Afternoon. The sky doesn’t look Hawaiian today, but like a New Mexico sky, a palette of opalescence – high clouds, some mackerel, some torn threadbare sheets, some cotton balls used to wipe blue-gray eye shadow off lids. Watching the heavens morph all day, I’ve had a song stuck in my head, thanks to my brother Andy. It’s “Heaven is a Place” by the Talking Heads. “Heaven. Heaven is a place. A place where nothing. Nothing ever happens.” A place where no phone rings in the middle of the night. Or in the afternoon, with a bald pathologist on the line to say “I have bad news.” A place with no New York Times. No pink slip. No photo of a missing child on a milk carton. No police blotter. No hurricane or tsunami warning.
This morning, I moved my desk from the shade house (an all-screened structure with a domed, fabric roof and a plywood floor) to our one-room cabin, where we sleep. My writing muse, satisfied to stay here on the land today, to do without a latte or chai or lilikoi iced tea, voiced this demand: a change of scenery. A slave to her whims, I enlisted Craig to help me haul the desk over. Sitting at the desk with its new vista, with my laptop open and humming, I let my eyes drift across a row of books on the shelf in front of me. One title caught my eye and snagged me like a nasty, prickly limb. In the Face of Fear: Buddhist Wisdom for Challenging Times. I hadn’t looked at it in a long time. I bought it at the health food store in Orleans, on Cape Cod, during the early days after my diagnosis, when I combed bookstore and library shelves for any species of flotsam to grab onto, to keep me from drowning. I was like one of those shivering, blue-skinned people clutching floating trunks and sheets of plywood after the ship sank in the Titanic movie. I pulled the book off the shelf, leafed through it, and read the chapter headings. “We take pain and difficulty very personally.” Yup, we sure do. “Nothing lasts.” Uh huh. “When we have an idea that makes us suffer, we can learn to simply let it go.” Sure we can. Calm did not arise in me, reading those wise words. Anger did. The same kind of mixed-up, confused and impotent anger I feel when people claim that “cancer is a gift.” I know there’s truth in it, but I still want to fling it as far away from me as possible. I want to scream, “Tell that to Laura and Marie, whose eight year-old son Bennett is back in hospital because he can’t tolerate the latest chemo drug he’s on! Wrap his pain in a pink ribbon and present it to him!” I can be downright ornery in the face of Cancerland’s ready-at-hand Chicken Soup for the Soul platitudes. Damn it! I couldn’t even eat chicken soup during the first eight weeks of chemo!
What saved my own skin during the worst of chemo wasn’t meditation. When I tried to sit cross-legged and calm my thoughts and breathe, I felt like arrows were being slung at me, thought-arrows, terror-arrows, and all I wanted to do was tuck my tail and run. But I was saved by a cousin of meditation, yoga, by inhabiting my body’s limits and pain, by sweating and crying. I was saved by child’s pose. I was also saved by the outdoor shower, standing for an ecologically wrong amount of time under the blast of hot water, watching the Cape Cod wind chase clouds across the sky above the scruffy pines. I was saved once by a murky pond, probably not a wise place for a woman with low white blood cell counts to wallow, but I sat in the shallows anyways with my friend Deer. I’d left my head scarf on the bank. I let myself be bald for the first time in public. A couple wading nearby talked to us like nothing was out of the ordinary. In the days when I couldn’t swallow water, I was saved by endless boxes of popsicles bought by my sister; she never stopped looking for the perfect flavor. I’d sit next to my niece Phoebe, watching “Say Yes to the Dress” or “Cake Boss,” and let the cool fruity fluid slide down my raw throat and snark about the losers on the screen. One 95 degree afternoon, I was saved by my brother. Andy played song after song for me on his computer. Listen to this Mary Gauthier, he said Tears ran continually down my face and he didn’t say a word about it, just kept the music coming, and then he let me beat him in Scrabble, even though I didn’t recognize the first word he put down, “BRAG.” “B-Rag. What the heck is that?” I challenged through my chemo-brain fog. “It that some kind of gangsta rap talk?”
I’ve been one of those people who’s claimed that she didn’t want to go to heaven, at least the version I’d learned as a Catholic child, because it sounded dull. And I’ve had days where I’ve sung “Heaven is a Place” at the top of my lungs. And others when I’ve imagined how cool it would be if there really were a place where you could meet all those crossed-over loved ones again. How I’d love to see Craig’s mom and dad! And my friend Bill Fuller with his harmonica! But when I remember the things that saved me during cancer treatment, I just want more of them, the people, the moments, right here on this troubled, sad, bollixed-up earth. If heaven is a place on earth, maybe earth’s the place to turn when the impossible questions arise. Like what kind of life is this that gives a kid cancer? What kind of life that afflicts Lauren’s mother and father with terminal lung cancer at the same time? What kind of earth? God, wake up and stop meditating and pay attention! Things are really screwed up down here. Open your eyes. Maybe the answer, the wisdom, is right here, in one another’s imperfect, but wide-open eyes.