The Expanded Horizons of a Narrowed Life

By Joan McQueeney Mitric
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, March 12, 2007

Recently I joined the legions of boomers entering our seventh decade. It was not as much fun as the big 5-0.

But then I remembered Jane Kenyon's poem: "It Could Have Been Otherwise."

On Oct. 30, 2001, I slammed our Volvo into a guardrail and woke up several hours later to the news that brain tumors were the reason I'd blacked out on a curvy country road not five minutes from our front door. Five years ago this January I had the larger tumor "excised," as brain surgeons are fond of saying.

That autumn my mind -- like the rest of the nation -- was already whirling on hyper-alert. Remember: Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, anthrax was lacing mail on Capitol Hill and killing postal workers at Washington's Brentwood facility. And we'd just started bombing Afghanistan.

The "uninvited guests" in my upper chambers were a Halloween nightmare.

But they brought unforeseen psychic benefits.

For about seven months before and after my surgery, I was not allowed to drive. This control freak was told by her doctors to sit in the back and shut up.

Through no choice of my own I simplified my life. And I must say today -- five years later -- I miss the Suburban Thoreau personality that gradually evolved as I prepared for major surgery and slowed down.

I began to notice things again. Yellow finches in the birdbath, diagonal shafts of light through the pines at sunrise, a night shower of meteorites. And clouds.

I pulled Henry David Thoreau's "Walden" off the shelf. Once again, I realized what an incredible philosopher he was. No vagabond wastrel, Thoreau described what he saw when he allowed himself to breathe deeply. I began to observe my surroundings at different hours of the day, just as Thoreau had.

Suddenly dependent on family, friends or mass transit to get me to a seemingly endless merry-go-round of doctors, I rediscovered my feet for ordinary errands. Always a walker, I became the omnipresent biped lady in my Kensington neighborhood.

I developed solidarity with my fellow bus passengers, many of them the worker bees who clean our offices, iron our shirts, stuff our empanadas and landscape our lawns. I realized we rarely notice how others live as we whiz by in cars.

I hopped the Ride-On at the end of our street to get to a subway station I used to bike to, and from there to downtown Washington for news briefings, a museum or dinner with friends. The only time I really thought how crazy this all was was when I found myself lugging a homemade cake by subway all the way to Vienna for a friend's surprise party.

Don't get me wrong. My "moment in the rose-garden," as T.S. Eliot called it, didn't arrive on a cloud of serenity.

Already insufferable whenever I wasn't driving, I soon became a world-class back-seat nag. Oh, sure, I would apologize for being jittery and nervous, for snapping commands or for having a startle response every 15 seconds on the Beltway. But I kept right on doing it. Sometimes my behavior was so bad, even I recognized it. I begged my husband to put duct tape on my mouth and throw me in the trunk.

He's a good guy. He didn't.

Finally, I tried to adjust to my new situation. My kids laughed when I took to reading and rereading -- and even urging them to read -- Jon Kabat-Zinn's book about mindfulness "Wherever You Go, There You Are."

Kabat-Zinn, a Massachusetts pain management specialist and practicing Buddhist, also advises us "to lay out a welcome mat" for our pain. What he means is, don't resist pain. Breathe deeply and roll with it. It was advice that came in handy as regular brain zaps began to take their toll. I got to the point where I could summon a calming blue light and focus it on my "uninvited" guests upstairs. I fantasized that when the surgeons opened me up there would be nothing there despite repeated MRIs showing a 5-centimeter tumor.

To help me sleep I brought up images from a glorious full-moon night on a favorite California beach. In these visions, the grunion were running off Santa Barbara, where I grew up. Under the moon, wave after wave of these tiny, shimmering fish darted in the tidal waters. The waves rolled in to caress the sand, and then out again slowly with the tide, to sea.

It's harder to summon these rhythmic images now.

Naps also were encouraged during this time of surgery prep and recovery. Never having taken a nap willingly in my life, I gradually started positioning a pillow on my bed to face the western winter sky late of an afternoon. I would read, wait for the sunset, or sleep. Winter sunsets are dramatic, so you could say this hour of repose was a double bonus.

Two months after 9/11 and a month before my craniotomy, my mother died. Her death, while not entirely unanticipated, took the wind out of my meditative sails. This generational changing of the guard is tough. I knew she was worried about me having lost my toddler brother, Tommy, to a "benign" brain tumor when I was 12. I reassured her that neuroscience had moved in miraculous ways since Tommy's death.

"I'm going to be okay," I told her. We held each other's hands. But she decided to watch from a different place.

The morning of my surgery the entire family piled into the car for Fairfax Inova Hospital at an ungodly predawn hour. I chose the date because it was my birthday and also my husband's Orthodox Christmas. Why not stack the deck with every card in my hand, I figured.

A doctor's daughter, I was used to needles, blood and anesthesia. I'd even brought booties for my feet. I knew operating rooms were frigid.

However, I refused to sign the consent order until I looked into the whites of my surgeon's eyes one final time.

"Don't be a cowboy in there," I told him. "Do a good job, but be conservative." I told him to resist the temptation to use my brain to make medical history.

I wanted to wake up nine hours later and recognize the old me, warts and all, even though I knew some family members wouldn't mind if I emerged "kinder, gentler." Like everyone facing an uncertain outcome, I made promises to myself, to the nuns of my girlhood and to all the greater powers in the universe. "If I make it, I will be different," I pledged.

It turns out I was one of the lucky ones. I survived a complicated surgery and major Gamma Knife radiation surgery four months later. I still have an inoperable tumor in there, but it's quiet and shows no signs of causing trouble by moving or growing.

But the sad thing is I have let my life speed up again. I don't do as much meditation. And I can't find my book "Wherever You Go, There You Are." But it is on order at the library.

Meanwhile, in May, I will become a grandmother.

It could have been otherwise.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company