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.