Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Radiation Recall, A Thing Called Agatha, and a Cave

I woke this morning in the dim light before dawn, and stood at the window staring at a birch forest laced white with two inches of wet snow, the trunks dark columns in the ethereal glow.  March in coastal Alaska is a trickster of a month.  Yesterday, in the mid-day sun and stillness, the temperature near 40, I hung laundry on the line.  By late afternoon, I realized the laundry was flapping, blown by a north wind.  The now-white sky shook tiny, almost invisible snowflakes down toward the ground, over my laundry.  By the time I took Gris-Gris for a walk, it was snowing in earnest, big wet flakes that stuck to my coat and hat and the dog’s thick hair.  It’s a changeling month, mercurial, a boxing match between winter and spring.  Just when you think winter’s over, it walks back in.  The weather of after-cancer is like that too.    

How do I relate to this thing called cancer now?  Is it a thing?  An it?  A he?  A she?  Four months ago, I walked out of Cape Cod Hospital after my final radiation treatment.  Before I left, the technicians even gave me a certificate of completion.  Should I have framed it and hung it on my wall?  I threw it into the recycling.   Is that the problem?  Is that why it doesn’t feel over?  That same day, hours later, I boarded a bus with Craig, and then boarded a plane, and flew away from Boston, leaving an eight month-long ordeal – (but is that the right word?) – behind me.  Or so I thought.  But this morning, after my shower, seeing in the mirror a rash on my chest and neck, the same rash that erupted when I first started radiation last October, it’s clear I’ve carried some part of that ordeal with me, in body and spirit.  They call it, by the way, “radiation recall.”  Months after treatment’s end, the body remembers, and because it remembers, the body says, “You’re going to remember too.”  And it’s not just the rash, and not just the fact that every morning I pop into my mouth an Arimidex pill, the targeted treatment for the particular cancer that grew in my body.  (Are you a she, Armidex?  That’s an ugly name for my avenging angel anyway.  I’ll call you Athena).  The ongoing ordeal is the daily grappling with cancer’s ghost, whose most common manifestation is not a white-sheeted wraith, but a shadow called fear.  Does a ghost have a gender?  He, she, it?   A specific name?  Agatha?  Henry?  Tight-Cold-Fist-In-My-Heart?  Many who’ve dealt with cancer in some form or other claim all of this eases with time, after a year, let’s say, but that it never entirely goes away.  People say that after my first couple follow-up appointments, I will realize, more and more, that spans of time have elapsed in which the thought of cancer hasn’t entered my mind at all, in the same way that grief begins as a full-moon storm-tide, then over years laps in and out in a less extreme way.   This past weekend, absorbed in the drama of our son’s swim meet, it actually happened.  My concern for him eclipsed cancer.  But as soon as I knew he was okay, it/he/she rushed back in the door, muddy boots, wet coat dripping on my floor.  Agatha Tight-Cold-Fist-In-My-Heart.  I find that cancer’s after-shocks are a kind of regimen, like chemo, and like chemo, unimaginable until I’m in it, up to my neck in its rushing waters.  I am still exploring the ways to deal with side-effects of a process I know, this time, is natural.

I’m a writer, and so words matter to me.  Do I call this an ordeal?  Initiation?  Battle?  Transformation?  Pilgrimage?  Odyssey?  Gift?  (The old Silver Lining, the old Blessing in Disguise, the concepts, I'm sorry, I just want to kick).  A wise friend brought up the issue of “gratitude” to me again yesterday.  And I told her of my trouble with that concept, of cultivating a sense of gratitude, which implies a given gift.  Agatha pounding on my door like a Jehovah’s Witness, clutching her cancer pamphlets, her "Good News."  If I chose to examine the nature of the enormous and deep changes I’ve gone through in the last year, I could tell myself cancer “gave me” the opportunity to face all the layers of myself, to clarify my spiritual beliefs, to decide what really mattered to me, to heal family relationships, to get stripped down to bedrock.  But wasn’t I the one who did those things in the face of cancer?  Shouldn’t I be grateful to Eva, not to Agatha?  Cancer didn’t make me stronger.  I made myself stronger.  “Well,” my friend suggested, “Then I guess cancer was a worthy opponent.  That’s what worthy opponents do.” 

And that felt more acceptable to me.  My friend suggested that I was still living with cancer, though no longer through my body.  I imagined, if that were so, chasing Agatha out of my house with a broom.  But she’s sneaky, knows every unlatched window, and some points of entry I don’t even know about (Sink drains?  Makes sense.  Poisonous centipedes enter houses in Hawaii that way).  If I could “befriend” that monster who’s entered my life, as my friend suggested, bring her down to my size, what would I say?  "Hello, Cancer.  Thanks for everything.  Now get out of my house.  Get off my shoulder, out of my ear.  Get out of my bedroom.  Out of my refrigerator.  Out of my cupboards.  I’d just like to eat half a bar of organic chocolate with impunity, without your commentary (hmmm … what about potential links between cancer and insulin?  What about the naturopathic book that said “sugar feeds cancer.”)  I’d like to soothe my aching lower back after sitting at the computer all day with a hot bath and no stress (bone metastases!).  I’d like to stop scrutinizing my chest so much.  (What’s that lump???  Oh, my collarbone).  Agatha, I know you see yourself now as some kind of do-gooder, some kind of teacher, who’s here to endlessly remind me to stay present in the moment, to remember what’s truly important.  Well thanks for the unasked-for help.  Now go away.  I want to eat a pizza without organic cheese."  

But Agatha just sits there smiling as I rant, examining her painted fingernails, bouncing her high-heeled shoe from her toe.   Obviously she has no intention of going anywhere. Perhaps I should challenge her to a Scrabble game.  I know at least I can beat her at that.  This learning to live with a new entity in my life is obviously going to be a long and interesting process.

I did realize that one place blessedly free of cancer for me, at least right now, is sleep.  I haven’t once dreamed of Agatha, of my cancer treatments, of the diagnosis, of life "before" or "after."  In my dreams so far, there's simply no cancer.  No dream flash-backs (those happen only when I’m awake).  Last night I dreamed I was back in the house on Cape Cod, next to my sister’s house, the little 1950’s cottage where Craig and I lived the last couple months of my treatment.  Each morning that my sister drove to work, I stood at the bedroom window and watched her leave and waved to her, and she stopped and waved to me.  I loved that cottage with its too-thin walls, its sloping wood floors, its small-paned wooden windows that wouldn’t close or open right, the way the wind banged the lid over fan above the stove, the way the cottage creaked as it cooled at night, the scratch of branches against the windows, the cardinals that landed each morning in the frost-browned hydrangea bush.   In the dream, I hid under the bed in the cottage, hid from everyone in my life.  Not from cancer, which was a non-entity.  Oddly, I hid within the refuge of a place entirely my own, from those who love me the most.  And perhaps there is such a place, in my waking life too, a shelter somewhere inside, a place even Agatha can’t reach.  As it so often happens, a poem bubbles up in my consciousness at the moment of writing that thought, a poem by James Wright, hobo, rider of the rails, carrier of his own demon Agatha (or call it Henry or Raymond or depression or the bottle).  (And I take a deep breath of gratitude for all the poems I’ve read, over and over, that arise, it seems, when I need them most.  I take a deep breath of gratitude to the poets).  The poem is called “The Jewel.”

The Jewel

There is this cave
In the air behind my body
That nobody is going to touch:
A cloister, a silence
Closing around a blossom of fire.
When I stand upright in the wind,
My bones turn to dark emeralds.

Oh, how I know that blossom of fire.  And now I'm reminded that indeed there is a cave in the air behind our bodies that no one can touch, no cancer, no fear, no blame.  Sometimes, we lose our way to that place.  But it’s there, still:  that cottage, that cave, that nook, where we’re completely alone and completely safe.  It requires a kind of recall, just as the body recalls radiation’s insult in red.  Perhaps to recall the safe cave within, we need only one mountain, one song, one dance, one deep breath.  

Sunday, March 27, 2011

While God Was Busy Navel Gazing

the seed can't know
what is going to happen
the path to becoming is unknown to us all.

flower or vine, fern, herb or tree
everything is possible
yet nothing guaranteed.

for the seed
the risks are many
and courage is essential

at the core of the seed
is a dream, a wish, a prayer
that moves it
toward the unknown

This is the first part of a poem-prayer written by my friend Deer.  “Courage is essential,” the poem says.  “The risks are many.”  For the last 24 hours I’ve carried in my heart the aspiration and disappointment, the broken halleluiah, of a one of our children, Lars.   By the way, he’s the one who first played “Halleluiah” for me, on a car ride along Turnagain Arm, an unearthly landscape outside Anchorage.  It was the Jeff Buckley version, and I made him play it again and again.  In the sense of an acute spiritual/emotional crisis, Lars’ heartbreak actually laid me lower, shook me up, unsettled me, more than cancer did.  It’s been that way with these three kids who don’t share my blood but share my heart.  It’s taken 24 hours to come to the table with all the questions that arose.  Yesterday I even had it out with “God,” asking, as I often do, “What the hell is wrong with you, you bastard?  Why aren’t you paying attention to what’s going on down here?” 

In the end, I have to trace it back, like I wrote about the other day, unraveling an incident in life like a weaving to trace a thread back to its origin, and feeling along the thread’s way, to find a path to the center.  I look out the window, and there it is, the outward metaphor for my center, the steadfast mountain revealed this morning in all its white and blue-shadowed glory.  Yesterday it was partly obscured by a cloudbank, but last night, at about 7 pm, I noticed a tiny triangle of gold in a cleft between two mountains.  I could see that just beyond the mountains, in the Gulf of Alaska, the cloudbank ended, and the sky was clear.  Another earth existed over there.

One year ago today, Craig’s mother Dorothy died.  Craig was there, with his hand on the top of her head, as our healer friend had instructed him.  “That’s where the spirit exits, “she said, “and where healing energy enters.”  He and his brothers and sisters-in-law and Dorothy’s helper had been singing to her on and off for days as her body shut down and she gradually let go of this earth.  When Craig and I talked on the phone last night about our son’s rough day, we suddenly remembered that it was a day before the anniversary of her death.  “That means today was still part of that year,” Craig said with a sudden little fire of optimism in his voice.  “That means a new year still hasn’t started.”

“Yeah,” I said, “Right now I feel like stuffing this year in the dumpster, and good riddance.”  It’s how I felt after a run at Mahukona on New Year’s Eve.  I jumped into the ocean and treaded water, watching the sun set.  I started sobbing, saying out loud, “Thank God it’s over.  This year is over.”  

Craig found out about his mother’s impending death the day he and his son Lars completed a 12 day canoe paddle down the Green River, in Utah, over Lars’ college spring break.  Father and son floated the red rock country, huddled together during a violent thunderstorm, built fires and cooked meals, and shared long human silences in that ancient canyon country of long geologic silences.  So I think of the year beginning, actually, with that river trip.  They emerged into a jarring new reality:  Craig wasn’t flying home to Alaska, but to Orange County.  He stayed for 10 days until Dorothy died.  And about a week later, I called him from Boston to tell him I wasn’t coming home.  I had breast cancer.

In a few weeks, he returns to Santa Ana to pack up his childhood home, and I return to Boston to see my doctors.   I’m thinking that when we return to Alaska again, a new year will begin for us.  But who knows?  The powers that be have inexplicable plans.  Our son experienced it this weekend, the outcome of a big college swim meet turning on a dime, for himself and for his team.

Not knowing what else to do, I planted my first garden seeds for Lars, tomatoes, basil, flowers.  I stood on the deck in the afternoon sun and scooped dirt into six-packs and small pots and sprayed the dirt with water and sprinkled in the seeds, covered them with more soil, spritzed again, then put the tray in the kitchen windowsill.  It’s another act of faith.  I did the same thing last spring, and never got to see the garden Craig planted from those starts.  I’ve been carrying this 21 year old person in my heart all day long.  He’s my stepson, so I never “carried” him in the way his mom did, inside her own body.  But I have carried him, more than once, in that place behind my breastbone.  He’s had his share of disappointments and deaths in his young life.  I was with him when he learned that his first foal had died soon after it was born, on his mom’s farm, when he was 10 or so.  I watched him win and lose countless swim races.  And he in turn flew three times to Boston to see me while I was undergoing cancer treatment.  He stood in the room while I got measured for my radiation tattoos.  He watched the computer screen while the radiation oncologist outlined the field of my body where I’d be zapped.  

It’s astounding what the human heart can bear.  How time and breathing ease the hurt and loss by tiny increments.  In my carrying mode today I picked up a book I’ve had so long that the front cover is completely detached, Healing Into Life And Death by Stephen Levine.  Levine has spent decades working with the gravely injured and dying, injured and dying both in body and spirit.  I found this passage near the book’s beginning:  “As we came to see that healing occurs on many levels, it became obvious that there was not something spiritually or psychologically amiss with those who did not cure their bodies.  It was from observing in many who died the healings of long-pained minds into the heart of great peace that we came to notice some discomfort with the appellations of some doctors that only those who physically healed were ‘superstars’ or ‘exceptional patients.’  Because what does that make all those whose diseases increased unto death—low-normals, second-stringers?  The confused elitism that somehow those who heal their body are ‘better’ than those who don’t has a tendency to come back as a sense of failure on the death bed when the last disease inevitably comes along and displaces us naturally from the body.  Death is not a failure, but rather an event during the ongoing process which one survives on the path of healing to continue toward even greater learning and growth.”  The same passage could be rewritten for athletes, for anyone, actually:  “We came to notice some discomfort with the appellations of some (fans/coaches/parents) that only those who win are ‘superstars’ or ‘exceptional athletes.’”  Sometimes, there are outcomes that require more courage than winning does.  It’s something that likewise bothers me in cancer “culture,” which is the obsession with survivors, and the notion that people die after “losing their battle with cancer.”  Sometimes, there outcomes that require more courage than surviving does.  Surviving or not is in the end a crapshoot.  And so many times, after decades of effort, so is winning or not.  Outcomes are out of anyone's control.  The choice is in how to make the healing journey.

And as always, while "God" was busy navel-gazing, the God-in-the-human-heart was the answered prayer, and made the healing journey, which is, so often, hard, a real son-of-a-bitch, bearable.

Like the seed in Deer’s poem, our son is stronger and more courageous than we imagined, and though he’d never use these words, I believe his journey through all his challenges is a healing one.  Like each person on a healing journey, he’s a champion, win or lose, live or die.  The words to the song “Halleluiah” of course have run through my head all day again, just as the changing face of the mountain has drawn my eye.  “Love is not a victory march; it’s a cold and it’s a broken halleluiah.”  Today, I send that halleluiah back to Lars.

Friday, March 25, 2011

A Broken Halleluiah

This morning I woke to a song, and I played it again and again, and sang it off and on all day (when alone in the car or at home).  It’s Rufus Wainwright singing Leonard Cohen’s song-prayer Halleluiah.  But, as you’ll find out if you listen to it, this is no ordinary halleluiah, which is uttered in praise, as in the song I heard every Easter Mass growing up, “Jesus Christ is risen today, halleluiah!” Cohen’s halleluiah is broken, cracked, eroded, battered, wronged, shattered, trampled, hurt, and yet he sings it anyway.  I see it as a cry in the dark to all that is imperfect and broken in this world, which is everything we can see.  I wrote my own broken halleluiah last night at midnight, a little shattered child thing, to help me sleep.  That halleluiah spoke to me as the sun rose in a dingy sky.  It spoke to me as I drove down East Hill after visiting a woman suffering from lung cancer.  For her, a broken halleluiah.  I sang it as I steered the switch-turns of the road.
Halleluiah to the birch tree with the crooked branch.  Halleluiah to the eight year-old boy bald from chemo.  Halleluiah to the moose-chewed willow.  Halleluiah to the woman down to one methadone pill a day.  Halleluiah to this morning’s frozen ground.  Halleluiah to the widow in the grocery store who let her hair go gray.  To the mountain draped in a dirty cloud.  To the family nursing a dying dog.  Halleluiah to magpies and crows.  To unanswered prayers.  To cries in the night.  To the rubble pile where a house once stood.  To the one in yoga who curled up in child’s pose.  To the high school kid going to the school nurse everyday for his pills.  Halleluiah to rotten March snow.  To a crab apple tree girdled by hares.  Halleluiah to Prince William Sound, where grass grows up out of 22 year old oil.   

I even danced a broken halleluiah tonight.  I’ve been a self-conscious dancer my whole life, but tonight, alone, I let it all go.  My two hours in the presence of the friend with lung cancer needed expression, but words just won’t suffice.  So I danced it for her, and then I pulled off my sweater and shirt, pulled the prosthesis out of my bra, placed my hands over the naked scar, and danced a broken halleluiah for my missing breast.  The backdrop of my mountain radiant in evening light, the billowing fogbank sliding along its flank:  I danced my broken halleluiah to that. 

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Five Threads Unraveled Before the Bathroom Mirror

I came downstairs this morning carrying several threads from several directions, one of them being the view out the window, the mountains across the bay.  It's cloudy again today, a high gray overcast that lightens along the ridgelines which are blue-black and white, rock exposed by snow blown off.  As I always do I glanced at the mountains, particularly Grace Ridge, with the flat top, the one I call "my" mountain, just a quick glance to orient myself, to take measure of the weather and the day. It's an unconscious tick, and more than anything signifies home, I find.  Not house, not yard, but the distant mountain and my eyes, drawn toward it compulsively, even right now, sitting here, typing this sentence, glancing back and forth to see if it's changed.  I came downstairs and thew my first glance in its direction, and immediately looked back.  Was the long roll of cloud, baguette-shaped, really tinged with aqua blue on this gray morning?  It was.  The mountain consistently offers miracles like that, and I'm sure I miss a million every day.  Maybe I should just sit and stare at it dusk to dawn and record it in my journal, like the similarly obsessed film-maker who placed a camera on his favorite mountain top to make a film of its weather.  He called it "My Mountain." But that's just one of the threads now in a snarl on my lap.  (Yesterday I met a woman who had breast cancer 12 years ago who'd recently had to give up weaving.  She developed an allergy to something in the wool.  I could say this process with threads I'm doing is taking up where she left off, weaving, but it feels more like I'm pulling threads, unraveling a weaving to understand each individual thread).

Here's number two.  When I open my computer and click on the icon for the internet, the home page is the Poetry Daily website and this morning's is a poem called "The human palimpsest's prayer" by Matt Mauch.  I admit to often ignoring the daily poem, if the title feels too stuffy or full of itself, too precious, and probably, like my eyes leaving that mountain, I miss things.  (The cloud in front of the mountain, for example, while I was writing, morphed into a double baguette, smoky blue gray, and it expanded, so no ridgeline is visible anymore, just a Civil-War-Union-uniform-blue plank of forested slope pressed between cloud-bank and bay.  That mountain changes color and though I search my memory for the name of any one of its manifestations, mentally leaf through the catalogue of Crayola hues or paint chip names, I can never come up with it.  It's usually a color hasn't been named.  Another challenge.  If I keep at it, maybe I'll get a PhD in My Mountain University).  A few random things compelled me to actually read Matt Mauch's poem.  For one, he looks a little like my friend Derrick, also a poet.  And that word, "palimpsest."  What did it mean?  But the clincher was the title of the book the poem is reprinted from, Prayer Book, published by Lowbrow Press.  I like lowbrow prayers the best, and Mauch's didn't disappoint, being a prayer that goes like this:

I want to stop being so human, 
low to the ground, dragging this 
bag of bones around, udder with nothing 
left to give, no memory of grip pull twist squeeze, 
how it lets the inside out. I want to stop 
making my way through the day 
like I'm a shim. Want to forget about the mallet 
driving the shim, climb the highest tree in town, 
settle on a branch that can barely hold me, 
encouraging the slenderer branches 
higher up: Prick the firmament,
bleed down a sample of beyond.
I want to leave the cellar I've packed full 
behind me, squinting as I would to see someone 
coming toward me from faraway, blurring 
the orange and yellow leaves, the few trees still green, 
softening the world, merging the seldom merged, 
valley and city and river reclining 
like paint-spackled nudes. 
I want to channel the Gustav Klimt 
Gustav Klimt always wanted to be, 
to turn osprey, owl, or crow, marveling 
at the surprising ease of flight, joints 
cracking in places where I never imagined 
I could bend.

I like a prayer with an udder, a shim, a bag of bones, an osprey, an owl, a crow.  A prayer that wants to to fly, crack and bend.  That wants to rise above itself.  (I'm really not sure if it's completely okay to reprint the poem here, so I'll make up for any transgression by ordering this intriguing Prayer Book today.  And I hope, if you like his poem, you'll do the same).  So I looked up palimpsest.  It's one of those words your ego's so sure you should know, that you never look it up.  This is what my giant Webster's New Unabridged says:  "a parchment, tablet, etc. that has been written upon or inscribed two or three times, the previous text or texts having been imperfectly erased and remaining, therefore, still visible."  (And as if to illustrate, when I look out the window to see what my mountain's up to, it's erased by a wall of fog.  Baguettes dissolved, all that remains is a vague dark gray shadow suggesting some kind of crease).  The Wikipedia definition used slightly different verbs, which seemed important to me.  It claims that that the Greek for psao (one of the roots of the word) means "I scrape," so the previous text on the parchment hasn't been merely rubbed or erased, but scraped off, a harsher act.  Which of course reminds me of yesterday's post, and yesterday's reading from The Book of Awakening.  

Today's reading from that book was about flight, about birds.  Nepo writes, "We, like the birds, are meant to fly and sing -- that's all -- and all our plans and schemes are twigs of nest that, once outgrown, we leave."  And then he writes that birds "do not understand concepts such as holding back or only investing if the return seems certain.  In this, we are the only creatures that seek out guarantees, and in doing so, we snuff the spark that is discovery."

The birds that come to mind for me are crows.  I walked to Bishop's Beach last night alone.  I'd left Gris-Gris at home.  I'd left my day's quests and schemes.  Bishop's Beach is a long stretch of sandy-rocky shoreline at the base of town.  If you're motivated and the tides are right, you can walk all the way to the next town, Anchor Point, on Bishop's Beach. And going there is one way to absorb Homer culture.  It was my first beach walk since returning home.  I walked down from Craig's office to Two Sister's Bakery and turned right.  Ahead of me, a young man in baggy pants practiced a trick on his skateboard in the middle of the street.  His head was down, watching his feet.  He appeared to be attempting a kind of flight, like a young eagle unable to achieve lift-off, but trying and trying, only managing to hop.  He built up speed on the board, then executed a foot-flip-thrust that lifted him a couple feet off and spun the board around, and he seemed to be trying to land back on it, but couldn't, quite, and the look on his face when I got close was a focused scowl of pure effort.  He muttered disparagement to himself, then tried again.  He wasn't a kid, but a young man, maybe 28, trying to become a bird.  When I reached him he looked up and the scowl dissolved instantly and momentarily into an effortless smile.  I walked on, leaving him to his Promethean task, and that's when I saw the crows.  Black wedges leafing the bare trees against the gray sky of sunset.  Like the mountain (which is now utterly disappeared, as is the water, as is the horizon, swallowed in a bank of fog), they define Homer for me, a subculture, always at the beach or its vicinity, like the teenagers who perpetually drive their souped up or rattle trap cars to the Bishop's Beach parking lot to check out the scene.  The crows are a fringe element of town.  One spring, I saw a crow with his top beak missing everywhere I went, the Sourdough Restaurant deck, the beach, the bike trail on the Homer Spit.  He seemed to be doing fine.

The parking lot at Bishop's Beach is an over-ground, under-ground teen scene.  The beach itself is another, more multi-generational.   I counted 12 people out there, a trio doing some kind of dance at the water's edge, various dog-walkers, another trio, oddly enough, also playing/dancing further east, and a father watching his little girl dig in the sand.  It was 30 degrees.  It surprised me, that many people at 7 pm on a gray evening in late winter.  But it was a good cloudy-day sunset, with the light of the hidden sun turning a patch of water into molten pewter.  Climbing a muddy bluff back to the road, I found, not a crow feather, but a pheasant's, and I pocketed it.  And then I went off to the final social encounter of a day packed with social encounters, "udder with nothing left to give."  The palimpsest of my new self written over with an old familiar story.  I put on my good face.

Bear with me.  That's four threads I've now unraveled:  the mountain (revealing itself again now, from the bottom up), the palimpsest poem, the reading about birds, the beach.  The fifth is the mirror.  Here's where I get personal.  Yesterday I crammed in way too much, and it left me feeling depleted this morning, actually, more than depleted.  I woke with old familiar phrases playing in my head, accompanied by old familiar feelings in my body that can be most simply translated as a kind of nausea.  Phrases like "I don't fit into this world."  And "I'm confused."  Feelings like the old clench of heart, a prey animal panic.  I threaded the film of yesterday back into the projector and replayed it by writing it all down in my journal:

Yesterday, after brushing my teeth, I looked at myself in the bathroom mirror.  I looked into my own eyes, the slightly worried gaze staring back at me from that still-unfamiliar face.  I forced myself not to look away and I said, out loud:  "Your body is healed of cancer.  You are healthy.  You are healed."  It seemed the only answer to fear.  

The nausea of waking began began to erase itself as I wrote.  That woman in the mirror has gone down the road without me.  It's like I'm two people, one as unsure and mixed-up as ever, one strong enough to go through cancer treatment.  One still popping Xanax before a plane flight, one actually walking onto airplanes, despite me.  She opens her inner arm to IVs, despite me.  Looking in the mirror, I saw something reflected that I saw in Helen's face the other day, a kind of strength and resolve I just don't feel day-in, day-out.  It's the thing my friend Jo saw when she said I look different now.  It's the bedrock.  It's the part scraped raw.

There is a poem that flew into my head then.  It landed on a branch in my ear like a bird, "I am Not I" by the Spanish poet Juan Ramon Jimenez.  It goes like this:

 I am not I.
                   I am this one
walking beside me whom I do not see,
whom at times I manage to visit,
and whom at other times I forget;
who remains calm and silent while I talk,
and forgives, gently, when I hate,
who walks where I am not,
who will remain standing when I die.
It seems that I, like the speaker in Matt Mauch's poem, am too a human palimpsest, each day written over, each night, or each session of writing, scraping off the old text to reveal the bedrock beneath.  And guess what, the cloud has lifted so high I can see the tree-covered flank of the mountain, the white broken line that runs down its side to the water like a pencil scratch, only the top, the alpine, still hidden.   I am not I, says the mountain, and neither are you.      

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Panning for Gold on the Eroding Bluff

As I do each morning, I started today by reading from The Book of Awakening, by Mark Nepo.  It opens with a quote by Lao-Tzu:  "How can you follow the course of your life if you do not let it flow?"  The reading goes on to talk about dreams "collecting like pollen" and then rain and living washing away what isn't possible.  Our dreams and memories, Nepo says, stay with us as long as we need them and then erode.  But we resist these processes.  He says, "in order to re-enter the flow of life, we need to be scraped back to our original surface."  That seems to me an apt metaphor for cancer treatment.  It felt very much like I was scraped back to an original surface, both physically and psychologically.  Even the loss of hair -- baldness -- and the destruction of all fast-growing cells in the body by chemotherapy drugs forces you to go through it, the scraping back, then the regeneration.  It's brutal.  I think of the seawall people built below the bluff in Homer to ward off storm damage that's been steadily eroding the beach, trying to save their million-dollar view houses.  It's natural to resist a force that wants to erode the foundation from under your feet.  But Mark Nepo, survivor of brain cancer and poet (so he should know) tells me this morning I mustn't resist the processes that scrape and scour and erode.  Some days, it's harder than others.  

Some days, I'd just like to move miles back from the bluff edge, back to safety, out of sight and mind of the encroaching ocean.  Some days, I'd gladly trade all I've learned for a day without a single thought of cancer.  Today, I admit, was such a day.  "The expressive journey," Nepo says, "allows us to release the accumulated grit from our journey."  This is true for me, the tears shed, the honest admitting of fear to another, writing this blog, all wash some of that grit out of cancer's psychological wounds.  It's best when I don't force it, when I let the grit of a day sift through, and wait until the water clears and I can see the gold.  It happened last night, I wrote about that runaway horse, but it wasn't until this morning that I considered my conversation with my friend Miranda.

After yoga yesterday morning I drove to her house at the end of a dirt road above town.  She opened the door before I got to the front steps, welcoming me home with her smile.  A writer, the author of a memoir called Tide, Feather, Snow, Miranda wrote me a real letter last fall, a descriptive letter pages long that felt like one half of a conversation underway between two souls.  In a letter like that, the other is entirely present as you sit with pen and paper.  At least it felt like that to me.  Remember that form of communication that was also communion -- the letter?  Like the sacrament of communion in the church I grew up in, the letter was both spirit -- thoughts, feelings, impressions -- and material -- that white envelop in the mailbox, the pages, the handwriting.  When I last saw Miranda, she and I left her infant Cecily with "the guys" and went downtown to see the film "Precious" (which traumatized us both).  Now, when I walked into the house, I saw a 1 1/2 year-old Cecily standing behind her "DJ booth," a square plastic table waist height to her tiny self, its top covered with buttons, spinners, lids, gee-gaws in bright colors, all of them sound-makers.  Cecily is one of those delicate girls, but not shy, big dark eyes in a fine-boned face with a ready smile, that classic rosebud mouth.  She's still crawling but bursting with words, some clear, some open to interpretation.  She's part mockingbird, part monkey, part flower's center, part petal, part otter.  As we talked, I watched Miranda in her new incarnation as a mother, that natural flit of attention to and fro, that innate skill to keep one ear highly attuned to her child, one ear listening.  She talked about writing, balancing writing and mothering.  She asked me how I decided to go ahead and write the book I'm writing.

The idea for the book, while always in the back of my mind, was moved to the front by an agent who heard me read a piece about orcas at a conference.  I resisted for a long time, not sure I could write a book "under contract," instead of in the organic out-flowing of each day's living that's my most natural writing process, that's the way I write this blog.  I finally consented, thanks to a push by another writer friend Nancy Lord, but the proposal dragged on.  Some time after my diagnosis, I asked myself what I'd regret not completing, not doing or experiencing, if I died.  If I only had a year to live, what would I want to accomplish?  The answer was unequivocal.  I knew I needed to write that book about the orcas I've studied for 24 years, a group of whales that's going extinct.  It's also a book about a place and a process of inner and outer discovery.  So I asked my agent to help me get the proposal done, even though I was in the thicket of chemo, and we worked together on my good days and got the proposal out.  And it was picked up by Beacon Press in Boston.  I asked Miranda what she'd want to write if she had only a year to live, but before the question left my mouth I knew the answer.  I looked in her eyes and said, "I'd bet you'd just want to spend every possible moment with Cecily."  And she did.  Who wouldn't?

I realize that something compelled me to answer my own question back in May in that particular way.  But the truth is, watching myself live these last few months, free of the cancer treatment regime, it's not so simple or singular for me anymore -- that book I want to write.  What I want most of all is to be present to the teachers and teachings that surround me each day, everywhere, if I can only stay alert enough to hear them, if I can stay off the runaway horse so the important moments don't flash by me so fast they become part of the general blur.

Thinking about my brief visit with Miranda, it strikes me that conversation can be communion.  Except unlike the Catholic sacrament, it's an exchange.  As a little girl, I knelt to receive the papery wafer on my tongue from the priest.  He held it between two fingers.  I opened my mouth.  I received what was supposed to be spiritual food, but it stuck to the roof of my mouth and left me hungry.  The best part of the communion ceremony for me was that it signaled the end of mass was near, and soon I'd be out in the sun, where the real communions awaited.

So maybe I'd answer my question differently now, after considering my time with Miranda and Cecily.  What I want is a life of communion, with writing, with solitude, with Craig, with our kids, with my friends, with the grocery store clerk, with the post office lady, my favorite one, who yesterday read the address on my package and asked about Lars, my stepson.  If I sit back each day, if I give myself breathing space, if I allow the water to flow over and wash off the accumulated grit and dust, those moments of communion sift out of the blur.  They're the flecks of gold in my dinged up metal pan.

After writing all of this out in my journal this morning, I got up and drove to my friend Jo's house.  We sat in her window seat with the purple and maroon pillows for and hour and drank tea and talked.  Then she put on a late Beethoven string quartet, and we danced around her living room, which has not one stick of furniture to get in the way.  It's part art gallery, part temple.  We danced our own version of ballet, the way I did as a child, when my sister and I dressed in slips and performed for my parents' dinner guests.  Later, she sent me an e-mail message, and it brought me back to the morning, to the idea of being scraped back to original surfaces by life.  Here is what she wrote:

Science is a point of view, religions are a point of view, philosophies are a point of view, the arts are a point of view: these are doorways, and I love to enter through them, delight in entering, have dedicated my life to unfolding their truths, and relish and bathe in the wisdom, the knowledge, the insight, the accumulation of the best of what humans carry through time.

But like fingers pointing at the moon, they are not bedrock.

Bedrock is bedrock.

You are touching bedrock now, Eva.

And that is what makes all the difference.

I finish writing this just before bed, thankful for the doorways I enter each day, even those that lead deeper into unknowing and fear, the greatest scouring force there is.  Fear is no longer a problem to be solved.  It is a dance partner.  Or, on harder days, that person in a contra dance that's called your shadow.    Some days I am a partner to the shadow.  Like the waves are a dance partner to the bluff.  But most of all, I'm grateful for the sacrament of friendship, which opens so many of those doors for me, doors to rooms in which my friend and I touch bedrock together.  

Monday, March 21, 2011

Perhaps Strawberry

I forgot about all the light.  In March in Alaska, it comes barreling back.  It feels like I'm riding a runaway horse.  I told a friend today I feel slightly unhinged by it -- the light, combined with being home after a year.  There are seeds to plant (I bought potting soil today).  There's snow to shovel away from the front of the greenhouse door (my six-pack planters are stored in there).  There's still light in the sky at 9:30 pm.  I know because I just walked home from Asia and Michael's house across the road, and I didn't need a flashlight.  And there's my book to write.  And people to see, people I've missed.  Phone messages unanswered.  And errands, there's a life to start up, a car to dig out from the snow, there are details.  Oh, yeah, taxes.  The voice mail on the home phone doesn't work.  There's Craig's office in town I need to get to.  And a blood test.  And cupboards I haven't emptied out onto the floor, stuff I haven't sorted.  And there's my amped up heart, getting a thrill out of riding that runaway horse.  Normal life.

I had to stop a runaway horse once, almost 20 years ago.  Craig took me riding, saddled a blonde mare named Strawberry for me.  On a remote dirt road he suggested we run the horses a little, and as soon as he took off, Strawberry remembered she was an Indian pony in her previous life, and something shifted in her body, I could feel it through my legs, the way she moved as though she'd broken a physical barrier, turned from flesh into water, come into her power.  Her legs just went faster.  A switch turned on in her brain and she remembered who she really was.  I yanked on the reins and screamed "Woah," but, I didn't exist to her.  She passed Craig on his horse.  I screamed and screamed and finally she heard me from that distant prairie where she was running and she returned to Homer and slowed and Craig caught up and got her to stop.

What is normal life now?  I told my friend Wilderness today that perhaps this isn't just a healing journey from cancer, this altered state I'm living in, perhaps it's THE journey for me now.  Perhaps I can't go back to normal life, at least life the way I knew it.  Maybe that's why trying to do it, to re-enter the old flow, elicits that runaway, crazy feeling.  After a day of errands and checking things off my list I returned home to check in, via Skype, with Wilderness.  She was my counselor on Cape Cod.  She's the reason I'm writing this blog.  She's the person who urged me to write my way through cancer treatment.  And she suggested, when I said those things about this being my new journey, that I should take "perhaps" out of it.  Then she asked me to say those sentences to her without "perhaps."

"There's no going back to the way things were before," she said.

When I did that, when I said "This wasn't just a journey I took to heal from cancer.  This is it.  This is the new path I'm on," I felt something surprising, something I didn't feel at all on that runaway horse.  On that horse, 15 years ago, I felt blind panic, terror, desperation to get it to stop.  When I said those words to Wilderness without "perhaps," I felt a great sense of excitement.  The kind of excitement I feel when I'm going someplace new for the first time.  I felt, I think, what Strawberry felt, until I reined her back in.  She'd returned to her natural state of being.  She'd gone home.

It's the same feeling I break through to sometimes when I'm on an airplane.  I recognize, for just an instant, that fear's closest kin is excitement, anticipation.  I've asked myself during those moments, "What if you've mistaken what you feel for fear?  What if what you feel is really just excitement?  What if you actually love flying?"

Almost a year ago (I was diagnosed on April 6), cancer derailed my life.  I imagined my time on Cape Cod as a pilgrimage.  That metaphor helped me make sense of the eight months of treatment, to view it from another lens.  Homer, Alaska, was the destination, home.  But I see, returning to Alaska, that I'm still on the road.  It's why I have an odd sensation, of moving and holding still at once.  What if I never make it back to the old life?  What if this train doesn't stop at that station?  What if the rest of my life is a pilgrimage?  I vividly remember a scene in a movie I saw years ago.   It's a simple image, a stone wall with words graffitied onto it:  the circle is not round.  That's what it feels like.  The pilgrimage doesn't end.  There's no return.  My sister Mara suggested that I was tearing apart my house in order to find myself.  The self I left behind.  And I think she's right.  But I realized, after a few days of frantic searching, she's not there, buried in some closet, hidden under a mound of give-away clothes.

What if she's no longer the terrified rider?  What if she's the running horse?              

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Waffles, Whales, Bunny Huggers, and Death

The moon as it rose last night with its thin white veil dragged a bank of clouds over the sky, and this morning, I woke to reddish clouds to the east, the sign of oncoming weather.  Now, a little bully wind blows from the east, and the bay is greenish silver, like oxidized copper.  A couple eagles soar above the birches, maybe looking for snowshoe hares, maybe moose carcasses.  I've yet to see one of the super-abundant hares that have been eating the moose out of house and home and girdling everyone's trees.  According to my friend Michael, who saw one yesterday, they're still wearing their white winter coats.  Just now, the shadow of a pair of eagles drifted across the reflection of the window on my computer screen, behind the reflection of my head.  On the way down the hill this morning, I saw the pair of moose from last night in another neighbor's yard, a mother and her yearling, looking quite healthy, perhaps from an extra boost of cabbage.

It's Sunday, the day Craig and I would normally drive to see Douglass.  Instead this morning, I drove down the hill and picked up my friend Kyra.  She and her husband Neil are Gris-Gris' second home, and the Millers, who live between us, love to watch him trotting back and forth, taking a short cut across their lawn, between our two houses.  Kyra and I drove a couple miles east, to the boat yard, where we could see, behind rows of seiners, the charred roofline of the warehouse that burned to the ground the other morning, taking several boats with it.  The black toxic cloud that billowed from that melt-down of fiberglass, paint, metal, epoxy, fuel and god-knows-what else drifted over Kachemak Bay that morning, headed toward the ocean, where maybe it will intersect with radiation from Japan.  We ask the earth to absorb so much of our bumbling, the arctic tundra soaking up radiation, the ocean swallowing contaminants.  It absorbs, as well, our sorrow, tears, anger.  I think of the screams I hurled at the ocean out of my mouth once while sitting on the bluff edge in Hawaii in December, my rage that erupted suddenly at cancer.  Perhaps a constantly erupting volcanic island and the energy of Pele inspired that release.  Spent afterward, I sat and watched the trade-blown seas barreling west, on their singular mission, my tears and anger swept with them.  The earth absorbs and absorbs but we can see that the mother's shoulder we cry and bleed into is reaching her limit.

But that's not what I intended to write about.  A week ago, we sat in Douglass' house, Craig and I, and today, Kyra and I parked my car in front of the R.V. Right Whale, dry-docked in the boat yard, waiting for her imminent spring splash-down.  She's steel, painted black, a sturdy, sea-worthy craft our friends Cy and LA built themselves, starting with just the empty hull they spotted in someone's yard.  Kyra and I climbed a steep wooden ladder to the deck, perhaps fifteen feet off the ground, and LA opened the wheelhouse door and welcomed us into the warmth of the cabin.  LA is a pixie with a six-pack and biceps who wears Carhartts and flannel and teaches marine safety at the vocational/technical college in Seward, and CY is a sandy-haired, Alaska-born mechanic and boatsmith with a headlamp always dangling around his neck.  They are the most capable couple you can imagine, and the kind of people who'd be downright intimidating if they didn't have hearts made out of honey.  For instance, they are the guardians of a population of feral bunnies that live in the boat yard.  The Right Whale is dry-docked near the woods, and critters of all types visit their "yard," including birds they've fed by hand, and a pheasant who lets Cy get within a two feet.  When I was on Cape Cod, Cy and LA periodically sent me small hand-made cards or e-mails with photos attached, each describing the day's "therapy animal."  Once, the therapy animal was a blind dog LA befriended in someone's back yard in Seward.  So you see that Cy and LA are tough, Alaskan boat skippers, mechanics, builders and bunny huggers.  My kind of people.

Kyra and I sat at the settee.  I put mac nut butter and a jar of mangoes on the table, and Kyra handed LA a carton of duck eggs.  Once we were seated with tea, LA resumed tending the 101 year-old waffle iron on the propane stove-top.  Cy, sleepy-eyed, emerged from below-decks.  Over waffles and eggs and fruit and yogurt and tea, we talked.  And it was very much like the kind of connected conversation Craig and I had every Sunday with Douglass.  What I love about being in my 40's is the depth.  What I love about Alaska is the intimacy of friends.  Far away from blood family, we create soul family up here.  Everyone sitting around that table had lost someone significant in their lives.  Kyra, LA and I lost our fathers within two years of each other.  We'd all been witness to, to greater or lesser degrees, the process of a dying body and mind.

Since I've only been back a few days, of course cancer was a big topic of conversation.  And so were whales.  Cy and LA are part of our non-profit research group, and Kyra is the president of our board.  Cy installed a brand-new engine on our boat a few years ago, and all three have been out in the Sound with us.  Cy and LA were two of the people who filled in for me on the boat last summer, so Craig could continue the research.  And Cy was there when Craig put a satellite tag on an AT1 transient female named Chenega, one of the whales I studied for my master's project.  Only seven AT1 transients (mammal-eating orcas) remain on earth.  Chenega is normally a cagey whale, shy, intolerant of boat approaches.  If she gets bothered enough, she bangs her fluke on the water's surface.  Cy recounted the story as we finished our waffles.  How that August evening, after a rainy, cold, windy fruitless day of trying to tag her or one of her companions, Craig and Cy gave up and headed toward our favorite anchorage on Knight Island.  Suddenly, Chenega appeared off the Natoa's bow.  She kept pace with the boat, and Craig shot the tag and it attached to her fin.  She somersaulted in surprise.  That night, on the satellite phone, Craig called me on Cape Cod, as he had each time he'd tagged an orca, so I could log onto the ARGOS satellite tracking website on my laptop and tell him that the tag was putting out a signal.  It was.  I could see Chenega's path as she zig-zagged around Knight Island Passage, and I joked that she'd intentionally allowed him to tag her, so I could follow her movements from thousands of miles away, on another ocean's coast, in the third floor room at my sister's house, where I spent so many hours that summer, resting from chemo, staring out toward Cape Cod Bay.

After this story, LA pulled a nautical chart of Prince William Sound out of a storage tube and spread it across the table, which had been cleared of breakfast dishes.  I placed my hands on it and sighed deeply, breathing out toward that day in May when I'll return to the Sound, my heart's true home, after a year's absence.  Cy pointed out one of our favorite spots, Zaikof Bay, where we anchor the boat often on spring research cruises, where brown bears roam the beaches, pawing at the wrack-line, searching for food, where Cy and LA watched a deer last summer stretching its legs, where Craig and I two summers ago, from our red kayaks, watched a pair of loons diving to the bottom of the cove, chasing fish.    

Then it was my turn to tell a story, about Chenega's role in getting me through the 12 weeks of Taxol treatment.  During Taxol (a chemo drug derived from the Pacific yew tree), my white blood cell counts bounced up and down, and for a time, until I had a blood transfusion, my red blood cell counts dropped and dropped.  All August, I worried they'd fall below a cut-off point, causing a treatment delay, which I dreaded for various reasons.  I tried everything I could to bolster my counts, but with white cells, there's not much you can control.  So I tried visualization, and this is the one I used each night before the drive to Boston, and when the IV was in my hand:

I'm in the little red kayak paddling toward Zaikof Bay, where a group of orcas slowly mills.  They're AT1s, Chenega, Iktua and Mike, and I paddle among them until I'm parallel to Chenega's flank, and I place the flat of my hand against the flat of her dorsal fin.  She hold herself still in the water beside my kayak.  Every once in a while she lifts her head slightly and blows, and I hear it, and feel the cool mist of her breath on my face.  Through my hand, I feel her power, her myoglobin, and its energy travels up my arm, into my body.  When I'm full, I take my hand away, and the trio of whales swims with me until I reach the shore of Montague Island.  I step out of the kayak, turn and thank them, and they swim back out to the center of the bay and wait for me there.  I trudge up the steep beach dragging my kayak out of reach of the tide, and look toward the woods.  At the top of the berm, a brown bear waits for me.  Unafraid, I walk to meet her and place my hand on her haunch and she leads me along the familiar trail from the beach into the woods and to a meadow.  I see everything clearly, the trickle of stream through the mud, the skunk cabbage, the trunks of massive spruce trees.  We cross one muskeg meadow, heading up hill, through another strip of forest, and then emerge in a valley, the place Craig and I always hike to when we're there to look into the heart of Montague Island, toward the mountains and their perpetual snowfields and sweeping ridgelines.  The bear leads me to a flat place on the muskeg and I lie down on reindeer-lichen crusted ground.  I look up into the sky and then close my eyes.  More bears arrive and they walk a circle around my body.  I dig my fingers into the lichen, find the wet moss beneath.  A bear lies down at my feet, so I bury my feet in its fur.  Another lies by my head, and I feel the massive paws with their lethal claws, one by each ear.  And then the energy of their white blood cells pours into my feet and ears, and when I'm filled up, she leads me back down to the beach, to my kayak.  I turn to thank her but she's already gone, back into the woods, as though swallowed up by the wind-whipped alders.

When I finished, I was surprised to see everyone's eyes glistening with tears, Cy grabbing a scrap of paper towel to blow his nose.  "That's a beautiful story," LA said.  I realized I hadn't shared it with anyone before.  Our conversation then rambled toward cancer, cancer studies, avenues toward cures, until it was LA's turn to tell a story.

"You know, on the boat one day with Craig, we did the numbers," she said, pointing at her open palm with the index finger of the other hand, as if she were performing an equation on a calculator.  "If one in eight women will get breast cancer in their lives, that's about a 12% chance I'll get it.  So we figured that your chance of getting a recurrence was half of mine.  Isn't that right?"

"Well, the oncologist's nurse practitioner did the math for us that first day, and she said if I do all the treatments, it brings it to 90-something percent chance it won't come back," I said, "but breast cancer is so unpredictable, and that's what's scary.  Craig puts his faith in the math, but it's been hard for me.  And my oncologist's wife, who's had breast cancer twice, and is an oncology social worker, says in the end, your chances of recurrence are either 0% or 100%."

Everyone nodded at that.  Then I told them about something that had scared me more than anything else, that had demonstrated to me the frightening, random nature of cancer, its seeming indifference to statistics, its cruelty, what made it seem to me like a serial killer.  I told them about a book I'd picked up somewhere, the story of four women who went through breast cancer together.  It looked light-hearted, that paperback.  It had a breezy illustration on the cover, breezy hand-drawn script.  Its title actually made me think it was about shopping through breast cancer.  I turned the book over and read the back and realized it wasn't light-hearted.

My heart starts to pound harder at this moment as I write, just as it did as I started to tell the story to Kyra, LA and Cy.

"I'm getting really upset just talking about it right now," I said to them.  "That's how traumatic it was."  Tears sprang into my eyes, and a sensation of frazil ice formed under my breastbone.  That ice was adrenaline, coursing in me just as it did when the bald, egg-shaped pathologist walked into the dark ultrasound room, my images clutched in his hand, and blurted, "Breast conserving surgery is not going to be an option for you," before he'd even done a biopsy.

I told them that two women of the four in the book had recurrences by the end.  One died.  I'd paged to the front of the book like someone frantic to get to the end of a thriller to see what kind of breast cancer she'd had, the dead woman.  Stage 1.  No lymph nodes.

That's the day I drove in a panic down to the land in Hawaii after leaving the book at a friend's house.  I got out of the car and ran straight to the bluff edge 200 feet over the ocean with my journal and pen and wrote my letter to cancer, my "How dare you."  My pen dug into the page, my breath came in gasps, the trade winds buffeted me from the side.  Then I threw my head back and screamed with all of my might, a scream from the very bottom of my being, the scream a cancer survivor on the Cape had told me I needed to scream, but a scream that until that moment had not come.  And I sobbed the mindless, animal sobs I hadn't cried in all those months.  I imagine it's the same scream Helen felt rise up inside her when, as she told me, she saw in the mirror the lump on her breast for the first time.  She was alone, she said, and wanted to yell "Help!"  Like someone caught in a burning building, I thought.

I looked around at my friends.  All of us had tears in our eyes.  And then we did something I've never done with others before.  We talked about death.  Does this sound like a terrible conversation?  Do you think we're a bunch of too-isolated, morbid Alaskans?  Yes, it's true, we walked for a little while together into the valley of the shadow.  But all I can say in my dispatch from that valley is that after sharing my deepest fear, and listening to my friends describe how watching their parents die taught them about dying, and after listening to the way they'd attempted to come to terms with death as a result, I was able to verbalize, for the first time, what this experience asks me to face and consider and question.  It's true we all face it, but usually not unless forced.  My experience with cancer asks me to face that I will die, sooner or later, of cancer or something else, and it forces me answer for myself what do I believe about that?  What does it mean for me?  I told my friends that I do believe (and must tend to that belief like it's a flower) that when it's our time, it's our time.  Ironically, that's something people who aren't afraid of flying have told me, to coax me out of my phobia, but it's never worked.  My fear of flying has been, I can finally admit, my resistance to death, my denial, my terror, my big "NO."  My attempt at control.

Hours past that conversation, I sit again at my kitchen table in the pallid light of a cloudy day.  The medicine of that breakfast on the dry-docked boat lingers.  It heals, or at least begins to heal, one of this cancer journey's biggest upheavals for me:  the unearthing of my fear of death and my resistance to my fear.  So I remind myself, when it's my time to die, then I will, I hope, like Kyra's dad, like my friend Lauren's dad who died yesterday of lung cancer, walk forward courageously into that journey, attentive as I am now, asking the moon above the mountain ridge, to "shine a little further on my path."  But right now, it's my time to live.  So my job is to attend to life.  So I think I'll put on my coat and my boots and take Gris-Gris for a walk.


Saturday, March 19, 2011

Moon Above the Mountain's Rim

I'm sitting at my kitchen table, which is crowded with birthday presents for various loved ones, my stepson Lars, his girlfriend Alisa, and my nephew Quinn.  It's 10 pm.  Two candles are burning.  I pulled them off the altar shelf high on the kitchen wall.  Craig put those candles there last April, and they burned the nights we waited for my diagnosis.  Not long ago, in Hawaii, he revealed to me that he'd done that, and it was moving to see the candles with my own eyes, to light them, and then to notice the prayer card depicting the Virgin Mary leaning against the Buddha statue, her hand over a flaming heart.  I grew up with that image, the light blue robe, the white head scarf, the burning heart on the outside of her chest.  On the back is the Hail Mary prayer in Spanish, which I grew up reciting in Latvian.

I sit here facing the moon rising up through the birch forest, Gris-Gris asleep at my feet.  My neighbors and dear friends Asia and Michael and I just got back from a walk to watch it crest the mountains.  Actually, Michael walked down to the bend in the road with the dogs an hour before Asia and I did.  He's a film-maker, and with his old-fashioned camera on a tripod, in wool coat and boots, he patiently watched for the very first sign, a halo of light around a pyramid-shaped mountain across Kachemak Bay, just above the glacier.  When that halo brightened, he called us, and Asia and I left our Scrabble game and joined him.  I still feel the cold on my cheeks from standing there, a sensation I felt earlier today, running on the Homer Spit with Gris-Gris.  It was sunny and 40 degrees and the light breeze was on my face as I ran, and it made me happy to at last feel that sensation of chill salt air I'd dreamed about in Hawaii.  I may be the only Alaskan who regularly goes to Hawaii and misses the cold when there.  But I do.  We stood together at the bend in the dirt road and waited.  We watched the lights go off in the Millers' living room.  Their house is, as Asia says, like a fish tank, walls of windows, so we could see them watching the moonrise too.  They are the grandparents of our little neighborhood.  In the darkness, we could just make out the shape of two moose feeding on their lawn.  The other day, the Millers told me the moose looked skinny, hungry because abundant snowshoe hares have eaten most of the browse, so they asked a farmer friend if they could have some of the cabbage he fed his pigs.  He complied and they scattered it for the moose.  They've lived in Homer most of their lives.

As the light behind the mountain brightened, Michael said we could see the moon's aura, which turned rosy and flared upward into the sky.  And then one glint of flame-colored light emerged from the mountain's flank, and it grew.  Michael said it looked like a panda.  Asia and I were incredulous until he explained it was a panda lying on its back, its belly the dome of moon, its body the dark mountains.  That dome grew and grew.  It seemed impossible the moon could be so big, but it was, yellow-gold and ovoid, and finally it broke with the mountain and we wondered if it would just float away, like a blown bubble.  The backs of my thighs cold, we packed up the camera and walked back home.

It's almost 11 now.  Craig called from Hawaii to say he was watching the moon too.  It's sailing among the ancestor clouds.  I sit here, this house quiet around me except for the clock.  I just got up to find a book, The Ink Dark Moon, a collection of love poems written by women of the ancient court of Japan, edited by Jane Hirshfield.  I've had this book since grad school.  The poems are in the tanka form.  A tanka is a haiku with two extra lines.  I open it to the title page and read the inscription I wrote to Craig when I bought it for him in 1996.  "The moon will always shine its light on us at the same time, a reminder of the things which, once joined, can never be separate again."

During the Scrabble game, Asia called her sister Tara so we could wish her a happy birthday.  Tara lives in California.  When I had my surgery, she flew across the country to Boston, to help me through the first days when I felt so very vulnerable.  She taught my niece and nephews to make individual pizzas, and cooked miso soup for me, and sat on the fold-out bed across from my sick bed and made me a necklace out of wire and buttons.  Each night and morning, she helped me empty the nasty surgical drains, and on the second day, she brought a plastic tub up to my sister's big shower, and helped me take off my pajamas so I could wash.  She was the first person to see my bandaged chest, and she brought Craig into the bathroom so he take his first look at my altered body.

Asia put her cell phone on speaker mode, and we placed it on the round, red-painted Mongolian coffee table between our racks of Scrabble tiles.  We sat on the floor and talked with Tara, and at one point, my mind drifted, thinking of all of the friends' voices, including Asia's, that spoke to me through my cell phone when I was on Cape Cod.  The distance then felt profound.  And there I was, tonight, in Asia's familiar living room, the fire crackling in the stove, Korean barley tea in a pot on the table.

It's 11:22, and I'm watching the moon, which now has a haze of white light around it like a fog, and I'm thinking about that poem of John Updike's I quoted yesterday, how he said we need more worlds because this one will fail.  But to me it seems we already live in many worlds in this life.  In this one year, I've inhabited three, and each one, in its turn, was my only world; it was all the world.  Except for tonight, when I hold those three in my heart at once, Cape Cod, Hawaii, Alaska.  Because tonight the moon casts its light on their inhabitants at the same time, and I am forever joined to them.  I can never be separate from them again.

I'll end with a poem by Izumi Shikibu, who watched this same moon almost ten centuries ago.  This tanka is believed to be her final poem, written on her deathbed:

The way I must enter
leads through darkness to darkness--
O moon above the mountains' rim,
please shine a little further
on my path.