When I was fifteen, I walked into a sliding glass door. I still remember the private school girl’s snort. “Guess what Rebecca did,” she announced to a room full of boys in collared shirts.
Do birds tease each other when they crash into glass windows? I doubt it. They might notice José or Janet has left the flock, but they probably just carry on with the business of flying.
Confused birds occasionally fly into the floor-to-ceiling windows of my house. I always feel sad when it happens and resolve to do something about it, but never follow through. The most recent collision was last night.
I was sitting at the dining table alone, with a debilitating headache, missing out on something fun. Nurse Nancy with the cheerful voice had confirmed that, yes, headaches can be a side effect of the chemotherapy. When I told her it hurt to the touch, she said, “Your scalp might have some nerve damage.”
I had poured myself a glass of rosé even though no one had recommended this. I took Tylenol and made myself a bowl of chickpea pasta that tasted sandy. I opened my laptop and started watching a new show with Sandra Oh. Twenty minutes in, I heard a noise somewhere between a boom and a splat.
The bird had fallen onto our plastic green IKEA chair. With its yellow belly, pale green wings, and legs sticking straight up in the air, the bird’s tiny tummy rose and fell with great haste. I closed my laptop and watched this new show, Tiny Creatures In Distress.
Sipping my wine, I took stock. These last six months have been a bizarre dream. One month before my first novel was published, I received a phone call from an oncology nurse who said plainly, “It’s not the news we were hoping for.” Since then, I have been floating above myself, going through the motions of breast cancer treatments.
I finished my fifteenth infusion of chemotherapy this week. One to go. My body feels encased in metal, or molasses. When I walk up two stairs, my legs want to fold. My nose bleeds without warning, and my three remaining eyebrow hairs stick straight out, in shock that they’re still here. And I am tired all the time. I have aged thirty years in thirty weeks. Is this what it’s like to be old?
My mother and I were on the phone recently, comparing medical appointments. I said, “If this cancer comes back when I’m old, I don’t think I can do chemo again.” She said, “You say that now but when you’re old you’ll do anything to spend one more day with your family. Trust me.”
I haven’t forgotten about the bird.
After ten minutes or so, it rolled over and stood on the chair, still breathing heavily. It appeared to be looking at me through the glass. By now, our kitten was watching from inside, drooling. The three of us stayed this way for a while, stuck in a circle of curiosity – the bird looking at me, me looking at the cat, the cat looking at the bird.
I try to take care of my body the way I would a child, a trick I picked up from Caitlin Moran. In her essay, “A Letter to Teenage Girls,” Moran instructs girls to provide safety and comfort to their bodies the way one would to an infant. I find this idea very comforting.
Walking into the infusion center week after week is not easy. Repeatedly poisoning myself in order to heal is a mind fuck. When I enter the hospital, it helps to tell myself, I would do this for my child. I would help my baby get better.
The bird finally began hopping around on the chair, pacing back and forth. I took a picture and sent it to a friend in Melbourne. “This doesn’t capture how bright the yellow is,” I wrote.
I took a bite of gross gluten-free pasta and blew my bloody nose into a paper towel. When I looked outside, the bird was gone.
You might believe the bird represents something here. Ending with a bird metaphor would be lovely. But the bird is not me. It is just a bird. They crash into windows sometimes, and the cancer is just a disease.