Craig and I are sitting in the living room. He’s reading a magazine, Gris-Gris is attending to his paws, and I’m sitting in the rocker I’ve had for 15 years. Beside me on a table draped with a cloth my grandmother embroidered, my tea cup sits on a carved wooden box my father bought at some yard sale. I’m drinking licorice mint tea. It’s 8 pm, and light pours in across my shoulders, pools on my lap. It stays light past 10 pm now. The spruce forests are full of varied thrushes. Moose, escaping the still-deep snow up high, kneel on people’s lawns to graze on new grass shoots. You can see the brown hairs coming in amid the white on the backs of snowshoe hares. Every day, the snow patches shrink, the brown earth gains ground. And the galloping light keeps us up later and later.
And tomorrow I leave. I fly to Minneapolis, then on to Boston, on an all-night flight. My sister will meet me at the airport, and off to the hospital we’ll go, that old familiar route along the Charles River, the circling of the hospital parking garage. I’ve probably taken that drive, ridden that elevator to the 9th floor, and talked to my oncologist once a night in my head for a week now.
Despite that, as the day gets closer, oddly, I get calmer. Cancer occupies my thoughts less. It’s a strange calm, like I’m standing on a rope bridge in the sun, over a rapids in a river. I take a read of my body, and it tells me everything’s okay. Just a half hour ago, I finished planting seeds for vegetable and flower starts. When I return, there will be leggy stems and leaves leaning toward the sun. I’m grateful for these tasks that keep me from looking down at the rushing water, that keep me focused on my hands smoothing soil over seeds. But sometimes cancer comes at me unexpectedly, from the outside.
I still encounter people I haven’t seen when I’m out and about, and they jar me out of the present I’m in and throw me back into Cancerland. Yesterday it was a woman in Homer’s Jeans. At first she looked right at my face and didn’t recognize me. Then she did a double take. She told me she’d been lighting candles for me. And she asked me the inevitable: “So is everything okay now?” I’ve heard variations of that question innumerable times, all accompanied by a look of concern, fear and just a pinch of pity mixed together. The question shrinks me into myself. I understand it’s coming form a caring place. But it’s loaded nonetheless, and difficult to answer. It lies at the bottom of a tall stack of unasked and unanswerable questions like the thin sheet under several blankets on a Siberian bed. Unasked questions like: “Did they cure your cancer?” It’s a heavy topic for two women holding armfuls of jeans and shirts, hands rattling hangers.
There are two pieces of literature under my computer, and each one provides a valid answer to the question. They lie on my lap, under my computer (the dog now asleep at my feet). One is a book, The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden by Stanley Kunitz. The other is the March 25th issue of Science magazine, devoted to the 40th anniversary of the declared “war on cancer.” This juxtaposition pretty much sums it up, the rope bridge (poet preparing for another season in the garden) and the raging river (fear of/obsession with/identity tied to/ cancer). It sums up two possible answers to the variation on the question some other acquaintance asked the other day: “Are you in remission?” Answer 1: see the current state of breast cancer pathology and treatment as summarized in current issue of Science. Answer 2: I am planting seeds into six-packs for my garden. The magazine lays out the research strides and dead ends and disappointments. It describes what’s been learned about cancer’s nasty, downright evil personality, which defies as much as it succumbs. There are myriad cancers, but they all share commonalities, a wiley-ness, a craftiness, a meanness, a stupidity, a fanatical drive, the ability to mutate, to travel, to colonize, to morph, to evade, to resurrect, to transform, like some monster in the scariest horror flick ever made, the un-killable Talky Tina doll. Perhaps I should carry multiple issues of the magazine, hand them out. If you read the articles about cancer, it’s clear how impossible it is to answer, how useless to try. “Chances are,” I might say. Or “As far as anyone can tell.” Or “I sure as hell hope so!” How do I answer? Maybe this is the way: Today I feel great, healthy, hungry, energetic; yesterday I ran 4 miles and shared a meal with a group of friends, hosted a house-guest, wrote, took a walk, conversed, ate dessert. How about you?
That’s where the gardening book comes in. On the cover is a photograph of Stanley Kunitz, a famous poet who lived to be 100. He’s bent over examining something in between the rosemary bush and the ferns in his garden. He’s clutching a bamboo cane in his right hand. Perhaps he’s watching a garter snake (he wrote a poem about that). He’s wearing a blue and black plaid chamois shirt and tan corduroys like Craig’s. His left hand is brown, the skin shiny and tight, with prominent veins and long slender fingers, like a piano player’s. He’s beautiful.
Before cancer, I went through my midlife crisis phase, a couple years where I stared too long in the mirror searching for wrinkles or new gray hairs. I panicked right before hitting my mid-40’s at the probability that in a few years, I might look ridiculous in low-rise jeans. I went through menopause early and suddenly. It was a shock. After my breast cancer diagnosis, riding my bike down Lower Road on the Cape to and from my sister’s garden, I frequently saw older people out walking, retired men with golden retrievers, or gray-haired, trim women in sun hats and walking sneakers, or couples, hand in hand. I looked at them with longing. Suddenly, growing old seemed a most desirable process. Imagining myself in loose slacks instead of jeans, in short gray hair, in spectacles instead of glasses, was a kind of prayer.
Planting seeds is a similar kind of prayer. This summer’s will be the fourth garden I’ve had some part in tending since last March. I planted all our start seeds last spring in Homer. I helped my sister grow a garden on Cape Cod. Most days, even during the worst of chemo, I biked or walked or drove to that plot and pulled weeds or stood watching a murder of crows harassing a red-tailed hawk as I watered the tomato plants at the center of the garden’s spiral bed. In Hawaii, I planted corn and tomatoes and cucumbers. Early in the morning or late at night, before it got too hot, I watered, tinkered, weeded, harvested. And now, full circle, I plant seeds the day before I fly back east. That brings me back to Stanley Kunitz, who wrote a poem I love called “The Round.”
I’m going to let Stanley Kunitz have the last word tonight. It’s finally dark, and the nearly half moon is now the source of the light landing on my shoulder (It’s 10:10 pm). As I live each day, the poetry/garden answer to the “How are you doing now” question is more and more appealing and natural. (But I still need to figure out how to deal next time it happens in the grocery store, the library, a concert, in a restaurant. I would like to be the one who gets to choose whether cancer – damned Agatha – gets invited into the conversation or not. I need a script, a good one-liner. “My cancer’s gone at the moment. How about your bunions?”)
Here is “The Round” by Stanley Kunitz
Light splashed this morning
on the shell-pink anemones
swaying on their tall stems;
down blue-spiked veronica
light flowed in rivulets
over the humps of the honeybees;
this morning I saw light kiss
the silk of the roses
in their second flowering,
my late bloomers
flushed with their brandy.
A curious gladness shook me.
So I have shut the door of my house,
so I have trudged downstairs to my cell,
so I am sitting in semi-dark
hunched over my desk
with nothing for a view
to tempt me
but a bloated compost heap,
steamy old stinkpile,
under my window;
and I pick my notebook up
and I start to read aloud
the still-wet words I scribbled
on the blotted page:
“Light splashed . . .”
I can scarcely wait till tomorrow
when a new life begins for me,
as it does each day,
as it does each day.