In one month, God willing, we will celebrate Travis’ one year cancerversary. Probably over a sushi dinner, because that’s how we tend to celebrate milestones… and Tuesdays. We aren’t currently celebrating remission, being “cancer free” or even the end of active treatment. We still travel to Rochester every other Wednesday and spend the day at the infusion center, and physical and cognitive rehab are still on the docket twice a week. Slowly but surely, however, cancer is just becoming a part of our daily lives rather than dominating every minute of every day.
Given my background in museums and archeology, I have a tendency to look at material things and instinctively organize them into stories. The vestiges of Travis’ cancer story are scattered about our house like a poorly curated museum exhibit just screaming for organization and context. His radiation mask, flipped upside down and filled with slips of paper from a raffle we did to raise funds for cancer research, sits on our living room bookcase next to a file folder filled with get-well cards.
The cards themselves are a treasure trove of content that show love and support from around the world and the timeline of the relationships we’ve both built across our lives. About half of the 100+ cards are from one single person who has sent Travis at least one card, letter or care package every week for the last year. If I were curating an exhibit I’d certainly call out the story of their connection and how much her simple gesture has meant to us both. I’d also note how much a hand-written card can mean to a person who is so low after a 12 hour day at the hospital, and how much it means to that person’s support person when she’s lost the strength to be supportive after the 2 hour drive home that followed the 12 hour day at the hospital.
There’s a stack of half-complete elementary school workbooks from the earliest weeks and months after Travis’ brain surgeries when he had to relearn letters, numbers, colors and basic sentence structure. Both the incomplete and complete pages are reminders of how far he’s come. The incomplete pages subtly remind us that he’s come far enough to no longer need such basic activities, while the earliest attempts to identify objects and colors are startling reminders of the days when we weren’t sure how much of Travis we’d get back.
I opened our kitchen pantry this week and removed a large shopping bag where I’d been dumping empty pill bottles since last fall (saved not because I’m a pack rat, but to benefit an organization that collects old pill bottles for medical missions and recycling). After I’d peeled all the labels, steamed and washed the bottles and left them in the dish drainer to dry, Travis was shocked to see just how many we’d accumulated over the last year, as was I. For me this was the most striking visual reminder of what he’s been through this last year.
When we came home from Travis’ first hospital stay over 10 months ago we brought with us about 10 pill bottles and each month there were more and more. Each time a pharmacist would sit down with me to discuss the reason Travis was taking each drug, how exactly to take each one for the best results, and how to protect myself from the more toxic medications I would be dispensing. Though I can still name each medication he’s been on and give you a complete oral history of his experience with each one, over time they became simply known as “the big one,” or “the yellow one,” or “that one that makes me feel like crap.”
If I were curating a Travis’ cancer exhibit I guess you could say that the pill bottles would be a key design feature. I would strategically locate them in a place within the gallery that draws the visitor’s eye, and arm the tour guides with stories about “the big one” that would inspire eager guests to learn more about brain cancer and the value of research.
For now I’ll just continue to pass by these things each day and allow them to remind me of how far we’ve come. How grateful I am to have had the miserably difficult year I’ve had, knowing that the alternative would have been a year without Travis. And, of course, how much I need to declutter the living room.