by Ivy Berchuck
I’m holding the remote in my hand with a finger on the volume button. Even on PBS there are commercial breaks, and theirs upset me the most. They consist of testimonials from hospitals profiling people whose lives have been saved by physicians at places like Presbyterian and Memorial Sloan-Kettering. I can’t listen to their stories, focused generally on cancer survivals. Along with the promising statistics conveyed in the press about cancer survival rates, they fail to provide me with anything to grab onto. I’m different. You’ll never see testimonials or statistics for my pancreatic cancer, because there is no such thing as a remission or recovery. Only 6% of patients live for five years. It is a one-way street and I’ve been prodding my way down it for almost two years.
There has been chemo and radiation, loss of hair, fatigue and constant concern about what the next CT scan will show. The key word is containment. Keep the monster at bay for as long as possible, but apparently never long enough to appear on those lists of statistics. So far my tumor has been confined to the pancreas. That is some comfort, but it certainly puts living in the moment to the test. Take it day by day. Some of the days are wonderful, but don’t think about tomorrow which could be quite the opposite.
I’ve been an optimist and problem solver for most of my adult life. Even if the survival rate were small, I’d be thinking, if someone is going to make it, let it be me. Even if it were not to work I’d feel some semblance of control. I often joked with my oncologist and said he should make me his break-through patient and I’d throw him a party when he walked off with the Nobel Prize in medicine. He likes me and the effort I’m putting into this, but he did not laugh at my joke.
I love and enjoy life so much so I am trying hard, really hard to look well, feel well and act well. One day I remembered something. When I was an exhausted new mother, I hated it when I left the dishes in the sink at night and didn’t have the energy to even pick up old newspapers from the floor. Facing the mess depressed me, so I decided the early morning hours would have to be the time for getting things in order. I gave the baby her 5 a.m. bottle and threw some cold water on my face. Energized, I knew I wouldn’t hear from her until 8 or 9, so I scurried around cleaning and puffing pillows. I picked fresh flowers from the garden and placed them all around the rooms. I showered and dressed, put up a fresh pot of coffee so Bob and I could share a few moments before he left for the commuter train to Chicago. “I don’t know how you manage it,” he said adoringly. “This place looks great.” And it did.
After he left I’d sit with a book, some Mozart and a cup of coffee. There was nothing I had to do until the baby woke up. I looked across my lovely room, exhilarated, and thought, “Hey, this is wonderful. I’m a guest in my own house.”
And that’s how I’m approaching this period in my life. I’ve swept away the casual and unimportant. I am cleaning things up. Only real friends, beloved children and grandchildren, good books, some plays and classes and more good days than bad. I’m a guest again. This time I’m a guest in my own life for as long as it lasts.
Before her retirement, Ivy Schiff Berchuck was the director of Gifted Education for District 28 of the N.Y.C. Board of Education. A long-time member of the IRP, she died in 2016.