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Stuck in Second Gear

Have you ever had an earworm? I'm sure that you have. It’s a creepy image for the relatively common experience of having a song stuck in your head. It happens to me quite often, and most recently I’ve been humming the opening for the TV show, “Friends.” Yes, I know, it is a strange choice, but I think there is some message in there for me especially since the line about being stuck in second gear keeps echoing in my brain.

I learned how to drive on a 4 speed Volkswagen Beetle. As I recall, the process wasn’t easy, especially for a novice driver. I do believe that my momma tried to remain calm as we chugged along, the engine sputtering and dying every few blocks, like one of those cartoon cars. And even after all these years, the symbolism of the process has remained with me If you have ever performed the synchronized dance between the shift, the clutch and the brake in a car with a manual transmission, you understand the analogy in the song. As the engine strains, you must maneuver into the higher gear or you can’t move forward at an acceptable speed. Somehow, you remain stuck, struggling to get anywhere, metaphorical or real, and end up being frustrated in the process.

I often feel that way about cancer treatment. Oh, I was filled with big expectations after frontline, when I naively thought that I was cured and could reclaim the life I had put on pause for eight months. I rang the victory bell in the infusion center and basked in the applause of the chemo nurses. I must admit that the recurrence took me by surprise. My hair, which had grown back thick and curly, was just starting to become acceptable and although it sounds superficial, I was not emotionally prepared to lose it all again. But I handled it, along with the awful side effects of being poisoned by chemo. I proudly rang that bell again, cautiously optimistic about my future. The subsequent pills, the pricey capsules of hope, came with their own challenges, but I was determined to soldier through the hard times, to willingly take them if they offered the possibility of keeping me well. Both regimens failed, which meant two more surgeries and yet another course of chemo. And that’s where I am now, having spent the past five months being pumped yet again with toxic drugs designed to kill the malignant cells.

Yup, sometimes it feels like I’m stuck in second gear when it comes to this illness, unable to sustain remission long enough to get to where I desperately want to be.

You know, we are given the message early in life that we are limitless, that we can be anything, achieve anything if only we tap into the potential of our own minds, cultivate our many talents, exert our powerfully strong wills. The idea of reaching seemingly insurmountable goals through sheer determination is written on locker room walls and school bulletin boards from coast to coast. And while that might be true about some things, it’s a falsehood when it comes to our health. Our bodies are marvelous machines of flesh and blood, with millions of cells, each with a job to do. No doubt we are the great masterpiece of Our Creator. But like most machines, our physical selves have a finite number of working hours. Breakdowns are inevitable. Sometimes, they can be fixed; sometimes, not, and no amount of positive messaging or mindful meditation can overcome the biological reality of illness that has ravaged the body. Trust me: I have tried. So I guess the shifting of gears also represents acceptance. That part is as challenging as the disease.

Truth be told, having advanced cancer is like traveling through a long tunnel. It is scary and dark, but then, far off in the distance there appears a light. You cheer, filled with anticipation as you approach the exit, but then, you see it looming ahead, another tunnel. Your heart sinks. But to walk in faith means you keep trying, even if there is the possibility of repeated heartbreak. Certainly, you pray for strength because in this war surrender is not an option.

In two days I will have my last chemo treatment, and I'm wondering if I will be filled with the same sense of relief and optimism. What happens next is still a mystery, but I’m always hopeful that it was all worth it. I’m thinking that I just might ring that victory bell once again for good measure. Third time could very well be the charm, right?

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