Yesterday was a stormy one in Homer, the sky a gritty, dingy gray, the northeast wind bustling through the birch forest. In the boxing match between winter and spring, it was a draw, both raining and snowing, the ground half-white, half-brown, the branches bare brooms sweeping the sky in a distracted way. Today, I walked outside and smelled spring for the first time, and it’s been sprinkling off and on all day. I haven’t seen a snowshoe hare lately. Their coats are the best indicator of the season, changing from white to brown in mimicry of the ground.
One year ago today spring was unequivocal. I sat in the grass on the commons of Worchester College, in Massachusetts. I’d driven there with my sister and family the night before, for my nephew Sam’s “Destination Imagination” competition. The campus was abloom with flowering trees and parents and kids. Plastic tape marked the “off limits” areas of the campus grounds, which were the places I most wanted to be, on some shaded slope, under a tree, hiding out with my journal. Instead I sat on a bench at the edge of a green commons, amid the hubbub of children’s games on the grassy lawn, strolling parents, picnics, balls flying by my head or rolling past my feet. It was sunny, hot, an early spring, what might have passed for a summer day in Alaska. There was plenty of distraction from the week looming ahead of me, with its biopsy, mammogram, ultrasound, and MRI, but like this month’s winter-spring sparring, the present and the future duked it out in my head. In my journal I wrote:
I’m finally putting a pen to this page. Something inside me – maybe fear—resists making my thoughts or feelings visible, as ink on a page. I’ve been the receiver of pure emotion. Thought doesn’t help. I don’t want to make my fear concrete. It’s like stepping out of an old skin and not quite understanding the new one. Maybe underneath everything there’s a kind of faith. I’ve stepped out of the door of my ordinary live, the life in which I try on different outfits and never find the right one, the life in which I worry about being 46, worry about any number of trivial things. Next week I’ll cry, one way or the other. There’s a kind of surrender. All my efforts at control are useless. There’s just this unknown: what my life is supposed to be, what life is, even desire. All that anxiety about wanting this or that particular thing, needing to have things my way: its gone.
Reading that, it strikes me that I’m still sitting on that bench. Her questions are my questions today, one year later. Like her, I’m still stepping out of an old skin, still uncertain as to how the new one will fit, feel, or look. And it’s challenging to live this way, staying present with today, but also acutely aware of the past, the last year running like another river under my life. Recently, Craig and I made a pact to only talk about cancer at set times; otherwise, it colors everything. And maybe that’s the issue right there: it changes everything. But it shouldn’t color everything. I shouldn’t see and hear and experience each moment through its lens. I want to see the disappearing snow, the emerging brown ground, the first green shoots pushing dirt up from my start trays; I want to hear every buzzing varied thrush (the first spring bird in coastal Alaska), hear the winter wren that’s taken up residence by the old chicken coop; I want to eat soup with Craig and Two Sisters bakery and listen to him talk, every word; I want to smell snow or softening ground, as they are, right here, right now, unfiltered through the experience of cancer. But my skin is new, so everything is sharper, more distinct, clarified.
It’s both literal and metaphoric, this shedding of skin. As I heal from the allergic reaction of the weekend, layers of skin peel off my face. Just as they did during chemo. The Sugpiaq Native people of Cook Inlet, the body of water outside Homer, have old stories about humans zipping off their skins and emerging as killer whales. Killer whales swim into coves, zip off their animal skins and walk barefoot up the beach. In those days, the Sugpiaq say, humans and animals spoke the same language. When I listen with my new ears, perhaps I can hear some whisper of that language, which speaks in sound, in color, in the sensation of cold and damp on my face.
During chemotherapy, as I described in an earlier blog, I invented visualizations involving killer whales. They transfused me with their red and white blood cells. I also called upon the spirits of certain humans.
I look to my left. I’m finally sitting and writing in my little office upstairs, and not at the kitchen table. On my bookshelf, beside my desk, is a photograph of my friend Celia Hunter, who died in 2001, at the age of 82. Digging through a box the other day, I also found the program from her memorial service. In that photo she wears a necklace with a caribou pendant. When I’m afraid of airplanes, I close my eyes and call upon Celia (she was a pilot), and imagine her flying under the jetliner or prop plane I’m on, her arms outstretched like wings. She flies the plane carrying it on her back. During chemotherapy, or during acupuncture sessions, hers was the face I visualized. She stood always at my feet, her hands massaging them, her blue eyes locked with mine as the IV needle entered the vein on my hand and the chemical began to flow, or as the thin needles did their work. Her eyes were a mixture of kindly and intense, those see-right-through-you-but-love-you eyes, blue as a lake at break-up, framed in her round face by thick, dark brows and two braids the color of white birch bark. Her eyes could be ironic, scornful, concerned, delighted, interested, but there was always a glint in then, a play of light, the mark an imp, a mischief-maker, a wit. She’s my grandmother in that ancient sense, and each visit to her house – the log home she shared with her friend Ginny Wood, a nest-in-the-woods, smelling of freshly baked bread, wood smoke, old books, mildew, and root cellar – was an encounter with “the arch-druid.” But don't get me wrong. She was no "sage," above the fray, despite her 82 years and her wisdom. I knew her. She struggled. She worked constantly to grow and evolve. She shed layer upon layer of skin until at last she shed the very last one, and soul-naked, she put on her coat and her boots and she lay down on the small rug on her bedroom floor, placed her prayer-hand under her cheek, and she died.
On this first morning of spring (it sure smells that way outside my door), in this fragile new skin, from this new face, I send my prayer:
Celia, fly me to the threshold of a new year, a new life.
That was to be the end of my post. But it's not. This may seem very strange, unreal even (remember the Church of Synchronous Happenstance!), but after writing that line, I paused to open a bag of dried starfruit Craig brought back from Hawaii, and a small brown moth burst out of the bag and fluttered up to the window. Go figure. Celia, thanks.