I wonder what happened to George Bailey after “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Did the joy last, or was he back to his existential funk by Groundhog Day? Did he go into subprime mortgages to pay for ZuZu’s therapy? Did he dump Donna Reed for that hussy Violet Bick?
I think about him a lot these days; it’s Christmastime and the movie is always on TV. I’m also two months into a six-month chemo and radiation sentence for breast cancer. Between the cancer and the Christmas, I’m a little bitter and Bailey-esque, the George who hasn’t yet met Clarence the Angel.
I didn’t always feel this way.
Back when this all started, right before my double mastectomy surgery, my plastic surgeon took the same blue Sharpie she’d marked my chest up with, and wrote on my hands. She carefully inscribed LUCKY on my left hand, and LOVED on my right.
When I woke up 8 hours later in the surgical recovery unit, I pressed my fingernails into my palms until they hurt. Yep, I’m alive. My breasts were gone, but my temporary Sharpie tattoos were still right there on my hands, bright blue under the hospital lights. I wanted to clap and shout, "HALLELUJAH SWEET BABY JESUS." But my arms were weak and the anesthesia heavy on my tongue, so I just lay there trembling with relief while nurses came and went in a blur. “You did real good, sweetheart,” one of them said.
When my breast surgeon found me in my recovery bed, I was a little more with it, but still loopy from whatever was running through my IV. I asked her if she accepted cheek kisses. Sure, she said, but first she wanted to tell me the good news: The margins were wide and clean around my tumor. A tidy would-be assassin is the kind you want.
Then she told me the other news: The cancer had spread to the lymph nodes in my right arm, but not to worry, the errant cells had again remained tidy and restrained. To be safe, she’d removed all the nodes to stop the disease in its tracks before it got any ideas about getting comfortable or sloppy.
"I think all the cancer that was in you is downstairs in the lab now," she said.
That’s when the joy hit me, like a full-body high voltage charge. I smooched her square on the cheek. I was alive, and I’d get to keep on living. Right then, even the prospect of chemo and radiation seemed like a gift. What if I'd woken up from surgery and she’d told me there was no point in either one?
I didn’t need the bucket list I’d made as a contingency; I just needed to see everyone I loved immediately. I’d gone to Mars, and they were somewhere in the hospital waiting for my re-entry. I am goddamned alive, now get me to my people, I thought, clicking the nurse call-button over and over. I want to tell Mom what a great mother she's been. I want to tell Dad he's awesome, and that I finally get it: he's just not a big talker. I want to tell my brothers anything I like about myself I’ve learned from them. I want to tell my best friend she deserves a prince. I want to tell my cousin she's the sister I always wanted. I want to tell my boyfriend how much I love him. I want to tell the world how great it is to be alive. HEE-HAW AND MERRY CHRISTMAS!
I fucking hate cancer, but I have to thank it for what happened next, the greatest single moment of my life to date. When they finally wheeled me into my hospital room and I saw my family again, my memory goes a little patchy, but I remember clearly the feeling of coming home, of being a lottery winner. I was indeed lucky and loved. I was George Bailey, the richest man in town, just before the credits roll.
That was then. The Sharpie tattoos are long gone. I’m in the long haul part of this saga now, the part where feeling lucky gets difficult. The chemo. The baldness. The bills. The sick, total drag of it all. This is when the "What Have I Done with My Life" and the "Why Is This Happening to Me" thoughts start creeping back in. It's one thing to feel joy in the direct aftermath of surviving an explosion—and that’s what cancer basically is, a big fireball—it’s another to feel it on an ongoing basis, sifting through smoking rubble.
I’m trying every day to keep the joy of being alive, alive. It’s hard work. Admitting I’m struggling helps a little. So does listening to Al Green’s entire discography, spending time with my family and napping like it’s my job. Good music, good company and good sleep are all invitations to a wonderful life. So are good, strong antidepressants. Laughing yoga, equine therapy, Disney World—I’ll do whatever the job takes. The credits are rolling, and I want to believe in George Bailey.