I felt as if I’d been forced into a country that I hadn’t chosen, as if my First World passport had been confiscated and replaced with the kind that makes it difficult to get visas and cross borders. That was my reaction to learning that I had advanced ovarian cancer. Upon arrival in my new homeland, I was handed a consolation tote, packed with educational brochures describing my new state and teal blue accessories — the thematic color for my new nationality. But I had absolutely no desire to wear the color-coded wristband or read the booklets. I wanted to continue to don coral and amber and read World Lit.

Along with the new territory came an unfamiliar environment. Here, the horizon felt myopically close, and time seemed to advance at a staccato pace — as if Muybridge were photographing my life and presenting it to me frame by frame. Gone was the sense of fluidity, that carefree bounce that had propelled me seamlessly from moment to moment, that sensation that I now recognized as vitality. For the first time, I truly understood the role of the word “vie” in the construction of the word “vitality”.  Here in my new land, the smooth flow of time had degenerated into a series of disconnected bumps as if the moments of my life were becoming more loosely linked.

I developed a chronology stutter, as I found myself obsessively observing each scene I was living in two distinct versions: one from the inside and the other from the outside. In the inside version, I was experiencing each event in my day as it was — what could be called living a normal life — while in the outside version, I was trying to see the same event as it would be in a near future without me.

Once, when my husband and I were eating in a breakfast place, a family came in and sat in front of us — a young couple, their toddler daughter and her loving grandfather, who started feeding her morsels while amusing her with a hand puppet. All of a sudden I broke into tears. “Where’s the grandmother?” I asked my husband.

Living in my imposed country, I was so new to the neighborhood and so earnestly and doggedly searching for some sort of connection with anything — grasping at straws, at threads, trying to catch each moment and suck out enough ecstasy to last me an eternity: the arrival of the cornflower season, sighting the harvest moon, crunching autumn leaves, appreciating each event as my last. It was as if the joys in life were hanging like Christmas tree ornaments and I was gingerly fondling them individually to bid a bittersweet goodbye.

All along, though, I couldn’t figure out why my new citizenship made me feel so different from everyone living in my previous country or, for that matter, even from my former self. Why did I seem to be alone in confronting the starkness of death? Had some Wizard of Oz curtain been pulled back, exposing me to a truth others blithely ignore? After all, aren’t we all mortal, no matter what country we live in?

And then, while I was making peace with my fate and packing my bag for my final journey, my brilliant doctor transformed the dead-end prognosis into a room with an extended view. Suddenly, my original passport reappeared — well, maybe without a clear expiration date, but it was still a passport with all the privileges.

Instantaneously, with jack-in-the-box alacrity, I was shot back home. Time recovered its vital surge and life no longer seemed ephemeral. Safely sheltered back on a shore with a distant horizon, I felt exuberant. I’d dodged the bullet. But, at the same time, I couldn’t fathom how shockingly easy it was for me to disregard the eventual onslaught of the final one.

So here I was, back in the land where the horizon is so far off that the inhabitants have to raise their hands like visors to make it out. Glad to be one of them, I started to emulate their gesture, but when I lifted my hand I realized it was still gripping my suitcase — the one I’d prepared for eternity.

The valise no longer seemed appropriate or even relevant in my recovered homeland; it was more awkward than anything else. So what to do with it? I certainly didn’t want to lug it around like a bag lady, nor could I consider ditching or unpacking it. Too much care had gone into selecting the contents and folding each garment, and, to be honest, I was not displeased with the job I’d done.

And that’s when I noticed my home has an attic. I can store the suitcase up there under the eaves. It will be ready for me when I need it.

Post scriptum

How I started to hate the woman who wrote that pap! I’m surprised she didn’t decorate each one of her tidy little metaphors with a bow. This woman doesn’t write, she simpers. Okay, I confess, I’m the woman who wrote it. I did it when I was in remission, but when the disease came back, I was frightened and resented my ridiculous attempt to write creatively about cancer.

Where was this attic supposed to be? Did this genius ever think about designing a staircase to get to it? Climbing those steps would be like the ascent to the guillotine. But somehow she leaves out that detail. And all the other details like what to do with the suitcase once she retrieves it. How heavy was it anyway? Perhaps her phony figures of speech were designed to avoid dealing with real issues.

When actually confronted with the reality that the cancer had returned, that suitcase started looking terrifyingly insignificant. While in remission, I was enjoying life. Living had started to feel natural again, spontaneous, the normal course of things. And then to have it whipped from under my feet: “I’m not ready to go. I want more.”

But then, my second round of chemo felt so different. I didn’t see myself as a dying person, someone who was fingering an abacus of final moments and last hopes. There was no question of last times, perhaps no first times either, just this time, the bountiful present. This firsting and lasting business can get wearing on the soul, perhaps because those milestones don’t really carry much meaning. My life gently continued at its normal pace haloed with a bonus glow of detachment and abundance.

And now, today I’m on my third round of chemo after a second short-lived remission. Each time is different, as I guess it should be. After all, this is part of my life, and, hopefully, I’m continuing to grow with each stage.

When I think about it, how many people are lucky enough to get a dress rehearsal for their demise? And perhaps a chance for encores?

Nancy Caldwell died on Thanksgiving Day in the arms of her husband Duncan Caldwell. Both are longtime residents of Aquinnah. A celebration of her life can be found at duncancaldwell.com/Site/Nancy_Caldwells_beautiful_life.html.