Saturday, April 24, 2010

All the King's Horses

Oranges never used to have that little mutant orange inside. They used to have seeds. They used to be not so sickly sweet. Things change. We change things. And we don't think about what we're actually doing. We are mindless.

A hundred years ago, give or take, I remember sitting in the grass, in summer, by the edge of the forest out behind our house. The sky was blue, birds were singing, the scent of pine trees lingered in the air and I was playing with clover flowers. I was just past being a toddler, and I don't know why I was alone -- maybe I had wandered off. It was one of the most peaceful moments of my life. I was unfettered, unburdened. The most technology I had ever encountered at that point was the family car and our thirteen inch black and white television. No, I'm not actually being nostalgic. I'm just remembering something that I lost that I never really knew I had when I had it.

Right now, I'm sitting in a hospital bed. The sun is streaming in the window and glinting off various instruments. It seems cold inside, as hospitals have always seemed. I am lying on my back, doped up on pain meds. There are clouds scudding by. There is an arrow of a plane heading for the stratosphere.

This is my ninth time with cancer. This is the ninth time I will beat it. I should be dead. I should have been dead sixty years ago. The first time, I was treated with chemotherapy. It made me want to die, but somehow I survived. The doctor said I was lucky. The next time was radiation. That was pretty awful as well. The burning. To think of it again makes my skin crawl. I was fine for a couple of decades. Life moved along, and I worried about my wrinkles when I saw them in the mirror. A little harmless vanity. Other things happened of course, but I don't like to speak of them. Other people in my life; well they died. It was a tragedy, yada yada, moving on.

The next time, all I needed was a vaccine. One little puncture in my skin was all it took, and my body learned what it needed to know and it took care of the tumors. The next time, and the time after that, it was the same. It worked. The third time they tried it, I had a bad reaction that nearly killed me. The doctor called me a statistically anomaly. It shouldn't have happened, but it did. They had to revert to more traditional methods, and I endured chemo again. At least there were better pain killers. Lovely, wonderful, angelic pain killers.

For the sixth occurance, my doctor entered me in a new clinical trial. I was the perfect candidate. Healthy except for the cancer, and having proven that the vaccine would be too risky (they are all tailored to the individual as well as the specific form of cancer). I'm not sure exactly what the medication did, but it worked splendidly, taking over the function of my immune system. It did a number on my liver though, so I had to have that regrown and replaced, but I recovered.

I went back to my life. I got rid of the wrinkles. I got my eyes enhanced. I got my bones and muscles strong and healthy again. I was able to run a mile without wheezing -- and I had never been able to do that before, even when I was eighteen. I even replaced all the follicles in my head with healthy young stem cells, and now I have my old, natural hair color back -- although sometimes I think it looked better just stark white -- but that's not the fashion. Nobody these days wears their hair like that. All of these things I could do because somebody in some lab somewhere, a lot of somebodies, worked it out and figured out how to do it. We still haven't solved war or violence or poverty, but we sure as heck figured out how to permanently remove wrinkles like it was the most pressing problem human civilization ever had.

By the seventh time, I began to feel cursed. Surely, I thought, this could not be normal. Each cancer had been different. Seven single cells, somewhere in my body, all happened to freak out and mutate. There were people older than I who had as many cancers, or more, but I was getting it at an alarming and unusual rate. My parents, my grandparents, all died of things other than cancer, so I don't know why I was getting it so much. It was really pissing me off.

The seventh time, it was in my brain. The new medication that had worked so well before was useless since it couldn't cross the blood-brain barrier. My doctor wanted to try the vaccine route again. I consented. I was monitored like a hawk. I got really sick. I lost a third of my body weight, and I needed to be fed intravenously. But it worked. I felt ravaged inside, but it worked. I went back to my life.

I was broke at this point, my retirement savings eaten up by living excessively past my best-before date. I was able bodied, so I took a variety of jobs. I did the things I always wanted to try, and I traveled to the places I always wanted to go. The war broke out. I actually considered signing up, out of some romantic notion that it was one of those good fights -- or maybe to honor my grandfather who fought in the last world war, or my great-grandfather who fought in the first, but then I realized that I really didn't have a dog in the hunt, as they say. I moved north and tried to stay away, but then Juneau was bombed and it was on our doorstep, knocking loudly. I was far enough away that I didn't die instantly, but I remember the light, and being knocked off my feet and into the snow. I had to go and help.

When I got to the city, it was surreal. In the dark of winter, with just our flashlights, those of us that came in from the surrounding communities saw just the hulking remains of cement buildings, the glowing embers of pyres of wood, the dead houses. All around the snow was melted, and ice was forming again. The smell of incinerated asphalt burned inside every breath. We found survivors, but not many. I tried to pull one woman out of the rubble, but I pulled her skin off instead. It was a bleak time.

Thankfully the war ended a few months later. Nearly a billion people died. There were only a few places like Juneau, but if I had a preference, I'd rather die quick like that, than the long drawn out battles that crept across continents. Of course, everyone says there will never be another big one like that, but people said that about the first two as well. I suppose we'll see.

I think Juneau is where I picked up cancer number eight. It had to have been. I went south again, to my old doctor. He was looking considerably younger. It was a little unsettling, but I felt comfortable with him treating me. I had to have a transplant this time. I got new marrow from some genuinely young person in Napa Valley. He wanted to meet me, so I said fine. I had a hard time pretending to be grateful, and I think I might have made him feel bad. I feel awful about it, but I kept thinking I should have just given up. I didn't know if it was cowardice to keep living, or if it was cowardice to give in and die. I came to the conclusion that it's just a matter of perspective, and not an absolute.

This time, I will not be operated on. I will not get a transplant. I will not be radiated, or pumped full of toxic chemicals. I will not be vaccinated. No, we have apparently moved even beyond that. All our lab coats in all our labs have come up with some new, better, and amazing. And they haven't thought it through. To them it's shiny and new and cool.

This will be my last cancer. I will be leaving my body behind entirely. There will be no more cells to mutated and cause havoc. I will not be gone, I will never die, and I may even live in a pure state of thought. I am being translated, and I will live in the cloud, the great beyond in the sky, literally. All the dreams and prayers of all those dead ancestors who sat around the fire at night, in the savanna, in the forest, on the glacier, wherever it was they were on their journeys out of Africa thousands of years ago, each one of them who looked up into the night sky and wondered what the stars were, and what was there, and thought up heaven and immortal life -- well I get to fulfill it.

The technology was first developed to unlock people in comas, or anyone with a body so useless that it threatened their life, like with MS, or any of the other diseases that ate away at the body and for which we have yet to find a cure. They were translated out of the old body, held temporarily in a massive, distributed, processor, then translated back into a new, dormant body. While they waited, some people found a way out, and when they came to their new bodies, they told stories about the immense freedom they had out there, in the cloud, and someone had the bright idea to just skip the last step.

There was a massive investment in infrastructure. There were limits on who could do it at first, but plans were put in action to so that anyone, once ill enough, could be translated. Not one of us, need never die. Eventually, sometime in the next few hundred years, the people in our new heaven would exceed the people on Earth. I suppose, maybe part of me is just curious to see how it turns out. Or maybe I was tired of being sick and tied to a frail body. And maybe I'm a coward. So I signed up. And here I am, looking at the blue sky for the last time. And now, this time, I'm beginning to miss it already.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Katharine;

Good concept, told with real feeling. Now, I believe your understanding of the underlying infrastructure of the true meaning of like is superior to mine. And; you have gained a measure of sadness.

The sadness; brings the character to life.