A friend e-mailed me this question today: “Some go through a very serious illness and come out the other end totally transformed in all aspects of themselves, and some come out tiling the same row they were hoeing before the illness. And there is a wide rainbow of shades between those 2 realizations. Something you said in our last phone call urges me to ask you where are you on the continuum?”
Woah! This friend is not one who goes for e-mail-lite. Or friendship-lite. Her question brought me up short. I have to admit to a kind of heart-racing panic setting in after reading her words. A part of me searched for a subtext, a veiled critique. What was she getting at? What had I said? Was I hoeing the same row? Was I on the bucket of coal (vs. the pot of gold) end of the rainbow continuum? (This little troublesome voice, it strikes me, is an example of myself tilling an old familiar row: self-doubt). I got up from the computer and wandered around my friend’s lanai (deck). I come here on Mondays to write and respond to my grad students and to do laundry. I ate a piece of banana bread as I forced myself to assess where exactly I was in that field of long rows. And then I sat down and pressed “Reply.”
“I certainly find myself ‘hoeing the same row’ or rows that seem to be mine to work in this lifetime. But maybe I have different tools. Or maybe the soil is newly or differently enriched. Or my eyes are changed. Or maybe I've been to a difficult university in which my notions of agriculture were overturned. Something like that. I'm still trying to understand the nature of my transformation. I'm still waking up from a strange dream and trying to figure out what it all means as I move forward into the new day.”
Here’s another half-truth about cancer. Some of the old neuroses (a.k.a. rows) stick around. I find myself sweating small stuff. Little things still get under my skin. Sometimes it is almost a relief, after the profundity of the cancer treatment journey. To look in the mirror and fidget over my hair (which in its short state gets dried by wind into odd sculptures) after six bald months in head scarves is ridiculous and funny and pleasing. I admit to spending time each day staring at my hair in the mirror, running my fingers through it, asking Craig if it looks longer or less gray. One day, back in December, a nosy stranger at Mahukona asked me if I’d been recently “through medical treatment.” I’d been running hatless, and my head was still just this side of bald. When I said, casually, that I couldn’t wait for my hair to grow back, she looked shocked. “Why, after what you’ve been through, that shouldn’t matter!” The mean girl inside me thought, “You try being bald for six months, lady, and see if hair matters!” But enough about hair, which I swear will be the subject of a future post.
For another example of annoying old rows, I’m still afraid of flying. A friend the other day said, “You’re kidding. You looked death in the face and you’re still scared of a little turbulence?” And the answer is yes, damn it. It’s not fair! You’d think cancer could cure that phobia once and for all. Well, the last thing cancer is, is a cure for anything. Other times, I catch myself locked in some conflict with Craig but it all feels off-kilter. “Wait a minute. This doesn’t fit anymore, and look at me doing it,” I mutter, hacking at the soil in the same counter-productive way. When I step back and observe, I don’t recognize myself, at the old tricks. “Hey Eva, this is the old you. What are you doing?”
Take for instance that part of me who reacted with instant suspicion at the question posed in the e-mail. That child-part ever on the alert for criticism and intimations of failure. Today another friend taught me a new gardening technique especially for her. To turn to her like one of those amazing mothers who kneel down in front of their child acting up and say, “Hey you, are you wanting a little attention from me?” Instead of, “What the hell’s the matter with you?” Sometimes the field wants water or sun, and no hoe at all.
So it’s like the weather in my field has changed. Or the field’s been lifted up and dropped in another state when I wasn’t looking. My rows of beans in Massachusetts are now plopped down one state over. The horizon is unfamiliar. My hands holding the hoe look like another, older woman’s hands (my hair too!). The best I can do about tilling the same ground is to notice I’m doing it. I stand up from my work, put my hands in the small of my back, stretch, scratch my head, and look around. Wow. So this is where I am now. And I take a long drink of water to clear my head, to come back into the present, which is, in the end, hopefully, in many (but not all) ways, a new field and I, a new farmer.