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What will be the last thing you want?
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The world stopped.

I hung up the phone with my doctor and the air had left the room. 6cm tumor.

My routine pre-operative ultrasound for a hip operation to fix congenital hip dysplasia had turned up a tumor on my kidney. No symptoms. No hints. No indications. Head to the hospital.

My world stopped. My work day, my 45-minutes on the elliptical, my plans for the chicken defrosting in the fridge.

The Boston hospital whisked me into the CT Scanner the moment my husband and I arrived. My primary care doctor canceled patients to wait for results with us.

Clear-cell renal carcinoma at the age of 47.

The statistical chances? Minuscule compared to Alzheimers, heart attack, stroke. One in a million. Causes? Male, over 60, alcoholism. Nope, nope, and definitely nope, not after having a brother suffer years of addiction before he died at the age of 35.

My world shrunk to me, husband, daughter and son, oncology and urology. On hold was our busy medical practice and twenty-plus employees, friends, extended-family, travel, books. Life.

The story has a happy ending: though there are no cures, no chemo cocktails, no radiation treatments for kidney cancer, there is the surgical approach if caught early enough. I lost my kidney and adrenal gland, but I am alive and without metastases. Mostly, more than a decade later, the dreaded fear no longer courses through my veins, the fear that I will die from an insidious, unseen and asymptotic tumor. We scan on a regular basis, and the worst part is my growing claustrophobia from the damned MRI machine. (Open? Nah, an Open MRI is like a huge multi-ton hamburger bun hovering over your strapped-down body, where your path to freedom is even further away than the normal submarine tube machine.)

Now, now, now, we are all under more than one insidious threat. We hover in our home, mask our faces against our neighbors and the virus. We don’t cope by clasping hands and stopping the world, pausing all that was normal to distill down to the essence, the most important, a reorganizing of our priorities.

Instead, for six months we have embraced routine, we nailed Survival. My husband’s office visits and teaching have become Telehealth at home. My writing goes on, strapped to this chair, this desk, this view, this house via zoom or not zoom. 100% of meals are 100% home cooked. Onboarding groceries is an alcohol-swiping anxiety-producing break of our bubble. We got this.

Even when the California lightning fires were within our county, the evacuation center was in our town, we upped the game to N95 masks and set the air filters to Turbo. 10am zoom write, progress on the novel. Even my evacuated writer buddy made it to monthly writing group.

Are you okay, we ask? I’m okay, we answer.

And then, this week, Wednesday, we woke to the appearance of Armageddon in Moss Beach. The dim orange fog deepened as the morning went on. Darkness arrived at noon. Some said it was like nuclear night.

On the newspaper, the internet, NextDoor, texts from friends across the Bay, we saw it was everywhere here: the smoke from Oregon and Napa and the Creek fires pressed down our marine layer (aka Fog) and quite literally blocked out the sun. Our orange-tinged nightmare had gone literal, viral—a sick irony.

David’s Telehealth visits continued. The fish defrosted in the refrigerator. My novel chapter got written. Zoom writes popped up on the calendar. The newsfeed reported the first Bob Woodward bombshell: 190,000 deaths, 6 million cases are the price for reelection at the worst, the result of belief in magic fairy dust at best.

And I realized that our collective inattentiveness, our turn to the next viral bombshell, the bizarre national coping strategy of embracing the next Bad Thing to inure us from the last, while at the same time we stockpiled peanut butter, celebrated the price of Moderna and Pfizer stock, began skipping the free Coronavirus section of the NYT, and hoped the science was too pessimistic, all the busy avoidance had become my individual routine, as well.

Nothing stopped.

Now, we hang up the phone from the doctor, and it’s not just me, but you and you and everyone.

Yet, we have not paused the routine, shrunk down the pedantic cares, and faced the very essence of our existence, we have not allowed ourselves to grieve. Cancer sucks. Covid sucks. Unbreathable air sucks. The end of democracy is a nightmare.

What are our essential priorities? What would you do if these are the last days?

What will you do when the air clears? Or doesn’t? Virus subsides? Or doesn’t?

The diagnosis of kidney cancer was deeply shocking, and still is. But once the numbness passed, the stark choices arose. I am grateful.

Now, stop everything and consider. What do you want?

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