Feelin’ Groovy: “The 59th Street Bridge Song”

This past autumn, around September, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel started singing in my ear:

Slow down, you move too fast

You got to make the morning last

I’m hoping that as you read these words, the melody plays in your head. If you like, try to keep it going as you read. I’ve written before in this blog about the speed of life and my increasingly slower pace as a cancer patient. All around me, events swirl at a breakneck speed, like an accelerated clip from an old movie. In the past, I’ve often viewed this slowing down as a necessary step, imposed on me by my life with cancer. But I’m beginning to recognize that slowing down may be a choice, a preferred way of being in this world that is accelerating, becoming more frantic and louder with its sounds of dissonance.

We’ve just lived through two years of a pandemic. In the final month of 2021, “Omicron” made it into our vocabularies in bold and noxious fashion. In the political realm, pundits and politicians alike daily question what we as individuals and as a united nation believe about the democracy that governs us. I have three children in their twenties and early thirties who tell me that they have serious concerns about what their futures will hold.

In December, I “celebrated” nine years of being on a daily oral cancer drug for my stage IV lung cancer. Yes, I’m happy to be alive (“Stay Positive; Stay Grateful” being the mantra most cancer patients are urged to repeat to themselves), but I’m falling behind. After nine years of dealing with the disease itself and the side effects of the drug I take to keep the cancer in check – a drug which fights the cancer but does not offer remission and simultaneously attacks my skin, my eyeballs, my brain, and my psyche – I want to be that stubborn child who digs in her heels and cries, “No! Stop!” In truth, I’m losing the ability to keep pace with the world. But observing the day-to-day turmoil in our society, our country, and our world, I question daily whether I want to continue to do so.

One can argue that the advent of COVID-19 offered the world a chance to slow down, and like many others, I’m honored to have observed so much goodness in people who performed from balconies, cheered health care workers, and extended humanity to others around them. But we also know that anxiety levels have increased over the past few years; those increased levels have contributed to hyper-charged social media posts, assuming social media posts weren’t already on steroids before the pandemic.

This combined speed and frenzy is not what I want for my life. I didn’t drag myself through the last nine years with cancer to experience what feels like the world yelling in my face to speed up. I need to retreat.

For most of my life, I’ve done what people asked me to do, without complaining too much. As a cancer patient, I’ve followed all the rules, and I continue to go through the paces, but it’s getting harder. To make and keep doctor appointments, to wait at the end of a cell phone line to get through to the human voice to order the prescription or the CT scan. No one told me I’d have to do this long, slow, living-with-cancer, dying-from-cancer dance during COVID, without a solid job, while still trying to help my children launch themselves into adulthood.

And there’s the rub. I’ve realized that as a cancer patient who needs to slow down, who wants desperately to take the meandering stroll (with walking stick), sing the slow songs, enjoy the increasingly rare deep breaths, I worry about leaving my children in this world of craziness. I want to sugar-coat their beings with the words of encouragement I won’t be able to speak to them when I’m gone.

I worry that if I don’t slow down, I’ll work myself into a frenzy about scheduling medical appointments, staring at my cell phone screen while I’m on hold and the minutes tick by, becoming a wound-up, tangled ball of self-absorption who can’t see beyond herself, her needs. I worry that I’ll lose my capacity for an external focus and instead dwell within my disability.

Yet how will I help my children if I don’t stay in the game? If I don’t keep learning the technology and maintaining the persistence to make the appointments and take the medicines? How can I slow down and still help them learn to live without me once I’m gone?

Paul Simon has said that he was just learning how to deal with the fame of the “Bridge Over Troubled Water” success when he wrote “The 59th Street Bridge Song,” while travelling across that New York landmark, a bridge where traffic moves quickly, and drivers need to hear a message to slow down and stay safe.

As I examine the song’s lyrics, especially, “I’m dappled and drowsy and ready to sleep,” the words capture what I want for my slower life. “Dappled” suggests a slow, meandering pattern of light playing over color. “Drowsy” refers to that lovely pre-sleeping state where the body slows down and starts its even breathing – ready to sleep. Ready to succumb to the peaceful moment, half-conscious. And yes, I want to make the morning last, too. Carpe diem and all that, not in an urgent way but in a remembering, appreciative way.

I honestly don’t know how I’ll resolve the tension between slowing down and trying to stay aware of the world just enough to support my children as they deal with their futures. Perhaps for now, the best I can do is seize my good days and search for those small moments that offer luminescence. Seek out the dapples and share them.

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