Una Mullally | Something Inside Me is Trying to Kill Me
Your body is meant to protect you. Yet one day, it wakes up and a cell tilts its head like a dog does when you say its name. “Today,” the cell - one out of 100,000,000 - decides, “today, I am going to do this.” It diverges from its usual daily routine and instead does something new. The following morning, another cell looks over and squints. “That looks fun.” After the initial millisecond of chaotic behaviour, a pattern emerges. The random becomes uniform. In a year or so, enough cells have arrived to the party to create something inside you that is trying to kill you. Your body is meant to protect you. Instead, for no reason, no cause, no impetus, no trigger, it has built a bomb. It doesn’t tell you that, but at a certain point the timer counting down those red LED numbers will get closer to zero. Your body starts to listen. Something isn’t quite right. Three, two, one…
The scan on the table has a colour photo of something gnarly. Pink and red and white and glistening. You hear yourself saying, “that’s a tumour”, and the doctor’s eyes turn downwards. “Yes, yes it is.” Her hand clasps your right forearm, the type of human contact that is shorthand for bereavement. It seems as though the air has been sucked out of the room and the voices talking around you have the same fidelity as underwater screams. Your cheeks are wet.
Something inside me is trying to kill me. Your body is meant to protect you. But inside it, there’s a war going on, a battle for territory, a bodily coup. In the trenches of your bloodstream, cells are firing shots at each other. In the logistically important battle sites of your organs, the draw bridges are being pulled up, the sandbags laid, as in the distance the cancer is advancing, relentless, like the zombies in World War Z. There is a boxset of drama unfolding within you, and it plays on Super8 in your brain. The effect is discombobulating. Your body is not of you, because you have no control. Things are taking place that you never planned or signed off on. Your body is meant to protect you, and somehow, it didn’t.
The surgeon sits you down. The only part of you that moves is one tear after another. They are silent and hug the chin and curl around the neck before being absorbed by the collar of a t-shirt. He talks, and then that’s over. He calls down the corridor as you are floating away, walking like they do in South Park. “Una?” Yes? “Did you see the date? I just wrote it on your chart.” You know what date it is because you joked about it that morning. It is Friday the 13th.
In the first few days, you gradually understand yourself to be in a state of shock. Ah, that’s what this is. All other shocks you’ve experienced before this - the phone call about someone dying, let’s say - don’t come close. You are in a suspended state. It is as if someone pauses a cartoon at a certain point where the character is blurred in two, the animation split. You are removed from yourself. Every day, you wake up ridiculously early, and because it’s nearly summer, the mornings are brighter, and so you go for walks. You aren’t walking anywhere in particular. Maybe just down streets where one of the Council’s rubbish machines hums in the distance. Maybe you walk down the canal, which is so beautiful. You know that you are now encountering the world in a completely different way, but you can’t articulate it. You realise the weird thing that is happening is a terrifying clarity. Because of the shock, a layer has been removed from the world and everything is illuminated. You walk towards the canal and a car door closing is the loudest noise you’ve ever heard. At the petrol station, the lights digitally declaring the price of diesel are so bright they almost hurt your eyes. You put on your sunglasses. A magpie cackling from a tree is bizarrely amplified. You sit on a bench and feel so weak and suspended and hypnotised by the reeds. It is 7am now. A man walks towards you with the type of gait that indicates he is still out from the night before. “BOO!” he shouts, as he walks by. “Fuck you, you asshole,” you scream. He shrugs and walks away. You scream and swear again. He turns around. You look at him, and shout, “you have no idea what’s going on in people’s lives.” He looks confused.
The filter is gone. The tracing paper that you didn’t even know lay over the world has been removed. And with it, there is a strange sense of elation. Nothing matters now. Nothing. All of the things that ate into the muscles in your shoulders where you carry most of your stress, all of the things that twisted that sinew have departed and you are freed from every single problem in the world apart from this new one. When you walk past people in the street, their faces are each more memorable and expressive than the last. In half a second you take everything in, like magic, each wrinkle and fragment of a conversation and eye colour and detail on a necklace. Every element of every frame of the world your eyes are focussing on floods your brain with colour and smell and sound. You are hallucinating reality. Zapped by shock, your brain has stepped into a zone you didn’t know existed. It has accessed a hyper version of every scene and manholes and walls and bins are vivid. Seizing this, you start to go to art galleries, and the paintings are overwhelming, making you burst into tears and laugh and sit staring, totally absorbed. It is all so beautiful.
A day later, you walk past lads drinking pints outside Grogans, women in the street on the phone to their friends, Mums pushing buggies, hairdressers on a smoke break, guys setting up the tables at Pyg, coffee drinkers on the bench outside Clement and Pekoe. Fuck them. Fuck all of those people. You resent everyone who doesn’t have cancer. Fuck them. Why me? Why is this happening. And then, at some point, you move beyond ‘why is this happening’ to ‘this is happening’. Then a realisation lands that is so obvious now, but that you never thought of before. All of the big things that happen in your life? You don’t decide them. They are not options put in front of you from which to choose, they are not things that you plan and follow through. The big things - lucky breaks, love, death - they are things that just happen. The actual control you have over your life occurs in between these things. Your body is meant to protect you, but it has no control.
Back in the hospital MRI scans feel like practice for a coffin. You try to read the expressions of the doctors doing the scans for information. What have they seen? Is it worse or better? You do not know if you are going to die very shortly yet, so when you have an important meeting a week after your diagnosis and the surgeon tells you it isn’t terminal but is stage three, you are the happiest you have ever been. Someone has just told you that you can have everything back you thought was gone if you go through hell for a year. You can do that. Your sister who is a doctor is in the meeting with you and seems extra relived. When you're walking on air out of the hospital she tells you you don't know how lucky you are, “you could have been walking out of that meeting with them saying it was a few weeks.” This idea floors you. But that’s not what happened. You are alive. Your body is meant to protect you, and somehow, it did.
Three months later you are cycling down the canal and it's sunny and warm and the wind is just so. You push your feet on the pedals, raising yourself from the saddle and realise that in this moment, you have never been happier. Earlier that day you lie in the grounds of the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham and take off your shoes and the grass feels so perfect on the soles of your feet. A few days before that, you cycled into Phoenix Park and when you found a herd of deer, walked as close to them as possible before lying down. You opened your eyes looking at the blue sky and could hear them shuffling around you. That weekend, you sit in a boat on Lough Corrib and concentrate on the mayfly dapping on the water as your bait, waiting for a trout to grab it. On the drive home, the trees on either side of the road meet to form arches.
On the day of the solstice, you happened to be driving past Tara Hill. You pull in and walk to the hill, and stand on top in the wind and feel the earth coming into you through your feet and up to your mind. You have been waiting for something profound to happen throughout this experience so far, but nothing has apart from this renewed appreciation for nature, which you always liked anyway, but now you get. You have always been interested in philosophies pertaining to transience, but now you understand them to the point of embodying them. You are not a crier, but you realise you are crying more at things, things you see. The Dart journey hugging Dublin Bay. A kitesurfer leaping with the wind. Your parents calling to your door. The sand whipping itself across a beach like a granulated aurora borealis. Your body is meant to protect you, and somehow, it will.