Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Half Truth About Cancer

When I run on an old sugar cane rail bed along the seashore at a place called Mahukona, I sometimes compose a litany in my head called "The Truth About Cancer."  The ultimate truth is that there is no truth, so any litany claiming otherwise is basically a pack of lies.  So maybe I should call it "The Half-Truth About Cancer."  Anyways, I'm sitting outside a Kava Bar in Hawi, where I've been working all day.  I just submitted an application for an NEA literature fellowship to allow me to write my next book.  The one simmering on the back burner while I finish the book I'm under contract to write, due on October 15.  The back-burner book is the one about Latvia (see my blog "Field Notes From Latvia").  I started writing that book in 2007.  Submitting an application for work to be completed in 2012 is an act of faith.  How do you learn to live on faith when you live by one of breast cancer's (half) truths:  there are no guarantees.  No matter how many pink ribbons you wear.  No matter how many races you run.  No matter how many or few (if any) positive lymph nodes you had.  No matter the prestige of the hospital where you were treated.  No matter what species of breast cancer ran rough-shod over you.  No matter the treatments you endured.  There is no test to tell you you're cured.  There are still races for the cure because there is no cure.  Though there is a good chance you are.  Cured that is.  But there are no guarantees.  So it's an interesting way to live, on faith.  Actually, it's a mix of faith and agnosticism (with a fair dose of fear woven through to hold them together).  It's like there's another you watching yourself do it.  Go through the motions, that is, living as if there are endless tomorrows, pressing the "submit" button on the grant application for FY 2012.  Hammering away at the keyboard, adding words to the book due on October 15, 2011.  Telling people about your summer plans.  Even though all your plans last year fell down a very deep rabbit hole when you were diagnosed with breast cancer during a routine family visit back east, when your younger sister, a doctor, felt the lump you'd found in your breast and didn't say, "Eva, that's just fibrous breast tissue.  You're 46.  You've got lumpy breasts."  When instead she felt around some more, the expression on her face getting vague, confused, far-away.  She said, "I want you to see a breast specialist.  I don't know what this is.  It feels like a ledge."  You were feeling as healthy as you are today.  But you had cancer.

While here in Hawaii for my recovery from eight months of breast cancer treatment, my partner Craig and I are creating a small house on a piece of land we share with two local friends.  Whenever I walk in that half-finished shell of a house, whenever I paint the blades of a used fan or the rusty metal body of a salvaged light fixture, whenever we talk about dinner parties we'll have on our lanai, or argue over paint colors, whenever I do something related to the future, several conflicting voices and aspects of myself chatter away in my head.  One of them says, "If I don't get to enjoy this place, I'm going to be incredibly angry!"  Another tries to imagine what it would be like for Craig if he came back next winter without me.  Another longs for the good old days when "death was nowhere foraging among the cottonwood trees," as I wrote in a poem, pre-cancer.  Another scolds me for morbid thoughts.  Another reminds me that the (half) truth about cancer is no different than the (half) truth of life.  There are no guarantees.  Death doesn't care if you're spiritual, vegan, athletic, Catholic, organic, or a Packers fan.  Cancer doesn't care either.   So there is only this:  sky partly cloudy, a light, damp breeze, murals of giant painted fruit on the yellow plywood walls of the Kava Cafe, the bitter sludge at the bottom of a coconut shell cup of kava, Kenny Loggins' voice crooning through a speaker:  "Everything is gonna be all right."  The best (half) lie of all.

Here's that poem:


Only one egg today when I trudged out to throw
slop to the hens, scatter ash on the path.

It’s February, the sun’s coming back and now
when he hears my voice, Olaf throws back his head

and crows.  Big yellow man towers over his girls
like a coach, gives me the yellow eye.

The egg was green.  I pocketed it, refilled
the water trough, scattered cracked corn.  Tomorrow

I’ll wake to the smell of a buttery concoction
the teens fry up, a protein storm of eggs and bacon.

But the egg was better in the pocket of my coat
that smells like a barn.  Uncracked, shit-stained, still warm.

No, the egg was better in its bed of straw,
me kneeling, reaching, my fingers closing around.

Or best unseen, descending the fallopian tube
of the Arucana hen, announced by a string of bawls.

Now that I’ve traced it back, I realize
it was sweetest before it happened.

I walked to the coop on two strong legs
lugging a watering can and a bucket of feed.

The coop was there, the six chickens all accounted for.
Even the geriatric, Rhoda, who once in a while still

squeezes out a bullet-shaped double-yolker.
No owl devouring the hens as in my dream.
My knees bent, I scrunched myself into the opening
Of the nesting shed and reached.

My arms and legs did what my mind said.
Birch trees scattered their tiny seeds.

The sun cleared the net of trees, a bleary yolk
in an egg-white froth of fog over the bay.

Walking back the dog waited for me,
the egg was warm in my pocket.

My house was there.  And I was there,
and the egg for my family.  Death was

nowhere foraging in the cottonwood trees. 
Now I kneel in front of the stove

raking the ashes for a few live coals
to start the evening fire.  I just walked

to the chicken coop and back.
That was all.  I placed an egg in the tray

that marks a string of days laid out like that.
A life lived out, egg by egg.  It was pretty good.

1 comment:

  1. This is Phoebe. Mom read your poem as our prayer before dinner + check in. It was really beautiful :) But...It made me miss our chickens...Mrs. Bridges and Miss Marjory and Mr. Hudson will forever be in our hearts :) <3