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Barbara MahanyMay 16, 2024
Photo by Vladimir Vladimirov via iStock

Ever since the murky hour when, through an ethereal fog, I made out the silhouette of my surgeon beside the bed where I lay tethered to tubes, ever since I heard him utter the words, “Turns out it was cancer; I was really surprised,” and I pressed my hand to where half my lung used to be, I have been living in Scan Time.
 
Scan Time is time reordered, narrowed, heightened. Scan Time is time abbreviated, shrunken to digestible, perceptible segments. It comes in the immediate wake of finding out you have cancer—in my case, lung cancer. Now that my tumor and a good chunk of lung have been removed, watchkeeping—scans every three to six months, for at least five years—is my first line of defense against its return.
 
Appointments are made a half year out; the date on the calendar becomes your benchmark, the point as far in the distance as you will let yourself see. The screens in the waiting rooms at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center flash with a digital message: Scanxiety? We understand that waiting for scans can be hard. Call our social work team now. Everyone grasps that whatever the future is, it hinges on what they find when the all-seeing machine—a Goliathan O-ring that swallows you whole—peers deep inside your body.
 
You are told not to move once you climb onto the hard plastic bed that makes me think sarcophagus, especially as it glides eerily into the shadowed encasement. And then comes this contender for the world’s most redundant instruction: “Hold your breath,” the disembodied words piped in from what seems an otherworldly station.
 
In lieu of breathing, you pray mightily that no new ghostly suspicions emerge. And then you wait. And wait.
 
Should the all-clear be granted, you are etch-a-sketched back to a clean slate.
 
Scan Time: the lease on your life, meted out in six-month installments.
 
Turns out, it’s something of a blessing, one that sharpens the focus on the miracle of each moment, peels away the anesthetization to time that, for most of us, is default mode. We live, most of us, thinking ours is a timeline that extends into the far-off far off. And that dulls the noticing of each never-again day.
 
But when you’re told you’ve got cancer, when you feel the iron weight of that sentence fall with a thunk on your every breath, the bracketed finiteness of time—of life itself—now doled out in measures of half a year per dose, it amplifies everything. Each pulsebeat of living is magnified, glorified. It’s time distilled to its most sacred concentration.
 
And it draws out a knowing that’s deep and profound, one that’s not too dissimilar to an ancient spiritual practice that understands the holiness in contemplating our death. Or, in my case, contemplating the reduction of time, the days I count on my half-year watch. At first glance, that might sound morbid. But it’s emphatically the opposite.
 
Memento mori is the age-old practice of remembering that you will die. It’s an ancient philosophical thread, a spiritual practice woven across time and traditions (be they moral or religious traditions) from early Stoicism to medieval Christianity, from ancient Judaism to the central teachings of Buddhism.

St. Benedict of Nursia, in his sixth-century book of precepts known simply as the Rule, exhorted his monks to “keep death daily” before their eyes. It’s an awareness that winds its way through most world religions, although barely so in the West, where we do all we can to push away any whiff of dying or death.
 
To understand that our days are not infinite, not a bottomless pour, spilling one after another so dizzyingly that we are numb to each dawn’s awakening, is to tight-squeeze our focus on how precious this time of ours is. Pope Francis, in his apostolic exhortation “Laudate Deum,” posed three critical questions: “What is the meaning of my life? What is the meaning of my time on this earth? And what is the ultimate meaning of all my work and effort?”
 
Those questions take on an inescapable edge when held up in six-month increments. We’re a simpler people than we sometimes pretend. We’re keener at grasping hard truths when they’re pressed up against us. Cancer presses hard truths. Scan Time sharpens focus, propels us deep into seizing the day. Seizing each blessed day.
 
Once upon a time, I was a nurse who took care of kids with all sorts of cancers. Back in the days before scanners were part of every oncologist’s medical tool kit, I remember more than anything how those kids somehow eclipsed the cancer in their lives. They shoved it out of the viewfinder, didn’t let it intrude on however many days were counted in their too-short lives. Theirs was an innate genius—not a day dithered away—that echoes across the decades.
 
I remember how kids with an amputated leg and a hospital-issued pair of crutches clocked how swiftly they could race down the hall, without crashing into medicine carts­­—or their nurses. Or how, as soon as the retching from chemo ended, they’d order up midnight pizzas and hunker down in the supply closet for a tête-à-tête with their IV poles and their bald co-conspirators. Or how, one Halloween, one of my favorites, a 12-year-old with a tumor lodged in her spine that left her paralyzed from the waist down, didn’t let that stop her from slopping papier-mâché all over her bedsheets, as she crafted me a green, tempera-painted pumpkin head and crowned me her Irish Pumpkin Queen.
 
Those children made time count. And they didn’t need scans to prompt it. All these years later, I draw on their wisdom, though I lean on the scanner—a machine that might see what is inside me but not what lies down the road.
 
Scan Time, I’ve realized, propels me to live sacramentally, to hold time to the light, to behold its shimmering brilliance, the facets of my life I consider most indispensably sacred. And to enfold myself in each anointed hour.

I might be mesmerized by a butterfly. Might sit down to pen that long-overdue confession. Might devote my perishable days to those few souls I cannot bear to leave behind, revel in the litany of whimsies we’ve long promised we’d get to, indulge with abandon. Or maybe I’ll travel to pockets of the world where my heart and my hands—and my long-expired nursing license—might be put to good use.
 
Scan Time is palliative, too; it offers something of a balm. Where the arithmetic of five-year-survival rates sets me to trembling as I weigh cold, hard probabilities, I’m washed in some iteration of calm when I set my sights on half a year at a time. Like a mountain climber trekking past mile marker after mile marker, I keep my eyes on the immediate path and don’t try to peek around circuitous, unseeable bends.
 
Yet underpinning each round is the knowing this might be the last, the one with expiration. One of these rounds, you suppose, the call won’t be so freeing. And time then will shift again. Day after day the distilling comes, until each last minute holds all that you love, all that desperately matters.

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