Sometimes my dreams, even the ones I don’t really remember, leave me with a strange feeling of exhilaration. It’s during those times that the cancer becomes distant, not part of the me emerging from the haze of seep, not part of me at all. There’s no room for my cancer in this reality as I cling to the sound of the running hooves of the wild horses, sniff the air for the dust stirred as they stampede, feel their resistance to bridle and bit. There’s no breaking the wild horses in my dream, no quelling their spirit of freedom and air of majesty. If I just follow the wild horses, maybe the cancer won’t break me, so I think in my breathless awakening to the realities of the day.
The big reality set in nearly three years ago, when symptoms first began. At first I felt no overwhelming concern, just a bit of bleeding that shouldn’t have been there, probably an infection. No sweat. Still, a cold fear gripped me inside when my daytime rationality faded into the clarity of the unfettered state of sleep. I’d awaken in a panic as the days went on and test after test confirmed what I already suspected. The cancer, like a cowboy with his eye on the finest horse in the herd, patiently stalked me, gaining ground with each test or surgery just as the cowboy gradually gained ground breaking the horse. Cystoscopy. Biopsy. Resection. Nephroureterectomy. Another cystoscopy. Another biopsy. BCG. Cystectomy. CT scan. Corralling. Sorting. Roping. Branding. Bit. Bridle. Saddle. Rider. Sooner or later, something is bound to get broken, if you get my meaning. Like the wild horse, however, I had no intention of being broken! In my dreams, I had to be free, free to chase after the herds! This spirit carried over into my waking moments.
I dreamt of the galloping Mustangs I’d drawn as a child, filling white sheets of blue-lined paper with running wild horses as I tuned out the monotony of separating subjects from predicates and learning long division. My mind was free, with the smallest possible part attuned to the demands of the classroom. The teachers, who probably should have given me a more engaging learning task, didn’t tend to want to bother a child who was quiet and got their work in on time. So, by virtue of their lack of guidance, I was permitted to run free, albeit only in my mind, just as a wild horse might escape a cowboy sleeping on the job if only it waits for the right time. Maybe I should thank them for their neglect, as I developed quite a talent for taking my mind to more pleasant places, in my case, to the plains where the horses roamed.
These schoolgirl daydreams stood me in good stead on the mornings of my big surgeries. I could bear the poking and pricking as they hooked up IVs and necessary wires. These were no worse than the ropes and bits and bridles the wild horses endured. I bided my time, as would a wild horse waiting its chance to escape the rope and corral. Soon enough I could escape into my dreams, and find the herds. I could be as strong as the horses, and charge past the restraints they tried to impose on me as I followed the trail of dust the imaginary wild ones in my pictures left behind. Time after time they sent me into the big sleep, and time after time I emerged from the surgery subdued, for sure, but ready to heal and fight my way free of the doctors and hospitals once more.
My dreams of the wild horses didn’t stop with pencil and paper, the only permissible outlet for my horse mania inside the classroom. On the playground or after school at play my best friend and I would become wild horses. A loping run works well as a two-legged imitation of a canter, and we would outdo one another with our shrill and, we hoped, realistic imitations of neighing stallions and answering mares. We’d escape imaginary wranglers as we charged up and down the street, taking cover beside houses and behind hedges as we hid from our pursuers. We’d graze on lush patches of grass no doubt carefully nurtured by an unsuspecting homeowner, unaware wild Mustangs roamed his street.
After surgeries these wild roamings came to my mind. Walk, walk, walk, the surgeons had advised. How do you try to walk when you feel as if your guts are trying to spill free from muscles rudely severed in the barbaric attempt to remove cancerous organs such as kidneys and bladders? Who wants to walk? Who cares? And then the horses would gallop before me, to show me the way, and I’d clutch my hands around my protesting wounds and try to follow. I was slow at first, and only gradually picked up my pace. I’m still not following too close on the heels of the galloping herd, but my spirit is there, trying again and again to follow the horses.
My playground imaginings didn’t always work out as well as inventions of the mind should. If you are imagining something, you shouldn’t get hurt. Maybe my mistake was in trying to fuse imagination with reality, or maybe the mistake was in letting myself be broken. I was the horse, of course, and the rider, another child on the playground, had captured me and planned to ride me. The rider didn’t actually sit on my back. Worse. This rider used the only available tool handy for reins, namely, my arms.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that it’s not a good idea to run with your arms pinned behind you. In fact, one function of your arms is to catch you when you fall. And, being a not particularly graceful little girl, fall I did. Right smack onto my chin. On the asphalt area that we called the blacktop. I don’t need to elaborate on the nature of an asphalt surface, but suffice it to say that it is rough and bumpy. I fell hard, so my chin was a bloody mass after meeting the pavement. After a moment of shock, I ran screaming for the nearest teacher with blood streaming down the front of the Brownie uniform I’d worn since it was meeting day. The wild horse in me had certainly been ridden hard, if not broken.
I don’t remember much about being picked up from school or heading for the doctor’s office, but I do remember being held down by a whole team of nurses as I watched the doctor stitch up my chin in the shiny aluminum of the surgery lamp. Looking back, it was kind of like stories told by people who have near-death experiences and report looking down on the surgeon from above the operating room. I may have been having vision by reflective surface, but the whole effect was pretty surreal, especially to an eight year old child. It left a strong impression. Someone had nearly broken me.
But soon my chin healed, leaving scars only visible upon close inspection. I’d survived, destined to follow after more wild horses. The riding accident didn’t stop my dreams, not at all. It merely reaffirmed my determination not to be broken! No more riders for me! My pictures took on a new look. I drew horses bucking, heels kicking high as they threw off the unwelcome weight of a rider. Some of my horses reared high on their hind legs, pawing the air with their front legs as they challenged anyone trying to tame them. Teeth bared, others looked as fierce and unapproachable as snarling big cats. My horses could not be broken, and neither would I. Just like the wild horses, I would run free, no matter what would come.
Events challenged my resolve time and again, even as I grew up. Kids could be cruel, way back in my time as they are today. Like I said, I wasn’t particularly a graceful child. In fact, I even had to wear corrective shoes because I had what they called “knock knees.” Back then, corrective shoes came in one look, which happened to be about ten years out of style. Black and white saddle oxfords. And yes, once these were quite the cat’s meow. But not in this moment in time.
Just like now, kids on an elementary campus followed the dress code of the day, and black and white saddle oxfords just didn’t fit in. Just like now, kids tease anyone who is different. The only difference is, today we call it bullying. Back then no one had put a name to it. I just knew it made me sad when their chant would begin, mocking not only my shoes but my name as well. “Schultzy Shoes, Schultzy Shoes,” they would sing out, and my child’s heart would sink with their taunts. I never told my parents. Who would want to make one’s parents feel bad about something they have no control over, like a German sounding last name or the shoes they’d bought you with the best of intentions? I didn’t understand about things like the shame of having a German sounding name in a post-World War II world, nor did I know about the cruel nature of the elementary mind. So, I buried my hurt feelings deep within, and dreamed of my horses, running with my own thoughts through the torture of the classroom, stampeding beyond the cruel words of my classmates. I learned if I ran with the horses, I could leave the corral of the classroom far behind.
So, when the cancer found me, giving up was not an option. My wild horses didn’t lose hope, not while they could still fight, so neither would I. I could run with the horses, or buck and kick, and protest with all the spirit I could muster until I freed myself of the shackles of the disease. They could take my kidney and my bladder. They could hook up a million IVs. They could scrape my insides in search of rogue cells. I dared them to do it. This cancer would not break me.
I’m a three year survivor of my cancer since the original diagnosis. I lost a kidney early in this battle, along with my innocence of the horrors of cancer. I consider myself to have been cancer free for the last eighteen months, since the doctors finally removed my diseased bladder in an attempt to stop the spread of the transitional cell carcinoma. It’s not an easy disease, nor is a cystectomy a pleasant surgery to recuperate from either physically or emotionally. It’s tested my belief in what is fair, and what a person should have to endure. It has also proved my capacity to survive whatever life throws at me. As long as I follow the horses I won’t be broken.
I wasn’t broken that day on the playground so long ago when I fell on the asphalt. I wasn’t broken when I endured the chant of “Schultzy Shoes” as my classmates mocked me. Now I refuse to be broken by a few rogue cells calling themselves cancer, not while I can dream of the horses and feel the excitement of their fight to run free.