Thursday, April 28, 2011

A Knife, Three Beads, A Dolphin & A Tree

25 April 2:30 pm
I’m sitting in Jane and Katharine’s waiting room in Marsten’s Mills.  I drove 35 minutes to get here almost every week during chemo for a hands-on healing session.   Some afternoons, I curled up on their couch and cried and felt like shit.  During the first eight weeks of chemo, every part of me seemed to react with a kind of “what the hell” response to the drugs and counter-drugs contra-dancing in my body.  (I purposefully avoid the battle metaphors of Cancerland, so imagine a forced contra-dance between antagonistic in-laws and exes in a low-ceilinged, airless room.  With cats.).  Always I left Jane and Katharine’s with a sense that at least a few windows had been opened in that dance hall.  So here I am again, waiting to enter “the Grandmother’s room,” as they call one of their healing spaces.  To lie back, let go of everything in my head, and let healing happen.  
It’s my last afternoon on the Cape, and I’ve been on the move, first driving my sister to work, then driving on to Orleans to drop my sister’s car off at the repair shop, then walking a mile to Jo Mama’s, where I sat and wrote and drank a latte with my brother-in-law.  My friend Liz met me there, and we drove in her car to Crow’s Pasture, in Dennis, the same mysterious beach and estuary my friend L took me to a few days before my surgery last spring.  That was a similar day, partly cloudy, balmy and damp, pale blue sky between bands of low sodden clouds, the air dense with moisture and bird song.  What I didn’t know was that L was walking at Crow’s Pasture too, today, with C, my chemo-carpool-buddy.  It was the day of L’s PET scan, the test to see if the nasty, jerk-off, aggressive, asshole cancer she’d been recently diagnosed with had spread.
In the forest at Crow’s Pasture, the understory was greening up, but the oaks were still bare.  We walked a sandy path with Gracie, Liz’s dog, through a woodland of large oaks arranged in various postures against the sky.  Those older, gray-skinned oaks were widely spaced from one another, interspersed with brush, saplings and some pines, and all had arms branching far out from the main trunk in various gestures of frozen motion, as though some bird had called out “freeze” as we drew near.  We spotted a woodpecker battering its beak against the bark of one of those trees.  Like the spring peepers, its body seemed too small for the racket it made.  We broke from the forest into a recently brush-hogged meadow, perhaps the original “pasture,” crossing it to reach the sandy trail over the dune to the beach.  On the left, I spotted another large oak, only this one bristled with burls large and small, rounded growths all over its trunk and limbs.  I’d seen many a burl on trees in Alaska, but never over a hundred on one tree.  Burls, the result of stress on the tree, are filled with small knots of dormant buds, and the resulting twisted grain makes them prized by woodworkers.  Burls can be caused by mold or insect infestations, but some burls underground on a tree’s roots are called malignancies.  And it’s true the word “tumors” instantly arose in my mind as I stared at that tree, though nothing about the cancer-tree looked sick to me.  It had a kind of dignity and beauty against the blank sky.
A few yards from the tree, on the sandy path across the dunes, was the spot where I’d found a red-handled knife when I’d walked there with L last year.  And a few steps further was the spot I’d found half-buried in the sand three square beads, each imprinted with a letter.  They spelled out “SLY.”  I recounted the story to Liz.  The strangeness of Crow’s Pasture was enhanced by the view of Cape Cod Bay, slightly fogged, the bars exposed by low tide, which came into view when we stood at the top of the dune.  A quarter mile out, a scattering of low dark shapes on the exposed sand flats looked at first like hauled-out seals.  (I didn’t have my glasses on).  We realized they were baskets for oyster or mussel farming.  Figures moved among them, unloading the baskets from pick-up trucks. 
We walked the beach.  On our right, the dune was roped off to protect turtle egg nests.  On our left, the pulled-back tide had left clear pools, and I searched among them for a rock to bring to Boston.  My oncologist’s wife, the oncology social worker for Beth Israel hospital and herself a two-time breast cancer survivor, has a large bowl in her office filled with rocks from cancer patients.  My pockets gradually filling, we meandered along, following a pair of foraging willets.   At the outflow of Quivett Creek, we turned inland, and ahead of us saw another shape on the sand.  Liz recognized it instantly as a dead white-sided dolphin.   A few gulls hopped or lifted away as we approached.  They’d been tearing at the opening in the dolphin’s chest.  Liz, who is part of the Cape Cod stranding network, noticed immediately that the dolphin was skinny.   After a moment’s pause, she called it in to the office, so biologists could study the carcass.  “Sometimes,” she said, holding the phone in her hand, “a part of me wants to just leave a dead animal alone.” I circled the dolphin.  There was an opening in its chest, between its pectoral fins, and bright pink-red blood spattered the sand just there.   There was a hollow place behind that opening, as though the dolphin’s heart had burst out of its chest.  Of course it hadn’t.  The body had been opened by scavengers.  Otherwise, the dolphin was intact, lying on its side with its mouth slightly open revealing two rows of fine, pointed, conical teeth.
It was only later, talking to my sister, that I connected that dead dolphin in a quiet estuary with the spinner dolphins I visualized helping me rid my body of cancer.   We were up late, my last night, she doing her medical charts, me curled up on the couch beside her.  I told her about the walk with Liz, about the tree, and about the dolphin, and as I said the words, I realized how morbid sounded, how creepy, to see those things on the day of L's PET scan.  “That scares me,” Mara said.  Our worry for L hovered in the air between us.  “I don't like to hear things like that.  I’m superstitious.”  But the dolphin and the tree just didn't feel ominous to me.  I told her I thought of that place, Crow's Pasture, as a landscape for a dream, and that the things that happened there – the knife, the tree, the beads, the dolphin – were more like the kinds of strange objects that appear in a dream or a poem, not to be read as their literal selves, but as symbols.  Of course those objects were clues to a “real” story too.  Scientists might find that the dolphin, like the burled tree, had suffered great stress, parasites, illness, starvation.  Some boy dropped that knife, maybe.  Maybe some girl play-wrestling with her boyfriend on the sand, caught her necklace on his jacket zipper, and the string broke, and some of the letters of his name dropped off.  There are real stories explaining those things, stories I can only guess at.  But when I look at Crow’s Pasture as a poem, or as a dream, the objects tell a different story to me, and I have to push back layers of curtains to get closest to the truest one.  It’s not one of dire premonition.  I thought of all the prayers in the night for L, all the prayers last year for me, all the prayers for Bennett, the desperate asking.  If some extraterrestrials were eavesdropping on this planet, I bet they’d hear rising up from the earth a roar of whispered beseechings.
And then Mara said it.  “It makes me think of how it feels to pray so hard for something, to want something so badly, that you think your heart is going to break out of your body.”  I thought of how nature, which absorbs everything we pour into it, whether it be prayer or poison or nurture, reflects back to us the pain of such open-hearted acceptance.  How we ask, sometimes, to bear the pain of others.  I thought of Bennett, how his mothers must wish at times to carry some of his suffering themselves, but they can’t.  They have their own to carry. 
I saw those things at Crow Pasture as themselves:  a knife, three beads, a tree, a dolphin.  But I couldn’t help but also see them as echoes of a forgotten language, the constant earth answering me, reflecting back to me my fears and hopes and a wisdom deeper than my knowing.     
27 April, 6:00 am
I left Boston 16 hours ago, and I’m now sitting in the departure lounge of Era Aviation, waiting for my final flight back to Homer on a prop plane.  Dawn is well underway, swatches of pale blue interspersed with smoke-blue of clouds.  I’ve been reading The Emperor of all Maladies:  A Biography of Caner, by Siddhartha Mukherjee through the twilight hours (I arrived in Anchorage at 2:30 am, and found an upstairs mezzanine/observation deck/gallery of Native Alaskan art with lounge seats; all of them were taken by the humped, sleeping shapes of men, so I lay down on the floor and dozed and read).  But as I sit here drinking my Zen chai tea (produced in Homer and sold at one coffee kiosk at this airport), it struck me that this was truly the culminating leg of this last year’s journey.  The ticket that’s bringing me home from Boston is the same one I would have used last April, if things had turned out differently.  If last year, the radiologist had pronounced my breast lump a fibroadenoma and not a malignant tumor, I would have used this same ticket to fly home and carry on as always.  The relief I would have felt on the ultrasound table would probably have vanished into the predictable tidal flux of my life of more mundane worries.
Kind of like the three Alaska men sitting across from me:  stout middle-aged dudes in work boots, Carhartts and ball caps, describing past and future goat hunts.  The younger of the three describes one particular mountain hunt as “epic, awful,” and they ask him how his knees are holding up, schlepping gear and dead goats on his back up and down steep slopes.  Their bodies lean against the plastic seat backs in the relaxed postures of people residing the land of the well.   And my body does too, now, my right leg crossed over the left, the computer on my lap, a paper cup of spicy, milky tea at my side.  An epigraph to The Emperor of All Maladies is a quote from Susan Sontag’s classic book Illness as Metaphor:  “Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship.  Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick.  Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.”  That’s my common ground with the goat hunters, with everyone.
My toe is in that other place, still, and it always will be.  I carry both passports at once.
After my appointments with my breast surgeon and the oncology social worker in Boston yesterday, Mara and I took the subway to a restaurant near Beacon Hill to have lunch with my editor.  And then we walked past Boston Commons, through the throngs of people, on lunch breaks or jobless, shopping or homeless, sick, well, hopeful, lost, discouraged, preoccupied.  A large black woman in layers and layers of clothing held forth, soap-boxing near the subway entrance, then sat on a folding lawn chair on the sidewalk and carved slices of apple with a pocket knife.  What if she got breast cancer?  I wondered.  Who would help her?  Mothers played with kids on the greens.  People wandered through the community gardens.  
We walked fast in the spring air, and then the phone rang.  It was L.  I could tell from her voice right away. Resurrection again. The PET scan showed no signs of cancer spread.  The frightened L of the last two weeks was the replaced by the one who said to me before my first chemo:  “Okay, Eva.  Are you ready to go and kill some cancer.  Are you ready to kick some cancer ass?”  She was replaced by the woman who'd ten years ago walked out of the office of the eminent oncologist at Sloan-Kettering who'd told her he wouldn’t treat her first breast cancer if she didn’t terminate her pregnancy.  She found a doctor who would, and now we have not only L alive in this world, but also Katie, nine years old. 
The waiting of cancer strips us of our power, or it feels that way, and when the waiting is over, no matter the verdict, when we know what we’re up against, we pick up our power from the ground and do what we must to heal, to walk forward into whatever’s next.  Mara and I, handing the cell phone back and forth as we walked, celebrated the news with L, so happy, so relieved.  It’s weird, because she has a long, hard road ahead of her, still.  I remember the phenomenon well from my own experience.  How happy I was when the nurse practitioner called up my surgical pathology results, when the cancer was staged at 2a, not 2b, not 3.  Mara and I held onto each other and sobbed with relief, as though we’d been told that I didn’t have cancer after all.  A few hours later, after hearing from the oncologist that I was facing six months of chemo, a month of radiation, and five years of pills to prevent the breast cancer from coming back, Craig, Mara and I strode down Longwood Avenue as though we didn’t have a care in the world.  Longwood, it turns out, is the street Mukherjee writes about in The Emperor of All Maladies, the street where Dr. Sidney Farber, in a basement tomb of a lab, made the first strides in finding a treatment for childhood leukemia, the very disease little Bennett’s being treated for now.   Every three weeks he and his family drive to Longwood Avenue, to Boston Children’s Hospital, a few blocks from Beth Israel.  That day last spring walking down Longwood, the avenue of cancer, Craig, Mara and I named ourselves “The Mod Squad” and we felt like we could, together face down anything.  Cancer didn’t stand a chance.  We strode across its sorry back until we found a restaurant.  We ordered burritos.
Today, I will send L the red-handled knife, though she doesn’t need it, not as object or symbol.  She was with me the day I found it.  She showed me how to wield it. 
I admit that when I first picked up that knife, and then the beads, they creeped me out, like the story of the dead dolphin and the cancer-tree did my sister.  What if the knife was the cancer, sly and deadly?  Or what if the knife, cheap and replaceable, with its plastic handle, represented my powerlessness against cancer?  But dreams always trick you like that, throwing out the smokescreen of the most obvious interpretation. 
It’s taken a year.  It’s taken flying back, finally, from that “other place’ on the small prop plane, home again, to understand.   In my dream of Crow’s Pasture, that knife is power.  That knife is me.

Monday, April 25, 2011

More Life

8 am, Jo Mama’s Coffee Shop, Orleans, MA

 When I’m on Cape Cod, I go most Sundays to the Unitarian church.  I hesitated before typing that word, because “church” is so loaded with connotations, and “fellowship” sounds too much like a euphemism.  But when I think about it, take it apart – fellow + ship – it’s true that at the UU (the members’ shorthand) on Sunday, it feels like I’m standing at the rails among fellow travelers on a ship making an oceanic crossing.  Some days, it feels like the ship’s sinking, other days lost, other days buoyed along by ground swells.  The ship holds all our broken, badly used, abused parts. 

The co-ministers, two 60-something women, partners in life and work, lead the service.  According to the “profession of faith” recited each week (and this Easter led by my 8 year-old nephew Quinn), the church’s doctrine is “love.”  It’s prayer is “service.”  That’s it.  Some UU services I’ve attended have felt too political, too secular for me.  But this one in Brewster resembles enough a real church to soothe the lapsed Catholic asleep behind my heart, because of the hymnals, the standing and sitting and singing, the vestments, the candles, the organ, the choir, and when it’s not under repair (we met in an elementary school cafeteria on Easter Sunday), the historic, wood-clad, white-painted. tall-spired structure at the bend in Rte. 6A with its soaring church windows, uncomfortable wooden pews, and choir loft.  Many of the friends I made on the Cape last year during cancer treatment attend the UU church.  On Easter Sunday, L. was there with her family.  And so was Bennett, the boy with leukemia.  Last time I saw him, he was treading water in the turbulence following his latest chemo treatment, curled up on a big chair opposite my nephew and his best friend Quinn watching a movie, wrapped in a blanket, clutching a Harry Potter wand in his hand, Marmalade, the therapy cat, curled at his side. 

 Sensing Bennett’s “no skin,” desperately uncomfortable-in-his-body state of being, I was brought back to my own experience with what I considered to be the most devilish drug of the chemo regimen.  Not the Red Devil, the actual chemo concoction of Adriamycin and Cytoxan that attacked all the fast-growing cells in my body, but the steroid administered to combat nausea.  Have you ever seen one of those horrible movies depicting devil possessions?  Me neither.  But I’ve been the unfortunate, unwitting audience to previews of those movies.  And the glazed eyes of those – why are they always women or girls? – possessed individuals, the baffled, trapped looks on their faces as their bodies and mouths act independently of their souls, remind me of how I felt in the grip of steroids.  But I’m sure now I blocked the full memory of the experience, because after seeing Bennett for the first time in that state, I asked my sister if I’d been that “bad,” and she half-laughed in an “oh yeah” kind of way that brought home how hard it had been not just for me, but for those trying to soothe me.  There’s no balm for chemo-steroid malaise but sleep.  I’d called L. one afternoon in that state last summer, sobbing into the phone.  It reminded me of trying to soothe a colicky baby once as a teenager.  I was babysitting, and I walked and walked the house, upstairs and down, with the shrieking bundle, until finally I called my mother in desperation and she came over.  You literally have to ride the steroid horse until it’s spent, holding onto the mane, eyes closed, head down, back hunched.  And then it’s over.  And that feeling, like an ice block overnight melted away from around your body – it’s truly a resurrection.

 That’s what I saw on Sunday in the Eddy School cafeteria.  The sermon – delivered by Mary, a regal, broad-shouldered woman with a beautiful strong face like a rock the sea’s repeatedly broken its back upon, her feet planted firmly apart in black boots under her vestments like someone bracing for the next big wave – was based, of course, around resurrection, literal and metaphorical.  “More life,” she repeated again and again.  That’s what we want.  I know it’s my prayer.  Not more life at any cost, not that.  But desire for the next breath of damp spring morning air, the desire of leaves busting out of their casings, everywhere.  Desire of an orca spinning in a cold Pacific, birthing a calf in Prince William Sound the winter after the oil spill.  Desire of cherry blossoms in Japan.  Desire of young lovers in the back seat of a car in Chernobyl.  The desire in each of Dorothy’s breaths:  my 93 year-old mother-in-law, hanging on for ten days as her body shut down, organ by organ:  more life.  Steroids do something to that desire, warp it, twist it, distort it, but they can’t kill it.  It takes a lot to kill it.

After her brief sermon, Mary led us in “This Little Light of Mine.”  She said, “Please stand in body or in spirit.”  I stayed sitting next to my mother in her wheelchair, her hand in my mine.  “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.”  We belted it out for all we were worth.  Since cancer, just as I’ve shed my inhibitions about dancing, I no longer squelch my singing voice.  What’s the point?  Who cares?  When you’ve walked around eyelash- and eyebrow-less in a headscarf, the skin peeling off your face, for six months, what you look like to others loses its cache.  “Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.”  I looked to my right.  There was my sister, at the other end of the row with the kids.  I looked to my left.  There was my mother, her eyes fixed on Mary, who was swaying like an oak, rooted but moving and singing with abandonment.  I looked further down the row.  And that’s where I saw it.  Resurrection.  Bennett, bald-headed, stood there between his two moms, singing his eight year-old heart out.  “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.”  A sob threatened to close my throat, to interrupt my own song.  There was no doubt that light inside him would outshine steroids, chemo, lumbar punctures, cancer cells, pain.  All the time, people call cancer patients brave.  But they’re not any braver than anyone else.  We’re all brave.  Eventually, we’re all tested.  Most of the time, we whisper it in the dark, after the worst days:  “More life.”  And when some of us don’t, well, who can judge it? 

After Mary’s sermon and the song, JD, the co-minister stepped up to carry the resurrection theme further.  She ended with an excerpt from Wendell Berry’s poem “Manifesto:  The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.”  I’ll quote parts of it here:

Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion - put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.

The poem ends this way:
Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

On the Edge Between Earth and Easter

It's the day between Earth Day and Easter, blustery, rainy, and gray here on Cape Cod.  And it feels very much like I'm pressed between heaven and earth, between death and resurrection.  Jo in Alaska just e-mailed to say that our friend Trudy died today of lung cancer.  I read the words and the wind outside my window swept up through my body and back out.  I looked out at the trees crazily swaying and for a second couldn't understand why it wasn't plainly visible:  the energy of Trudy, swirling up and away, like a funnel cloud generated down here on earth, but leaving.  Unbounded.  While her family's feet stay planted firmly on the hard ground of loss.  With one ear, I listen to gusts shoving against the side of the house.  With the other ear, I listen to the family, Mara and my niece Phoebe stuffing Easter baskets in the next room, Jon herding the two wild boys, who've dressed themselves in big sunglasses and huge, garish aloha shirts and stuffed them with pillows so they're waddling around, triple their normal girth.

Last night, I got in bed exhausted, but then couldn't sleep.  I kept thinking of L., who called last night to talk about her cancer diagnosis, and her visit to the doctor regarding the pathology results.  She sounded so scared.  The type of breast cancer she has is rare, and she was worried that the regular breast cancer team she's scheduled to see next week won't be enough, that she'll be shunted to another specialist, thus delaying treatment.  At 10 pm I e-mailed my oncologist asking him what he thought.  I wanted to give her some reassuring word, to lessen the weight of tomorrow's barrow-full of wait-n-worry.

Waiting.  The waiting cancer entails pushes you beyond your psychological edge, as the yoga instructor this morning did with my physical limits.  "Feel your edge," Petra said, winding her way through the heated room, among 23 bodies on 23 matts, one of them mine, sweat raining down so freely on the purple surface that my hands in downward dog just slid forward.  "Feel your edge."  Maybe there's a yoga to cancer, to cancer's waiting.  But no "Cancer Yoga for Dummies" handbook will suffice.  Petra, adjusting the graceful body of a woman in the full expression of some impossible contortion, suggested that we look around at one another sometimes, study the way different people enter into a pose, see where we're going.  That's what people who face cancer do for one another.  Show a way past to and beyond the edge.

Lying in bed last night in the dark, my mind roiling, I stilled myself by praying.  I know I've written more than once about unanswered prayers, but the impulse is still strong in me, I guess, at moments like these.  I was once a little Catholic girl praying in the dark, reaching my hand up to take God's hand to quell my fear, like my brother Andy instructed.  I still sleep with my right hand curled up around empty space.  I whispered an incantation, calling in all the forces of human and nature and unknown I'd drawn upon during my cancer journey and sent them to L.  And when I still couldn't sleep, I turned on the light and reached for my phone.  I don't know why I did it.  Maybe just to check the time.  But the e-mail popped up and there was a message from my oncologist.  There were the reassuring words L. needed, just two brief sentences sent from his I-Pad at 11 pm.  No mush, no love, no sentiment, just the unexpected answer to a prayer in that moment.  Is it just me, or is this world telling me again and again to look here for solace?  But I can't help myself.  I still glance out the window and half-expect to see the tendril of a prayer drifting up like a lost balloon.  A gust of hope still carries the wish that Trudy will somehow intercede on behalf of L.  But the answer comes from right here on earth.  The ordinary, everyday miracle in a storm of hurt.  And we rest on just that.  And sometimes it's even enough.

Yesterday's reading from The Book of Awakening by Mark Nepo stopped me short when I read it a day late, after yoga.  I sat at the coffee shop in my sopping yoga clothes and read it aloud to Phoebe and Mara between spoonfuls of white bean soup.  Here are some excerpts:

"It is hard when in pain to believe that all we ever need is before us, around us, within us.  And yet it is true.  Like leafless trees waiting for morning, something as great and as constant as the Earth turns us ever so slowly toward the light . . . Never was this more painfully true for me than during the aftermath of my first chemo treatment.  I was in a Holiday Inn at five in the morning after 24 hours of vomiting every twenty minutes.  I was slumped on the floor, holding the space of a rib that had been removed three weeks earlier.  And my wife--in anger, in panic, in desperation--called out, "Where is God?"  And from some unknown place in me, through my pale slouched form, I uttered, 'Here . . . right here.'  . . . Time and again, we are asked to outlast what we want and hope for, in order to see what's there.  It is enough."

I believe it wasn't just Mark Nepo's enlightened response that created the agonizing miracle he describes in that story, but just as much his wife's angry question.  It's not just the "spiritual" but the gritty, not just the spectacular sunset but the dingy gray one, not just the wind moving through you but the rage, not just the sympathetic ear but the straight answer e-mailed at 11 pm on Good Friday (which in my experience, is never good; take the '64 earthquake in Alaska, and the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and my grandmother's death).  In a moment of laughter at the end of our conversation last night, L. said, "Well, I guess I really got Good-Friday-ed today."  I said, "Well, at least you won't have to live through that one again."  And the answered prayer was the clock pushing past midnight into another day.  And the answered prayer waking into another ordinary, difficult, scary resurrection.          

Thursday, April 21, 2011

What if God Was One of Us?

20 April

There’s a very real way in which, once you enter Cancerland, you keep one foot there for life.  I see that now.  And not necessarily in the sense of an obsession with your own health, your own future.  But in a sisterhood.  There’s a line from The Little Prince that comes into my mind as the news sinks in that the friend who had the biopsy indeed has cancer for the second time.  That line is “You are responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.”  In The Little Prince, this is what the fox says to the prince.  “You are responsible for your flower.”  He’s talking about love.  I don't for the life of me know exactly why that sentence has resonated with me for over 20 years, why it's whispered itself in my ear unexpectedly from time to time.  In my mind, the word “tamed” is open to multiple interpretations, and when it comes to cancer, I have to stretch even further to understand.  Because I certainly haven’t tamed cancer, haven’t tamed my fear of it, my hatred of it, my anger at it.  I hate cancer.  

Today, “tamed” means to have looked at something deeply.  To have truly seen it.  To have looked without flinching.  To have known it.  Places in Prince William Sound are that way for me.  During cancer treatment, I invented visualizations to put me to sleep or calm me down.  I pictured a certain lagoon on Knight Island, a bight in Zaikof Bay, the base of an old hemlock tree on Squire Island, places I’d returned to for 24 years.  I’d looked so deeply at those places, breathed them, let the rain dripping from their leaves and grasses soak me to the skin, slept in them, that they lived inside me.  I could conjure in my memory the exact feel of my hand on the bark of the old tree, or against a damp rock face, or the smell of the earth when I pressed my nose into the moss.  I’d been tamed by those places.  In the case of Prince William Sound, tamed means made more wild, more like earth.  In the case of cancer, perhaps it means made more naked and exposed to the toll, the heartbreak, of the disease.  To the courage of spirit it takes to get up from the floor after the call comes, after the voice says, "I'm afraid it's cancer."     

Detour.  Stay with me.  Early this morning, my poet-friend Liz drove me back from Provincetown to Brewster.  This was after stopping by Race Point beach to watch dozens of North Atlantic right whales feeding and interacting with one another on a clear blue morning.  There are 300-some of these whales left alive on earth, and to see them congregated in one place, that close to shore, on the edge of Cape Cod, was a wonder, a gift.  Last night, with Liz and another Cape Cod writer, Robert Finch, I did a reading at the Provincetown library for Earth Day.  Afterward, I slept in Liz and her partner Lisa’s little beach shack.  It’s appropriately named “Refugia.”  It was a refugia for me last year, an oasis of calm and clarity in the midst of cancer and summer chaos.  So was quirky P-Town, where a bald woman in a head scarf blended in completely with the full throttle rainbow of human expression, male, female, gay, straight, transsexual, trans-gendered, and everything in between.  There, I’d disappear into the night-time street scene of drag queens, tourists, and women bald just because.  (In fact, there was a bald, young, healthy woman in the audience last night).  Sadly, I learned that one of my favorite P-Town characters, 70+-year old Elli, a drag queen who sang with her portable sound system in the streets wearing long diaphanous gowns, had over the winter died of pancreatic cancer.  Walking to the reading, we saw flowers for Elli on the town hall steps.   

On the drive back to Brewster, Liz and I talked about nature writing, how to teach it,  whether to teach it, what it was, why it failed to reach more people, to save more nature, to change more people’s minds.  We decided that part of the aim should be teaching people how to look, to really look at what they love, so a Cape Cod sunrise isn’t just “magnificent” or “sublime” but gritty and real, lurid and ugly and gorgeous because it’s seen through one human being’s eyes, one person with a life like no other, one person who sees the dirt in the sunrise, the smudge, the indigo, the streaks, the thumbprints, one person who makes it real in a way it's never been before.  A P-Town sunrise through Elli’s eyes, through mine, through Liz’s, each truly seen, in sickness, in health, in fear, in pain:  that’s what I mean by being tamed by something.  It's about being humbled and expanded and resurrected and brought to your knees.  

You don’t tame anything like nature or cancer or a wild coyote or the baby mouse dying in a Tupperware container that my nephew rescued this morning from the cat.  You are responsible, forever, for what you’ve looked at with your whole body, with your eyes and your soul, with your nose, with every inch of skin. I feel like I need to deconstruct the word “responsible” too.  (So why do I love that sentence so much if I have to qualify two of its most important words?  Who knows!  Poetry’s like that, and poetry I love.  Poetry is what I turn to when no human language can answer my need.  And wave laps, and bird calls, and wind.  The things I’ve been tamed by).  What does it mean, to be responsible?  It means, for me in this moment (I’m lying back against a pillow in the back seat of my sister’s car as we drive to Whole Foods), that I will be stand by this woman diagnosed again with breast cancer, not because I should or ought to, but because it’s as natural now as taking a breath.  To support her in whatever way I can is supporting myself, is supporting all of us, and is as much a gift to me as dozens of endangered right whales surfacing off a beach upon which I happen to be standing.  When all your people rally to help you save your own life, you want badly (at least I do) to pass something on.  Even when I’m back in Alaska, I will find a way to be with her.  I am with her now. 

The cloud I see out the window, here above the stop sign:  I latch my eyes to that cloud when the occurrences and recurrences down here, in this botched human panorama, get to be too much to bear.  I lose myself in the cloud’s gray folds.  It’s my Rock of Ages (Emmy Lou’s singing that song right now on my sister’s CD).  It's my divine. 

While I’m writing, Mara calls our friend and tells her “I just want you to know I’ll be a little cloud under you all the time, hovering hear, and you can rest on me when you need to.”

We ask her what she wants at Whole Foods.  “Some cancer-ass-kicking stuff,” she says, feisty as always.  So I run in, grab a basket, and start shopping.  When we get back into the car, Phoebe, my niece loads the Glee soundtrack into the CD player, and this is the first song that plays:

Yeah, yeah, God is great.  Yeah, yeah, God is good.  Yeah, yeah, yeah, what if God was one of us?  Just a slob like one of us?  Just a stranger on a bus, trying to make his way home?  Not up in heaven all alone.

That’s what I believe.  God is one of us, a slob, a stranger, me, you, a woman with an IV stuck in her arm, the nurse pushing the adriamycin in.  It’s us, tamed and made wild by cancer, by catastrophe.  When another woman is diagnosed, we rise, we gather.  Now, six months post-treatment, 10, 20, 30 years from now.  We arrive at her door with chocolate, blue glitter nail polish, a bottle of tumeric, bubble bath, green tea, and a pocketful of Lorazepam.

Last night, I read this poem in Provincetown for my newly re-diagnosed friend, for my friend still in treatment, and for the sisterhood.  Running yesterday before the reading, I decided I wanted another title for it.  I renamed it “Prayer Sent Above, Unanswered and Thus Retracted, Redirected Down to Earth.”  A bit unwieldy, I know.  But it will have to do.

A MOMENT AWAY FROM EDEN (the old title)

Your flawed creation, lay her down
among your rough low plants.  Unbutton
her blouse.  Wind, gust at that mark, thin
shadow of the surgeon’s path, death’s
exit.  Lay strips of sphagnum across
the scalpel’s track.  Gauze, fern by fern, a glade
upon the scar, wrap her torso, eye to ankle,
in autumn ditch flower, goldenrod, fleabane,
aster.  Let her sink into bog, your body
pinned to her ruin, painting the story
in cranberry ink & lichen-scratch on her back.  
Let her body be retouched by plant & mineral.

When she kneels at the pond’s edge & laps
like a deer from the stranger’s face licking back, 
place your palm on her nape.  Immerse her chin,
mouth, shoulder blades, push her all the way in. 
Lift her out dripping.  Place her on the earth’s skin. 
Her fingers adorned with bones of deer, her mind
changed into the mind of a meadow.  All this when
God’s ruthless eye turned a moment away from Eden.


This I know:  the eyes of this earth never turn away.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A Frog's Heart is Available Ground

17 April

My brother Andy just left to make the 4 hour drive back home to Connecticut.  I’m alone at the house, sitting in the sun on the back patio on two couch cushions, and it’s hot, with a gusty breeze jangling the wind chimes and roving through the pines.  The two cats wander over, try to drink the tea from my cup.  I push them away, but they don't care.  The orange one I called "therapy cat" last year.  

I’m still experiencing time warps, especially when I’m alone.  A post-traumatic stress response, I suppose, an overlapping of the past with the present.  Wherever I look, I’m seeing multiple layers, like I’ve got dragonfly eyes now.  I see the trees the way I saw them last year, standing in the outdoor shower, hot water on my bald head, and I see them as they are now, same trees, new eyes.  I hear birds in the forest, and in counterpoint, those songs also play in my memory.  The wind chimes hanging outside the back door trigger the memory of wind chimes in the upstairs window, the ones my friend Bonita brought me when she came to help me through my first chemo treatment.  It’s a little confusing.  And not altogether easy.  I’m homesick, and I can’t tell if it’s a memory of homesickness or the real thing.  This time last year, Craig was here with me, and we were waiting for May 12, the date the surgeon would excise a tumor from my body.  The wind gusts strongly now and chases those memories away. Andy says he’s seen my blog posts become less inward, but it feels like my real life still arises from deep within.  There’s an overlapping of self as well as time, as though a significant part of my real life occurs under water.  Only alone, only writing, only in quiet, do I understand the above and the below.  Only in solitude do I feel everything there is to feel.  I’m still figuring out who this version of my self is, this creature emerging from some cast-off form.  Or is it the self I’ve always been?  Maybe going through cancer treatment peeled casings away to reveal hidden underlayers, the way the rough gray bark of the birches in my yard in Alaska peels off when it reaches a certain age and size and exposes the thin papery white and rosy skin.  Through this process, it gets more, not less, innocent. 

18 April

I forgot about the wind on the Cape, how it’s as intrinsic to this place as the blonde sand, the pine trees, the ponds and inlets, the shingled houses, the antique shops.  The wind dragged a high, gray, blank mantle of cloud in to cover the morning’s blue sky, and on a walk with Mara and Phoebe, a few raindrops hit our faces.  This morning, in yoga class, in the corpse pose, I experienced it again, a feeling of incredible luck.  I wonder if it will ever go away, if I’ll ever forget.  I hope not.  I lay there and the words “I get to stay here on earth” came into my head, along with the feeling, the electricity in my body, the joy.  It’s that reprieve after the 6-month follow-up, the piece of paper I imagine handed to me by Dr. Schnipper.  “You’re free to go now.  I’ll see you in six.”  I to remember when I felt that before so acutely.  Two memories arise.  The first:  how it felt to leave the dark confessional booth as a kid, after the old robed priest behind the opaque window absolved me of my accumulated sins, wiped the slate clean of “I disobeyed my parents five times, I took the Lord’s name in vain 10 times, I was mean to my sister 15 times, I coveted my neighbor’s goods 5 times” and set me free.  I imagined all the black blotches swiped clean by the priest's hand, my soul, round as a discus, white as the moon, purified  That’s what the “all clear,” as my sister puts it, feels like.  (And I also remember the first fresh sin.  Here we go again).

And it also feels like 20 years ago, when I’d spent four months studying orcas in Prince William Sound, living in a wall tent on a remote island in the rainforest, searching for whales on a 20 foot boat, and it was the day I was supposed to leave, to head back to civilization:  Fairbanks, grad school, my cabin, my friends, fresh vegetables, bookstores, ice cream, coffee shops, street cloths.  And I decided not to go after all.  Watching that boat roar off without me, I stood on the back deck of Craig’s boat, which, ironically, was called Lucky Star, and felt almost weak in the knees with relief and joy.  I get to stay, I murmured to myself, like a prayer.  Rain fell on my face, gulls shrieked, the Lucky Star's engine rumbled.  I get to stay.  Every fall, I grieve when we leave the Sound, and as we head down one of the passages leading to the Gulf of Alaska, I sit on the flying bridge and watch the birds and animals that get to live in that place all the time:  the sea otters, sea lions, kittiwakes, marbled murrelets.  One year, I tell myself, we won’t leave in September.  When the Equinox storm drives all the other boats out, I’ll stand on an island beach and say to a sea otter floating on its back eating a starfish a few yards out:  I get to stay with you.  I get to watch winter come, live on the boat, anchor up in – get this, a place called Lucky Bay – and hunker in for the first big winter blow with Craig, step out on a snowy deck in the morning, to the metallic scent of snow on hemlock branches.

That’s the future, though, a thing, I know more than ever, is not solid ground, nothing to build a house or bank a life upon.  So I look out the window and say it to this place, this day:  I get to stay.

19 April

6:30 am, and I’m looking out the window at jittery bare trees and a textured gray sky, the sound of a few cars driving past on 6A, my sister making coffee downstairs, but it’s still quiet enough to detect the high harmonics in my ears – the one remaining side-effect of Taxol treatment.  My friend Jo says the Big Bang was tuned to an A, and maybe my ear is now, too:  retuned to the sound of creation.  It might come in handy if I ever play my oboe in an orchestra again.

Creation, spring, rebirth, it all goes together, and here, the sound of spring for me isn’t so much one bird, as it is in Alaska (the varied thrush), but the chorus of spring peepers, one of my favorite sounds in the world.  Last night, driving back from a friend’s, I opened both front windows of the car when I turned down Lower Road so I could read the geography through my ears, the presence of water:  hills and valleys of peeper calls, a sonic throb, crescendos, decrescendos, near, far, and at a stop sign beside a swamp, so close I could distinguish the single pulsed bell tone of a single frog.  I know they’re tiny.  What’s it like for a young peeper when for the first time the impulse arises from deep within, an impulse so much bigger than its physical self?  Do its eyes grow wide when it opens its mouth and that peal, ten times its size, escapes?  Does giving birth to a baby feel that way too?  Maybe we’re all holding inside us a potential, a song, a heart, bigger than our bodies, bigger than our ideas of ourselves.  Maybe spring peepers truly sing their hearts out.  To peep also means to appear briefly.  That’s another thing we have in common with frogs.

I open a book that came in the mail yesterday, The Forgotton Language, an anthology of nature-oriented poems, and I find one by the late John Hay, who is by many considered to be the write laureate of Cape Cod.  It’s called “Music by the Waters.”

Out of the marbled underwaters,
artifacts of surf, comes the shining
of bubble and frog-green weed; the salivated
quartz egg; purple dye of greater storms
in minor shells; all things touched by tides;
patterns of water not of water;
castoff, like speckled eyes from deeper sight,
tones on the mind.  I pick them and they sing.

My friend and neighbor Asia e-mailed me this morning.  She’s visiting her sister Molly Lou in France.  Molly Lou and Asia are both sisters to me, and now Molly Lou has a one year-old baby boy.  Asia described being in France as a dream she’s having (the time difference between Alaska and France turns day into night), and that she will “collect evidence” of it as long as possible.  I know how she feels.  Maybe that’s a better way to describe the time warp I’ve been experiencing since being on Cape Cod.  Only I’m having more than one dream at the same time.  And all I can do is collect evidence, sift it, sort it, interpret it.  I told a friend last night that I feel like a woman in a fairy tale who must spend hours in an attic room each day taking all the strands of all the dreams she’s collected and weaving them into a tapestry, not knowing what images will form, not moved to do it by plan or dream of outcome.  The only important thing is the act of weaving, like a tiny frog who sings because the impulse inside rises up and overpowers all else. 

In one of my dreams, I wake up each morning to the same bird songs, the same human noises in the house, to the same body, but my song is muffled.  My head is bald.  My fingertips are numb.  My body speaks louder than my heart those mornings, and it’s full of complaint and chemicals, and those things, unlike songs, weigh a ton.  In the parallel dream, I wake up each morning groggy, a little stiff, but still amazed that the weight is gone.  I wake up to the dream of a healthy body, “temporarily able-bodied,” as my friend said last night.  An old prayer then arises, from childhood, but altered:  Give me this day, my daily breath.

And then I think of another friend, the one who had the biopsy, who wakes wondering if the phone call will come today.  Give her this day.  That’s a parallel dream too.  I want to believe that living through cancer stretches and expands the singing heart muscle so it can hold all these realities at the same time in that weaving, all the unknowns and uncertainties.  This morning’s weaving pulls a strand from France, one from a drive last night, several from a year ago, one from a woman across town, and one from a poem called “Dunes” by A.R. Ammons, the poem’s last line: “Firm ground is not available ground.”

Yes, it's shifting ground, and sometimes the dream is bad, frightening, dark.  But the song that nonetheless rises from deep within me and escapes is I get to stay.  So I’d better get going.  It’s time to place my feet on the sand, to wander around collecting evidence of today’s dream, to search for the source of that deep impulse to weave or weep or scream or sing.  And to tend it.            

Saturday, April 16, 2011

She Gave Up Her Boob For Lent

16 April

The storm that blasted through the southeastern US is now barreling up the East Coast, and here on Cape Cod, the wind’s already gusting.  I’m sitting in my room watching the trees  sway and twitch, listening to the gusts lean against the corner of the house.  I love a good storm.  I can hear my nephews’ voices.  They’ve constructed a giant landing pad of cushions and pillows at the base of the stairs to their room, and they’re leaping off the stairs onto it, something I remember our kids doing, only they leapt from a loft.

Mara and I went to yoga at 8:30 this morning, and then stopped to visit the friend who had a biopsy yesterday.  Her hair cut looks great.  But the doctor doing the biopsy went deep, and she hugged us sideways, still very sore.  After a half hour of tea-drinking and conversation, another friend came over, the woman I used to call my chemo-carpool-buddy.  We went through treatment together at Beth Israel, and I often hitched to Boston with C. and her father.  C., who has a different brand of breast cancer than mine, is still getting a monthly infusion of a non-chemo drug called Herceptin.  She is through the worst of treatment though, done with Taxol and Cytoxan and The Red Devil, done with radiation, and she has a head of thick dark hair, still at brush-cut stage (she was diagnosed several weeks after I was), and she looked great in her black tights, short black skirt, and sheepskin-lined work boots.  We sat on the couches and had what Craig calls a “laugh yoga” session.  

There’s nothing like laughing with other women who’ve been through breast cancer treatment and recovery.  Because the breast cancer experience is not only traumatic and humbling but also absurd.  The focus this morning was on awkward encounters with people – the ones in our spheres who know we had cancer but don’t know any details.  They've "heard."  These encounters occur out in the world in public places when we’re trying to step outside of Cancerland and just be everyday human beings, i.e., grocery stores, post office lines, ski trails, clothing shops.  We invented responses we’d never utter, except in one another’s company, or in our mean-girl fantasies.  Because of course we know that the people who ask these questions are well-intentioned or uncertain or down-right scared.  Here are a few examples (it’s important to imagine these questions coming at one not over a cup of tea in a quiet café, but during the intermission of a concert, for example, or over a display of ears of corn, and often accompanied by a certain concerned, pitying, anxious facial expression):

Q:  “Did you have a mastectomy?”

A:  “Have you had a hysterectomy?”

Q:  “Did you have to have a mastectomy?”  (I know this is a repetition, but I’ve been asked more than once).

A:  “I don’t want to say, but can I tell you about my latest pap smear?”

Q:  “Are you cured?”

A:  “How’s that alcoholism doing?”

Q:  “Okay, what kind?”  (This was an actual question posed to C. with no prelude from a stranger who walked up to her at a performance she attended, when she still wore a scarf).

A:  Frankly, I’m struck as speechless as C. was.  If you have any ideas for a response to this, feel free to post a comment.  I guess “Gap Skinny Jeans, why do you think they make my ass look good?” might work.

Q:  “Do you know why you got it?”

A:  “Well, I did chew a lot of gum.”  (Use this with gum-chewing inquirers).

Q:  “Have you recently gone through medical treatment?”  (This was asked of me by an elderly stranger at a state park after I got back from a run, my first without my scarf.  I was sitting in my car changing into my swim suit and she looked in and asked).

A:  “Are you lost?”

We laughed with wild abandon, sitting on our friend’s leather couches, nursing our peach tea.  She held an ice pack to her biopsied breast, and I hope the laughing didn’t hurt it too much.   On days when camel pose and profound bow are just too much, laugh yoga is a good alternative.  Laughter is a trump card.  Laughter is a power play over something we’ve very much powerless over:  cancer, our future, the questions we’re asked out of the blue while we’re buying socks.

At one point, C. said something about how she was “going through cancer,” and our friend challenged her.  “You had cancer,” she said.  “You don’t anymore,” I piped in.

I watched C.’s face.  I saw “the look,” a kind of momentary cloud shadow sweeping across it.  And I knew that look.  The same cloud sweeps past me whenever my sister says, “You’re cured,” or “You got the ‘all clear.’”  It creates the confusion, the little storm inside me whenever someone asks, “Are you cured?”  Or “Are you okay now?”  It’s a little doubt-cloud.  Mixed with flying leaves, which are errant scraps of hope.  Mixed with motes of data, anecdotes, words, phrases like "five year survival."  We believe and don’t believe and are afraid to believe and not to believe, in rapid flickers, like the shadows of moving water or fire.  I want to tell C. it’s okay.  We learn to live with that little fluttering thing, and it’s perhaps the most private thing, more private even than what happened to our bodies.  Will it ever leave us?  I don’t know.  But I doubt it.  It's our weakness and our strength.  It's how we recognize each other. 

I want to tell C. that, from my vantage, just a couple months further down the road, the walk back to life and health and trust and that “new normal” everyone talks about takes as long as it takes.  It’s like walking to a distant mountain.  Wanting to get there faster doesn’t get us there faster.  It only makes the walk more torturous.  And the mountain we see from where we are is not the mountain we eventually climb.  The view from here is not the view from the alpine ridge.

And then the cloud shadow passed away from C.'s face.  And she said, “That’s right, I don’t have cancer anymore.”  And then she (who’s Catholic), threw out another question for our list:

Q:  What are you giving up for Lent?

A:  I gave up my boob.  Do you think I need to give up something else?”

And then it was sunlight on our faces again.       

Friday, April 15, 2011

A Strong Woman is a Woman Getting Her Hair Done

14 April

Another day, another waiting room.  This time, I’m waiting for my follow-up visit with Dr. Molly Sullivan, the radiation oncologist.  Through an open door I see the inner waiting area, where last fall I went five days a week for radiation treatments.  There, in the narrow corridor where people sat in their johnnies across from a bathroom, a television blared, hung on a wall near the ceiling.  Here, sappy music plays in the background, and this soothing green room, unlike the inner, darker one, is brightly lit and spacious.  The magazines here are a bit more reasonable than in the mammogram waiting area of Beth Israel Hospital.  Some even provide helpful advice about going through cancer treatment.  There’s also O magazine, Martha Stewart and Architectural Digest.  While you wait, you can learn how to dye fabric with crushed mulberries, make candles or bake a strawberry layer cake.  Thankfully, there’s no Lucky magazine to be found.  This is waiting room is a place you come only after you’ve been deemed unlucky in mammography or some other scanning salon. 

It’s been overwhelming to return here to Cape Cod, and I’m sure that will change over time.  I left in late autumn, and now it’s early spring.  Hints of red and green budding leaves, white magnolia blossoms, daffodils and crocuses soften the landscape, which is still largely brown, a thick layer of dead oak leaves on the forest floor, and dead cinnamon colored oak leaves still clinging to branches of trees.  Yesterday, it rained non-stop, and the gray and cold reminded me of last fall.  Everything reminds me, I have to admit.  But rooms and landscapes lose their deja-vu charge after the initial hit.  I’ve had to shake myself at times, shake off all the memories like a dust that’s settled on my perception of the present.  Places in my sister’s house where this phenomenon is most striking are the bathroom, the living area, and the stairs up to the third floor, where I lived (and where now the boys sleep).  The first time I went up to the third floor with the boys to see how they’d decorated their new spaces, I remembered ascending those same stairs on all fours hunched like a moose, during chemo, after my red blood cell count dropped.  My heart would pound so hard by the time I got to the top that I’d often lie down for a few minutes to recover.  At night, I’d lie up there for hours listening to my heartbeat in my ears, a sound like distant water pulsing through a turbine. 

The bathroom too is full of haints.  It’s one of the only rooms that’s remained unchanged: the blue-polka-dotted towels, the view of the backyard and woods out the window by the shower, the cupboards and drawers, all trigger memories.  But “trigger” isn’t exactly the right word.  It’s more like wading through opaque layers of time.  The air in these places, at least the first time I revisit them, is thicker, like the air above a warm pond on a summer day.  In the bathroom, I push my hands past memories of chemo-illness, when I got out of the shower and lay immediately down on the bath matt and curled in a ball.  I remember attempting to put a brave face on in the mornings, when Mara and Jon’s kids were getting ready for their school day (today, for example:  Jon cooking soups for their school lunches while the boys fly a remote-controlled helicopter around the kitchen, Phoebe reading a magazine, Mara standing at the counter eating a bowl of cereal and writing notes for the babysitter before work, and I adding to the general din by making a fruit and vegetable smoothie in a blender.  Life with three school-aged kids and two working parents and a visiting aunt is … well, just what you’d expect).  Last summer, lying on the bath matt, naked, was an act of surrender to how powerless and crummy I really felt, an allowed few minutes of raw truth before I gathered myself up and headed down the stairs to answer the question:  How are you feeling?  And I wanted, for their sake, to be able to say “Better.”  But so often I wasn’t.  That’s all over now.  This morning, I looked in the mirror at my hair – still a source of wonder to me – and spritzed it with some kind of product I found in a drawer, and pondered if I should get a trim, and when I walked into my sister’s office room, where she was reading the morning prayer from The Book of Awakening and writing in her journal, she said, “You look great.  The picture of health.”  I haven’t lost the feeling of it -- health, life itself -- being a gift.

Now I’m waiting in the radiation oncologist’s examination room.  My initial doctor visits and blood work already done, I’m much more relaxed today.  The nurse who led me here chatted with me about “survivorship,” after I told her about my frightening mammogram.   That fear, she assured me, was an aspect of this thing called “survivorship.”  I think about that concept.  It’s almost like walking away from cancer treatment requires special training, a certificate, if not a degree.  I certainly can attest to it from my experience of the last few months.  You don’t go back to your old life.  Or at least I didn’t.  It’s a semblance, another version.  Versions, come to think of it, are what these days poets call poems translated from other languages (Google today's poem on Verse Daily, for example).  There’s no such thing as an exact translation; language is too deeply specific to culture and place and its own grammatical architecture.  Each translator is a unique filter through which language is sieved.  Five translations by five translators equal five versions of a poem, sometimes five separate poems.  It seems that “survivorship” is like that, too.  No two women experience breast cancer in the same way.  No two women walk away from treatment in the same way, either.  Each woman after breast cancer is her own poem.  

The nurse told me that the oncology department at Cape Cod Hospital was launching a new survivorship program, and asked if I’d be willing to talk to the social worker about my experiences.  Since a deep-seated wish of mine is to help some other woman (or more than one) going through what I went through, to transform some of this scrap metal into, if not gold, than at least into something useful by a kind of alchemical process (which right now is simply writing), I gave the nurse my e-mail and blog addresses.  She, like so many of the nurses who work in the trenches of Cancerland, has absorbed an understanding of a patient's whole experience, not just the medical.  We credit our oncologists with saving our lives, or fighting to save them, but it’s the nurses who save our spirits by keeping their ears to the ground, passing on wisdom from women they’ve seen over years.  “It’s scary, I know,” she said, after I told her about being called back for an ultrasound the other day.  “I know women feel like they’ve been thrown off a cliff, too, when they walk away from treatment.  It's all part of survivorship.” 

And that’s exactly right.  Psychologically, for Craig and me, those first two months were the hardest, that limbo between Cancerland and the next chapter of life.  But I’m coming to see that it’s not a sandwich: one slice cancer treatment, a filling of limbo, another slice of normal life.  The top of the sandwich is a dark, coarse bread made from all that came before.  Once your eyes are open to the reality of a thing called cancer at loose in the world, like Eve and Adam post-apple, you can’t stick the peeled skins back on your eyes, you can't go back to the old Subway sandwich.  Your eyes are bare; your bread is multi-grain.  After a cancer diagnosis, either yours or your loved ones, you know the stakes.  You sit in waiting rooms and breath the fear and hope drifting around you, and recognize its smell and taste.  In the outer waiting room today, words drifted across the room to me from a woman sitting with her husband.  “I’m really scared,” she said.  Once you know that fear, the way you look in other women’s eyes changes.  Now that I’ve walked “through the valley of the shadow,” I can’t close my eyes or turn them away.

I wrote a poem in anticipation of that last summer, during chemo.  I wrote it after drawing money from the ATM at the Hot Chocolate Sparrow Café on the Cape, a place I went often to write.  I was wearing my head scarf.  Here’s the poem:


Wherever I go, she's there, but she doesn't look
like me, bald head concealed
by a cotton bandana.  Mostly, she's
invisible.  Though I catch a stranger’s
pensive glance now and then.  Today, she’s thirty-something,
blonde hair, long, shimmering.  I was getting some cash
from the ATM, and she was sitting at one
of the tables, drinking coffee, and when I looked up, her eyes
shifted back to her cup.  One out of seven,
I’m told.  In this crowded café, how many?  Someday

I’ll be the one leaning on her elbow, watching
the woman in the head scarf at the cash machine, I’ll be lost 
in remembering, maybe I’ll be playing
with a strand of hair, and when
she glances up and meets my eye, I wonder if
I’ll look away.


I know the answer to that question now.  And I understand why I didn't, back then.

April 15, morning

My eyes, my inner eyes, eyes peeled of so many layers that shielded me:  today they are fixed on a friend, a long-time breast cancer survivor, who not long ago found a lump on her remaining breast and this afternoon goes to the hospital for a biopsy.  As she lies there on that table turning her face away, as she hears the voices of the doctor and nurse above her working to position and guide the needle, as she startles each time she hears the terrible snap (but in that prone position it arrive in your ear sharp like a gunshot) that signals a sample’s been taken, my inner eyes will be locked with hers, the way my eyes were locked with my sister’s when she stood by my head last year, when I lay on my back in utter surrender.  I wrote about profound bow yoga position last time, but when you are lying on some examining table, it’s more like camel pose.  In yoga yesterday, we practiced it.  You stand on your knees and support your lower back with the flat of your hands, tuck your butt and lean back, opening your chest to the sky, dangling your arms back until you can hold your heels.  You drop your head.  It’s the ultimate exposure and surrender posture, especially if you have had breast cancer.  Every unsaid word, every unexpressed hurt, every terror seems to rise to the surface of the skin, to catch in the throat, to throb in the center of the chest.  My inner eye already, hours before her procedure, is locked with my friend’s as she lies back on that table, in her inner camel pose.  That woman poured strength into me after my diagnosis, shared everything she’d learned from her cancer experience with me (at that time, a stranger to her), loaned me her juicer, her nausea spray, took me to a deserted beach called Crow’s Pasture where we found a red-handled knife and three square beads in the sand that spelled out “SLY” (a perfect alias for cancer), (this a few days before my surgery).  She took me after surgery to swim in a clear deep secret pond in the forest.  All day today our eyes pour strength back and forth like a cup of that pond’s crystal clear water poured from my glass to her, from hers to mine, again and again.   This woman taught me how to laugh in the face of cancer, and this morning, when I called her, hours before the procedure, she asked me to guess where she was.

“Where?”  I asked.

“Getting my hair done.”

I burst out laughing in surprise.  I knew that this woman, two days ago brought low by despair and fear, had risen again.  The warrior woman who taught me how to be a warrior – the kind who bends back in camel pose and bares her throat, the kind who gets up out of bed after her “suspicious” mammogram and makes dinner for her family – was resurrected.    

My brother sent a copy of my last blog post to the singer/songwriter Mary Gauthier, telling her that she’d impacted my life with her music.  She wrote back that “A songwriter is merely a lightening rod....looking for the electricity.”  

We’re all lightning rods.  Maybe the way we bend and break and rise again is the electric song that's found its ground and plays through us.   On this earth, which is at once hell and hallowed ground and the ecotone between, the best we can do let ourselves be struck and sung for one another.