a while. Did my share of recreational drugs. There’s more cancer in the family, too. All kinds of potential.
I’ve tried to leverage that potential into motivation to do all kinds of things with my life, to wear all kinds of badges:
Single words, short ones. But with so much power. Their technical definitions and emotional implications can express universal experiences with such specificity. Or create imaginary identities out of nothing, identities we wear like winter coats even when they don’t all-the-way fit.
The longest there is ten letters, ten ultimately arbitrary characters we’ve all agreed have sounds, and those individual sounds make a longer, more complex sound, and suddenly the five, six, seven characters assemble into an entire identity.
These identities overlap, combine, and even their almost-magical capacity to contain, to be infinitely bigger than their arbitrary signifiers, are individually still too inadequate to contain an entire person.
We sure make them try, though, don’t we?
Writer: Here I am, writing. I’ve got some short fiction out in the world, a play once upon a time in San Francisco, and some short musings on writing and craft for Automata’s blog. Also, a songwriter—nothing anyone would ever remember, but enough to make a record, and record demos at home, and then play them for people years later when I don’t think they’d laugh. I’m an editor, both for my own magazine and for friends in writing groups. I’m in my second career, having left a decade of experience in retail management behind for the much more challenging and rewarding halls of academia. And, Asshole. Yep. I’ve been that. Haven’t we all?
I am also a Father. Connotatively, that’s love, support, guidance—and fun and sacrifice, a great magnitude of things. The word contains so much that a single essay cannot possibly express everything the word demands. And, to my daughter, that singular word will encompass every I am to her. Every other identity will be contained in that word: “My father is (insert other signifiers here).”
Even in their magnificent power to create meaning, words are still too small and weak to contain an entire human.
We are a great many things, and when one of them overshadows the rest, maybe the whole human suffers. For instance, teacher—my mother (there I go, boxing her in) is a teacher, has been for 20-odd years, and will likely never be able to retire. So, she’ll be a teacher until she dies. She also has horses, reads books, and twice upon a time was a wife. But mostly: teacher. And now, that’s pretty much it. Solitary, almost anti-social, she works from dark to dark and is usually too drained by her work to do anything but decompress when she’s not at work.
She’s become someone who can fit completely inside the badge. Teacher. There are other things, but they’re wedged into the Teacher box and only exist to support the teacher identity. She’s made everything else so small that even my limited-scope version of her wilts in the face of Teacher.
I have a new badge.
I’m trying hard not to let that new badge, the new-as-of-12:46pm-January-8-2019 badge with the lethal connotations, gain too much space among the rest. I’m a writer, friend, partner, teacher, lover, reader, songwriter (despite that hat’s rare appearance), and more recently, walker, breather, relaxer. All of those can peacefully coexist together, even support and make each other stronger. Now, though, there’s an interloper, a badge often so powerful it crushes people under its weight:
That’s what I am, now. A patient. A negative metastasis, no spread of disease, best-news-about-worst-news early-detected Prostate Cancer Patient.
And that word, that identity, could easily obliterate everything else, spread and take over and suffocate the rest of me. It could, and does to a lot of people—most of whom don’t have the positive adjectives tacked onto the front of that badge the way I do. If there’s luck in these kinds of situations, I’ve got it. So, that’s a new badge too: Lucky.
Lucky that I turned down the position in Las Vegas when I did, because that landed me here in Texas. Lucky I missed my flight to the interview in Fort Worth after having accepted a position in Houston, because that kept me in Houston—where my general practitioner made a mistake on a lab order and ran a test never ordered on people under fifty. Which led to a series of tests and biopsies and discoveries probably not explored had I not found the one GP who would make that mistake.
My surgeon told me he had no idea why my PSA was tested, because my age and indicators didn’t call for it. I’m only forty-one. He also told me I’d not have lived to fifty, the age at which that test would normally have been run.
My father wasn’t so lucky, didn’t have medical insurance, and maybe forty-five was my timeline without all these seemingly random events falling into place. But they did.
I am a Patient, noun, one who is receiving medical care. But, let’s look again—patient, adjective, able to withstand delays, problems, and suffering without becoming upset. (I stole those definitions from the internet). Being patient means weathering a storm without having dimmed one’s shine.
The etymology of the homonym looks obvious—it comes from “patience,” according to etymonline.com. Patience, noun, the ability to suffer and endure. That’s another stolen definition. The noun Patient, in receiving medical care, must endure. The adjective Patient, a modifier for other identities. I like to think the adjective exists to remind the noun of the noun’s existence. To remind it of it’s endurance, its ability to stay shiny in a storm.
So my new badge? It should take the reins sometimes, let me settle into each diamond-glow moment for the moment itself. Let it support all my other badges. Make everything I am more patient. Slow down with students when the third and fourth attempts don’t hit home, because I’m going to miss the moment things finally click.
Slow down when my daughter’s independence—the clear sign she’s mine—means she’s not listening, she’s testing boundaries because that’s what smart toddlers do, so that I’m more in tune with what she’s doing and how she’s growing, because I’m going to miss the toddler when she’s older, the kid when she’s a teenager, and the teenager when she’s an adult.
Slow down when the words don’t come, or come fragmented, or come stupid. Because those moments are the pain of writing, the work is to bear down and write through it, and that takes slowing down, embracing the process, and coming out on the other side.
And that’s the meat of it. Weathering the storm, is what patience is. I should be a patient teacher, a patient writer. A patient friend and partner. All of these things in addition to, and due to, being a Patient. The rest of my little boxes should nest in that one for a little while, let me be a Patient among all those other things and bear down, work the process, and come out on the other side. Because I’ve got time, now, more than my father had.