Brain cancer: ups and downs

Yesterday as we were eating lunch and talking about our days, Richard heard a rumble of thunder in the distance. I held up crossed fingers.

“Maybe we’ll get some rain.”

A few minutes later, we heard a patter of drops on our metal roof. The rhythm accelerated to a shower and then a pounding roar. Water poured from the clouds so quickly it fountained off the gutters, flowed in liquid sheets across the sidewalks, and began to pool on the bare petanque court, accompanied by stabbing flashes of lightning and booming thunder.


I slid the sliding glass door at the end of the living room open carefully, mindful of the sheets of water blowing under the porch, and shot some photos.

The air pouring in was cool, wet, and smelled wonderfully alive as the water hit the surface of the soil, dispersing plant oils and awakening microbes and other tiny lives in the soil, long dormant from this excruciatingly drought. (That smell by the way, has a delightful technical name: petrichor, from the Greek for “stone” and “blood of the Gods.”)


The flow of rain continued, waxing and waning, for about half an hour, and then tapered back to gentle drops on the roof before quitting altogether. The sun came out, the sidewalks steamed, and the air warmed up and dried out again.

But for those few minutes, we lived in the land of abundance, and with just that half an inch of rain, our “unlawn,” a restored expanse of native bunchgrasses and wildflowers, greened up perceptibly.

What’s a thunderstorm that brought us a few minutes of relief from months of drought got to do with brain cancer? Rhythm.

Any journey with chronic illness brings ups and downs. In this journey with Richard’s brain cancer, those ups and downs seem like wider swings, more intense oscillations, perhaps because the cancer is growing in the organ that controls not just his body, but is the source of his mind, his thinking and emotions. So even the smallest disturbance is a much bigger deal.

It feels something like the rhythm of this drought: we go for weeks and weeks with no rain. We long for moisture—any at all, to freshen the air and bring it alive again, or even for clouds to block the endless sun.

And then bam, whack, pow: out of nowhere clouds build, thunder rumbles, the clouds let loose and the world is awash in water and life.

For a few hours. Until the high-desert sun returns the drought.

With brain cancer, the rhythm is similar: We’ve adapted to life with Richard’s revised brain, and we focus on what he can do, not what he can’t. I continue to work on appreciating the gift of having his company in my life, not continually comparing what he can do and how he behaves now to before the two brain surgeries of last spring, before the glioblastoma commandeered his entire right hemisphere.


And then along comes a day like last Friday, when Richard is suddenly much more like his old self: cheerful, confident, strong, funny, aware. I am giddy with relief—my partner is back!

Only the change doesn’t last, just as the gift of moisture from the rain doesn’t last in this long drought. The fretfulness creeps back, he begins to sleep more, he withdraws gradually, and flashes of anger darken his usual good humor.

I loose my patience, fear the worst, and struggle to maintain such equanimity as I have. And then I remind myself of what really matters: Not how much he smiles or sees; not whether he can drive or not, or help with meals and house- and garden-work; not whether he can make a joke or juggle or even pick up a tool and work with one of his rocks, his ambassadors of the earth.

Nope, what really matters is that he’s still here, his beautiful–if dented–mind still intact, his spirit still shining.

What really matters is that I love him, and he loves me. For that gift, like the gift of rain and the rich fragrance of life it brings, I am grateful.