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.”
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.