Sunday, March 20, 2011

Waffles, Whales, Bunny Huggers, and Death

The moon as it rose last night with its thin white veil dragged a bank of clouds over the sky, and this morning, I woke to reddish clouds to the east, the sign of oncoming weather.  Now, a little bully wind blows from the east, and the bay is greenish silver, like oxidized copper.  A couple eagles soar above the birches, maybe looking for snowshoe hares, maybe moose carcasses.  I've yet to see one of the super-abundant hares that have been eating the moose out of house and home and girdling everyone's trees.  According to my friend Michael, who saw one yesterday, they're still wearing their white winter coats.  Just now, the shadow of a pair of eagles drifted across the reflection of the window on my computer screen, behind the reflection of my head.  On the way down the hill this morning, I saw the pair of moose from last night in another neighbor's yard, a mother and her yearling, looking quite healthy, perhaps from an extra boost of cabbage.

It's Sunday, the day Craig and I would normally drive to see Douglass.  Instead this morning, I drove down the hill and picked up my friend Kyra.  She and her husband Neil are Gris-Gris' second home, and the Millers, who live between us, love to watch him trotting back and forth, taking a short cut across their lawn, between our two houses.  Kyra and I drove a couple miles east, to the boat yard, where we could see, behind rows of seiners, the charred roofline of the warehouse that burned to the ground the other morning, taking several boats with it.  The black toxic cloud that billowed from that melt-down of fiberglass, paint, metal, epoxy, fuel and god-knows-what else drifted over Kachemak Bay that morning, headed toward the ocean, where maybe it will intersect with radiation from Japan.  We ask the earth to absorb so much of our bumbling, the arctic tundra soaking up radiation, the ocean swallowing contaminants.  It absorbs, as well, our sorrow, tears, anger.  I think of the screams I hurled at the ocean out of my mouth once while sitting on the bluff edge in Hawaii in December, my rage that erupted suddenly at cancer.  Perhaps a constantly erupting volcanic island and the energy of Pele inspired that release.  Spent afterward, I sat and watched the trade-blown seas barreling west, on their singular mission, my tears and anger swept with them.  The earth absorbs and absorbs but we can see that the mother's shoulder we cry and bleed into is reaching her limit.

But that's not what I intended to write about.  A week ago, we sat in Douglass' house, Craig and I, and today, Kyra and I parked my car in front of the R.V. Right Whale, dry-docked in the boat yard, waiting for her imminent spring splash-down.  She's steel, painted black, a sturdy, sea-worthy craft our friends Cy and LA built themselves, starting with just the empty hull they spotted in someone's yard.  Kyra and I climbed a steep wooden ladder to the deck, perhaps fifteen feet off the ground, and LA opened the wheelhouse door and welcomed us into the warmth of the cabin.  LA is a pixie with a six-pack and biceps who wears Carhartts and flannel and teaches marine safety at the vocational/technical college in Seward, and CY is a sandy-haired, Alaska-born mechanic and boatsmith with a headlamp always dangling around his neck.  They are the most capable couple you can imagine, and the kind of people who'd be downright intimidating if they didn't have hearts made out of honey.  For instance, they are the guardians of a population of feral bunnies that live in the boat yard.  The Right Whale is dry-docked near the woods, and critters of all types visit their "yard," including birds they've fed by hand, and a pheasant who lets Cy get within a two feet.  When I was on Cape Cod, Cy and LA periodically sent me small hand-made cards or e-mails with photos attached, each describing the day's "therapy animal."  Once, the therapy animal was a blind dog LA befriended in someone's back yard in Seward.  So you see that Cy and LA are tough, Alaskan boat skippers, mechanics, builders and bunny huggers.  My kind of people.

Kyra and I sat at the settee.  I put mac nut butter and a jar of mangoes on the table, and Kyra handed LA a carton of duck eggs.  Once we were seated with tea, LA resumed tending the 101 year-old waffle iron on the propane stove-top.  Cy, sleepy-eyed, emerged from below-decks.  Over waffles and eggs and fruit and yogurt and tea, we talked.  And it was very much like the kind of connected conversation Craig and I had every Sunday with Douglass.  What I love about being in my 40's is the depth.  What I love about Alaska is the intimacy of friends.  Far away from blood family, we create soul family up here.  Everyone sitting around that table had lost someone significant in their lives.  Kyra, LA and I lost our fathers within two years of each other.  We'd all been witness to, to greater or lesser degrees, the process of a dying body and mind.

Since I've only been back a few days, of course cancer was a big topic of conversation.  And so were whales.  Cy and LA are part of our non-profit research group, and Kyra is the president of our board.  Cy installed a brand-new engine on our boat a few years ago, and all three have been out in the Sound with us.  Cy and LA were two of the people who filled in for me on the boat last summer, so Craig could continue the research.  And Cy was there when Craig put a satellite tag on an AT1 transient female named Chenega, one of the whales I studied for my master's project.  Only seven AT1 transients (mammal-eating orcas) remain on earth.  Chenega is normally a cagey whale, shy, intolerant of boat approaches.  If she gets bothered enough, she bangs her fluke on the water's surface.  Cy recounted the story as we finished our waffles.  How that August evening, after a rainy, cold, windy fruitless day of trying to tag her or one of her companions, Craig and Cy gave up and headed toward our favorite anchorage on Knight Island.  Suddenly, Chenega appeared off the Natoa's bow.  She kept pace with the boat, and Craig shot the tag and it attached to her fin.  She somersaulted in surprise.  That night, on the satellite phone, Craig called me on Cape Cod, as he had each time he'd tagged an orca, so I could log onto the ARGOS satellite tracking website on my laptop and tell him that the tag was putting out a signal.  It was.  I could see Chenega's path as she zig-zagged around Knight Island Passage, and I joked that she'd intentionally allowed him to tag her, so I could follow her movements from thousands of miles away, on another ocean's coast, in the third floor room at my sister's house, where I spent so many hours that summer, resting from chemo, staring out toward Cape Cod Bay.

After this story, LA pulled a nautical chart of Prince William Sound out of a storage tube and spread it across the table, which had been cleared of breakfast dishes.  I placed my hands on it and sighed deeply, breathing out toward that day in May when I'll return to the Sound, my heart's true home, after a year's absence.  Cy pointed out one of our favorite spots, Zaikof Bay, where we anchor the boat often on spring research cruises, where brown bears roam the beaches, pawing at the wrack-line, searching for food, where Cy and LA watched a deer last summer stretching its legs, where Craig and I two summers ago, from our red kayaks, watched a pair of loons diving to the bottom of the cove, chasing fish.    

Then it was my turn to tell a story, about Chenega's role in getting me through the 12 weeks of Taxol treatment.  During Taxol (a chemo drug derived from the Pacific yew tree), my white blood cell counts bounced up and down, and for a time, until I had a blood transfusion, my red blood cell counts dropped and dropped.  All August, I worried they'd fall below a cut-off point, causing a treatment delay, which I dreaded for various reasons.  I tried everything I could to bolster my counts, but with white cells, there's not much you can control.  So I tried visualization, and this is the one I used each night before the drive to Boston, and when the IV was in my hand:

I'm in the little red kayak paddling toward Zaikof Bay, where a group of orcas slowly mills.  They're AT1s, Chenega, Iktua and Mike, and I paddle among them until I'm parallel to Chenega's flank, and I place the flat of my hand against the flat of her dorsal fin.  She hold herself still in the water beside my kayak.  Every once in a while she lifts her head slightly and blows, and I hear it, and feel the cool mist of her breath on my face.  Through my hand, I feel her power, her myoglobin, and its energy travels up my arm, into my body.  When I'm full, I take my hand away, and the trio of whales swims with me until I reach the shore of Montague Island.  I step out of the kayak, turn and thank them, and they swim back out to the center of the bay and wait for me there.  I trudge up the steep beach dragging my kayak out of reach of the tide, and look toward the woods.  At the top of the berm, a brown bear waits for me.  Unafraid, I walk to meet her and place my hand on her haunch and she leads me along the familiar trail from the beach into the woods and to a meadow.  I see everything clearly, the trickle of stream through the mud, the skunk cabbage, the trunks of massive spruce trees.  We cross one muskeg meadow, heading up hill, through another strip of forest, and then emerge in a valley, the place Craig and I always hike to when we're there to look into the heart of Montague Island, toward the mountains and their perpetual snowfields and sweeping ridgelines.  The bear leads me to a flat place on the muskeg and I lie down on reindeer-lichen crusted ground.  I look up into the sky and then close my eyes.  More bears arrive and they walk a circle around my body.  I dig my fingers into the lichen, find the wet moss beneath.  A bear lies down at my feet, so I bury my feet in its fur.  Another lies by my head, and I feel the massive paws with their lethal claws, one by each ear.  And then the energy of their white blood cells pours into my feet and ears, and when I'm filled up, she leads me back down to the beach, to my kayak.  I turn to thank her but she's already gone, back into the woods, as though swallowed up by the wind-whipped alders.

When I finished, I was surprised to see everyone's eyes glistening with tears, Cy grabbing a scrap of paper towel to blow his nose.  "That's a beautiful story," LA said.  I realized I hadn't shared it with anyone before.  Our conversation then rambled toward cancer, cancer studies, avenues toward cures, until it was LA's turn to tell a story.

"You know, on the boat one day with Craig, we did the numbers," she said, pointing at her open palm with the index finger of the other hand, as if she were performing an equation on a calculator.  "If one in eight women will get breast cancer in their lives, that's about a 12% chance I'll get it.  So we figured that your chance of getting a recurrence was half of mine.  Isn't that right?"

"Well, the oncologist's nurse practitioner did the math for us that first day, and she said if I do all the treatments, it brings it to 90-something percent chance it won't come back," I said, "but breast cancer is so unpredictable, and that's what's scary.  Craig puts his faith in the math, but it's been hard for me.  And my oncologist's wife, who's had breast cancer twice, and is an oncology social worker, says in the end, your chances of recurrence are either 0% or 100%."

Everyone nodded at that.  Then I told them about something that had scared me more than anything else, that had demonstrated to me the frightening, random nature of cancer, its seeming indifference to statistics, its cruelty, what made it seem to me like a serial killer.  I told them about a book I'd picked up somewhere, the story of four women who went through breast cancer together.  It looked light-hearted, that paperback.  It had a breezy illustration on the cover, breezy hand-drawn script.  Its title actually made me think it was about shopping through breast cancer.  I turned the book over and read the back and realized it wasn't light-hearted.

My heart starts to pound harder at this moment as I write, just as it did as I started to tell the story to Kyra, LA and Cy.

"I'm getting really upset just talking about it right now," I said to them.  "That's how traumatic it was."  Tears sprang into my eyes, and a sensation of frazil ice formed under my breastbone.  That ice was adrenaline, coursing in me just as it did when the bald, egg-shaped pathologist walked into the dark ultrasound room, my images clutched in his hand, and blurted, "Breast conserving surgery is not going to be an option for you," before he'd even done a biopsy.

I told them that two women of the four in the book had recurrences by the end.  One died.  I'd paged to the front of the book like someone frantic to get to the end of a thriller to see what kind of breast cancer she'd had, the dead woman.  Stage 1.  No lymph nodes.

That's the day I drove in a panic down to the land in Hawaii after leaving the book at a friend's house.  I got out of the car and ran straight to the bluff edge 200 feet over the ocean with my journal and pen and wrote my letter to cancer, my "How dare you."  My pen dug into the page, my breath came in gasps, the trade winds buffeted me from the side.  Then I threw my head back and screamed with all of my might, a scream from the very bottom of my being, the scream a cancer survivor on the Cape had told me I needed to scream, but a scream that until that moment had not come.  And I sobbed the mindless, animal sobs I hadn't cried in all those months.  I imagine it's the same scream Helen felt rise up inside her when, as she told me, she saw in the mirror the lump on her breast for the first time.  She was alone, she said, and wanted to yell "Help!"  Like someone caught in a burning building, I thought.

I looked around at my friends.  All of us had tears in our eyes.  And then we did something I've never done with others before.  We talked about death.  Does this sound like a terrible conversation?  Do you think we're a bunch of too-isolated, morbid Alaskans?  Yes, it's true, we walked for a little while together into the valley of the shadow.  But all I can say in my dispatch from that valley is that after sharing my deepest fear, and listening to my friends describe how watching their parents die taught them about dying, and after listening to the way they'd attempted to come to terms with death as a result, I was able to verbalize, for the first time, what this experience asks me to face and consider and question.  It's true we all face it, but usually not unless forced.  My experience with cancer asks me to face that I will die, sooner or later, of cancer or something else, and it forces me answer for myself what do I believe about that?  What does it mean for me?  I told my friends that I do believe (and must tend to that belief like it's a flower) that when it's our time, it's our time.  Ironically, that's something people who aren't afraid of flying have told me, to coax me out of my phobia, but it's never worked.  My fear of flying has been, I can finally admit, my resistance to death, my denial, my terror, my big "NO."  My attempt at control.

Hours past that conversation, I sit again at my kitchen table in the pallid light of a cloudy day.  The medicine of that breakfast on the dry-docked boat lingers.  It heals, or at least begins to heal, one of this cancer journey's biggest upheavals for me:  the unearthing of my fear of death and my resistance to my fear.  So I remind myself, when it's my time to die, then I will, I hope, like Kyra's dad, like my friend Lauren's dad who died yesterday of lung cancer, walk forward courageously into that journey, attentive as I am now, asking the moon above the mountain ridge, to "shine a little further on my path."  But right now, it's my time to live.  So my job is to attend to life.  So I think I'll put on my coat and my boots and take Gris-Gris for a walk.


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