Harriet Alida Lye is the author of the memoir Natural Killer.
At 15 years old, when the doctors diagnosed me with an aggressive and rare form of cancer, I asked how long I’d be in the hospital. At least six months, they said. Six months, I thought. Fine. After six months, I’ll be fine. I did not fear death, or even consider it; I immediately framed the situation so that my only problem was time.
In March of last year, when the coronavirus was spreading across North America, my brain went to a familiar place. When Canada first went into lockdown, I also framed the situation so that the only problem was time: a few weeks, all right, and then it will all be fine. Then: a few months, okay, and then things will go back to normal.
But life after cancer has always been different in some way, and I think the same will be true for life after the pandemic: Normal will be forever altered because of what came before it.
My cancer was a novel variant of a leukemia called natural killer, from which there were no known survivors. The name sounds terrifying, but natural killer cells are a type of white blood cell in everyone’s bodies that attack and kill cancer cells. In my case, the natural killers had become cancerous. The cancer fighters were themselves malignant. The soldiers had betrayed the army; my cells were turncoats.
I had lived 15 years with no fear for my life, but for years after my illness I lived in the shadow of it returning. Every cold caused a panic; every checkup created an anxiety spiral; I had chronic insomnia for over a decade.
After a while, my fear mutated into something abstract. I feared homelessness instead of death; I feared losing life as I knew it, and all of my material possessions, for some unknown but terrifying reason. A therapist helped me to figure out that this concern was still rooted in survival. My life fell apart once and I lived through it, and I’m afraid it will happen again and I won’t. A house represents your soul, your self, and not having one represents a fundamental insecurity.
A pandemic is just the kind of thing I’d have expected to be afraid of, and yet, like with the cancer, once it was happening, my brain went into survival mode. That first weekend I was a mess, but the routines of isolation and precaution came back quickly.
Between the second and third round of chemotherapy, I was allowed to go home for a brief stay. My immune system had been battered down and I was very susceptible to infection. I was terrified of catching something, even though the greatest risk was my own body: Throughout the course of my nine-month hospital stay, many of my infections came from naturally occurring bacteria that live inside of us all. I carried hand sanitizer everywhere and created a rule: Nobody, other than my parents, was allowed to touch me. I lived in strict isolation by my own rules some of the time, and by the hospital rules for the rest of the time.
This was back in 2002, before social media, so my cousin set up a website for my family to post updates for our friends and family. I wrote this message when I returned home for that first time:
“I get to stay at home until the 15th (when I have another bone marrow aspirate and lumbar puncture to see how things are going) or until I get sick which the nurses say is what usually comes first . So I’ve been bringing little anti-bacterial hand wipes everywhere and using them all the time and staying far away from everybody as I can. I did get to go to the mall yesterday. It’s such a beautiful day outside today, so I hope I can enjoy it while it lasts … I’m trying to fill myself with beautiful happy things and thoughts to last me through my next hospital stay.”
The pandemic is something of great consequence and devastation and while I don’t think it’s possible anyone could feel prepared for this kind of thing, my eight months at Sick Kids Hospital did familiarize me with much of the slow, anxious, insular, day-to-day living many of us are experiencing now.
People have a tendency to believe that “everything happens for a reason”; that bad things happen to transform us into individuals who are more grateful, or open, or happy, or strong. So many well-wishers said this, or some version of it, while I was sick, and I hear it so often now, during the pandemic. But I think the real chance for something you could call transformation comes from accepting that there is no reason, and learning how to live with that.
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