It’s my last night in Hawaii. It will be months until I’ll next fall sleep to the sound of waves churning in the gulch, to cicada white noise, to wind chimes. Months until I wake to the sound of Wally Ching’s mournful crow (he’s the rooster). Several hours ago, after a run at Mahukona, Craig and I stood and watched the sun drop into the ocean. I bent to touch my toes, to stretch, twisting and raising one arm into the air. I turned my head up and saw the nearly half moon high in the washed-out blue sky, and I pretended to grab it in my fist, then release it. The next sunset I watch, I told Craig, will be an Alaskan sunset. Tomorrow, I fly north to Homer. I’ve been away for a year. I see that year in three parts, a trinity, a triptych of settings: Cape Cod, where I was diagnosed and treated for breast cancer, sheltered in the nest of my sister and her family; Hawaii, where I tested the ground for solidity, where my strength and vitality began to resurrect; and now Alaska. But what that third place will be for me I can’t yet say. I head to Homer so very changed. Who was the woman who closed the door to her house last March, walked down the steps, got in the car and drove away? Will I find her again in that house? Or will I wander through the rooms, touching her things, considering how she’s like me, and how she’s not? When I left Cape Cod on December 1, it felt like I was coming to Hawaii for the first time. And now it feels like I’m going to Homer for the first time, for the first time as this new version of myself. I have no idea what to expect.
We had our last session with Douglass yesterday, and it was a doozey. He said it was typical, that after four weeks working together, at the eleventh hour, the real stuff rises to the surface and gets voiced. Tears were shed. I said things I haven’t said aloud about my cancer experience. The word “fuck” or some version of it was uttered more than once. We sat in our usual triangle, me in the corner chair with the scratchy wool blanket, Craig in another matching chair just out of arm’s reach, Douglass on his rolling office chair, a hassock between us. At one time, my bare feet with their chipping toenail polish, Craig’s gnarly feet brown with garden dirt, and Douglas’s jeans-clad knee all rested on that hassock, our middle ground. Craig told me that for the nights we waited for the biopsy results, when I was on Cape Cod and he was in Homer, he burned candles. Fear kept him awake at night. But he’d never told me. When he came to Cape Cod, he’d taken the advice of two men he’d met who’d gone through breast cancer with their wives, and they’d told him a positive attitude was essential. Also, after the diagnosis, he talked to my sister, and he did the math. He’s a scientist after all (and she’s a doctor). He listened to the prognosis, and he put fear behind him and life in front. Everything he did from then on reflected his belief that we’d get through treatment and put the cancer behind us. He planted a garden with starts that had grown from seeds I’d planted in pots before I left Alaska for Cape Cod. He filled our freezer with salmon. He headed out to Prince William Sound on the boat and collected data. He flew back and forth to Cape Cod, helped tend my sister’s garden, rode his bike, wrote grant proposals, cooked for me and for my sister’s family, drove me to Boston. He kept our lives going in the midst of the cancer upheaval. Our garden grew even with no one to tend it half the time. Sometimes it felt like “business as usual” to me, and in my sorry state undergoing chemo, it made me extremely angry and isolated. I couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t drop even one thing. My entire life had turned upside-down, and everything yanked away from me, my home, my friends, my work, my health, my hair, my house, my running, my trust in my body. It upset Craig that I let myself dwell so much in fear. Listening to him recount his version of that time with Douglass, I felt that we’d gone to two very different cancer universities. His taught statistics and math. Mine taught uncertainty. Mine was a very scary place. The more I read about breast cancer, the more frightened I got, until I had to stop reading about it at all, for the most part. Since my diagnosis, I’ve lived the “what ifs.” What if it does come back? How will I handle that? What is ahead for me? Questions Craig put firmly behind him, buried after those nights of candles and insomnia. I know as years and follow-up visits go by, I’ll live less and less in that conditional tense, and more fully in the present. A thirty-something woman approached me after a yoga class last summer (recognizing me as a sister by my head scarf and pallor) and told me she’d “gone through it” (no proper noun needed, we both knew what “it” was) five years before. “For the first year, it was the first thing I thought of upon waking,” she said. “During the second year it was perhaps the second or third thing. Now it’s the fifth or sixth, but I still think about it.” I looked at her clear, glowing skin, her shoulder-length dark hair, her full, strong body that had grown a child since her cancer, and I felt enormous gratitude for the message she delivered into my frightened heart. “You’re going to be fine,” she said. I will never forget her, though I only saw her once.
Douglass listened to us deeply, as he always does, and reflected what he heard with a look of concentration on his face, as though he were figuring out a physics problem. But it was, in a way, a geography problem. He said it was very possible that what I’d experienced, the awareness I’d gained, might not be understood by others who hadn’t had cancer, who hadn’t traveled through that territory. It might be a lonely place. “There are some things in life we go through alone,” he said. “But even if we can’t understand fully how you feel, we can still try hard to understand, and you can try hard to convey it, and we can still love you,” he said. He saw that Craig and I were polarized, walking in two different countries, Craig in a place of denial of death or its possibility, me in a place of denial of life’s certainty, of, it seemed to Craig, and sometimes to me, life itself. By the end of our session, that hassock between us seemed to a meadow, and the three of us were reaching our hands across it to touch one another from our separate geographies. For the first time I could see that Craig had acted out of his own imperative for survival, to run straight ahead toward life. And I’d acted out of mine, which was to dive head first into the depths and wring whatever I could from that dark place. And now we were walking back toward one another. I must walk toward the place of life in which Craig has dwelled. Craig must walk toward the place of fear I’ve inhabited alone. In that middle place, that meadow, we might find a way to be fully alive while fully aware of life’s fragility.
At Mahukona, after Craig’s swim, he walked the trail to meet me. I’d been sick for two days with flu, and even though my stomach still complained, running felt incredibly good. When I saw him, and he saw me, we smiled. I threw up my arms and said, “Running is life!” And he told me how swimming in the ocean, for him, was the one time he could be truly alone, without thought or worry or responsibility to others. In our separate ways, for an hour, we’d inhabited our mortal bodies as fully as we could, he in the water, me on land. I wrapped my arms around him and held on for dear life, the dear life he’d tended, like a sun-drenched field, during all the months I’d walked alone in the valley of the shadow. We stood and watched that yolk of sun fatten and flatten as it met the horizon. It sank until it was only a magenta dot, and then that dot turned green a second before it blinked out.