The only true borders lie between day and night, between life and death, between hope and loss.
–Erin Hunter, author
Time expanded in this past week as my husband and I found ourselves crossing the international date line. We’d left early on Tuesday to begin a trip to Okinawa, where my youngest daughter and her family have been living for the past four and a half years. Caught in the crush of Thanksgiving travel, we endured delays in San Diego and again in San Francisco before our eleven hour flight to Tokyo, then disembarking with the other passengers only to stand in the long line to pass through customs in Tokyo, claim our baggage, then re-check it to our final destination. Then we had to go through security a second time before we were directed to the assigned gate to wearily wait to board our third and final flight to Okinawa, another thousand or so miles south of mainland Japan. As exhausting as it was, the familiarity of the trip eased any anxiety I remember feeling the first time I traveled here. We arrived in Naha three hours later, weary and mildly disoriented, but grateful to be here again.
We crossed many borders along the way, but border crossings are a fact of life. We cross them several times in our lives; some are metaphorical, some geographical, and others, emotional. We’re thrust, each time, into the unfamiliar. These crossings are our passages from one life chapter to another, of abrupt and unexpected loss, or of moving from health to illness. It’s the sudden entry into the unknown triggered by words like “I’m sorry, but you have cancer.” As Susan Sontag described it, we all have dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place. (The New York Times, Jan. 26, 1978)
In the Kingdom of the Ill, no one asks for your passport or smiles, “Enjoy your stay.” You’re cast into unfamiliar and rugged terrain. It can be frightening, and it can be lonely. The roadmap you’ve been given is a maze of choices you must make, ones that branch into multiple—and equally confusing—pathways. Worse, there’s the strange-sounding terminology to decipher — colloquialisms and multi-syllabic utterances from your physician’s lips that leave you feeling dizzy and confused. You’re forced to leave what you took for granted behind, and cross into a new reality that you feel ill prepared to enter.
There’s a moment, not necessarily when you hear your diagnosis, maybe weeks later, when you cross that border and know in your heart and soul that this is really serious… The hardest thing is to leave yourself, the innocent, healthy you that never had to face her own mortality, at the border. That old relationship with your body, careless but friendly, taken for granted, suddenly ends. Your body becomes enemy territory …The sudden crossing over into illness or disability, becoming a patient, can feel like you’re landing on another planet, or entering another country… (Barbara Abercrombie, Writing Out the Storm, 2002).
This is the foreign territory of your body’s betrayal, where nothing seems quite real, and fear is your constant companion. It’s lonely–You feel lost. You’re traveling without an interpreter in a confusing and difficult place. Try as you might, there’s no escape, no going back, no refund for your ticket. You must learn how to cope and navigate your way through it all, and you must learn it quickly. Your life may depend on it.
But along the way, a glimmer of hope—and you discover it as you find other travelers, men and women like you, who are also struggling to make sense of this foreboding landscape. It’s what happens in my cancer writing groups. There’s comfort and support in the community of other survivors. People feel less alone and together, they experience comfort in sharing their fears and hopes, which makes those things seem more manageable. It’s like joining hands and together, find your way through a dark and fearful kingdom.
Somewhere out there in that darkness are hundreds of thousands … like myself …new citizens of this other country… In one moment of discovery, these lives have been transformed, just as mine has been, as surely as if they had been plucked from their native land and forced to survive in a hostile new landscape, fraught with dangers, real and imagined. (Musa Mayer, Examining Myself: One Woman’s Story of Breast Cancer Treatment and Recovery, 1994.).
Write about the time you crossed a border into unknown territory, a time when you entered the “Kingdom of the Ill.” What was it like at first? What old assumptions were you forced to leave behind? How did your relationship with your body changed? What helped you find the courage and the strength to navigate through the unfamiliar territory? How were you changed by it all?
Portions of this post have been previously published.–Sharon Bray