This is not a diary.
And also, it is.
I barely write in my actual diary; it sits on my side table untouched—because to write would require I feel. And to feel is overwhelming.
Instead, I stare at twelve screens for twelve hours at a time. That is my job.
I do more than stare. The screens are filled with trends and graphs, and pictorial representations of mechanical systems and items of plant. I monitor this plant, operate this plant—pumps, valves, mills, conveyors, a steam-driven turbine, and most importantly, the generator attached to the end of it that makes megawatts of electricity.
And I try not to think about the pandemic.
At work and across the country, people are going about their normal business. The pandemic, which once caused the complete lockdown of Melbourne for many months, has been largely forgotten. People are getting sick, yes. It’s inconvenient, yes. But it’s not stopping most of society from expanding their lives and activities to pre-pandemic levels.
There are only a few, now, for whom life has not returned to normal. And some of those, for whom, a small bubble was their previous life.
I sit at my control panel wearing two N95 masks because we’ve been told that one mask may not offer complete protection. And now that they’re no longer mandatory, I’m the only one wearing one. Two.
Although these may seem like extreme precautions and it would be easier to stay home unless absolutely necessary, I regularly say yes to overtime because I have no other life. I pretend that working so much is why I do not write. I do not write, though, because to write would require I think, and all I can think about is the pandemic.
Editors don’t want stories of the pandemic, anymore. (Did they ever?) We are over them. We do not want to be reminded of all we lost. We are post-pandemic, now, haven’t you heard? But my husband and I are not post-pandemic.
In the most recent edition of my writer’s centre magazine, the non-fiction entry that was runner-up in their competition was a pandemic story. So, I ask myself, are we really over them? Because stories of the pandemic are almost always stories of grief. The pandemic has not ended. And grief won’t end, either.
At the end of this month, it will be two years since my husband completed treatment for a rare and aggressive blood cancer. But then, it seems as if they almost all are. There are over 80 different types of lymphoma alone, one of which—primary central nervous system lymphoma—was his diagnosis. His still severely immunocompromised condition does not allow us to return to normal.
The details, though, are finally beginning to fade. The immediacy with which I can recall specific blood counts, dates of treatment, chemotherapy regimens, and the resulting complications has dissipated. Now, I must look at my calendar to remember everything except the most traumatic of events. Many of the events have blurred. Specifics have evaporated.
During his care, I emptied I don’t know how many bottles of urine in the months he couldn’t walk. I learned how to take obs, administer medication, give injections, connect and disconnect IV bags of fluid to his PICC line/port and other things I thought you needed a nursing education for. I kept meticulous records to provide to the doctors on each hospital admission.
Once, at a late-night emergency admission, after I relayed all the details of his latest treatment, the new symptoms, and the recent blood work results, the on-call haematologist asked me if I was a doctor. I shook my head. I’m not, of course. I just have a background in chemistry, and I sought safety and certainty in the data.
Before his diagnosis, cancer seemed an unlikely intruder. While it would be realistic to describe both of us as middle-aged, we were in general good health, ate a balanced diet, and exercised regularly. And although his mother had experienced breast cancer in her mid-life, she is still with us now, in her late seventies.
For months I blamed myself for giving him cancer. (It doesn’t work like that.) I had asked him to get the tooth implant. (At the beginning of his treatment, someone told me that oral health is linked to your immune system and his cancer is a cancer of the immune system.) Or, I must have given him HIV. (PCNSL is more prevalent in people with HIV—so I made my doctor give me a request for a blood test for HIV serology and was tested. Again. Found negative, again.) I was sure that something I’d done, or not done, had made him sick.
At two years, with no recurrence of the cancer, his chances of long-term survival increase a little. But with cancer, long-term survival is defined as five years. Five years. That’s the amount of time between the birth of a child and their entry into kindergarten. And while that time may seem interminable to new parents, it passes in mere moments. We are now almost halfway there. Relapse occurs in fifty percent of cases within two years. Only thirty percent of affected individuals survive more than five years post-diagnosis. As for anything longer than that? Fifteen to twenty percent of fortunate patients have no recurrence. The average survival after a diagnosis of primary central nervous system lymphoma is three years and eight months. Even my cat is eleven.
Until recently, the fear of his illness returning was safely stored away; buried somewhere in my body while I got on with the business of caring and working. I’ve been able to ignore the thoughts. The feelings. The overwhelm of loss. But the anxiety is starting to pop out in unmanageable ways. I find myself gasping for breath in hallways through blurred vision. Formerly suppressed sobs are forcing my shoulders to shudder, even as I swallow them back down. The constant pain in my chest is not a heart attack. Nor indigestion. Because it gets worse when I think about hospitals.
And so, in 2023 (because there is no time left this year), I have to do the only thing I know that will save me.
I have to think. I have to feel. And, I have to write.