12 April, 10:30 am
Beginning the descent into Boston. I’ve slept fitfully, a nap here or there. I’ve been reading that book, The Wild Braid, Stanley Kunitz’s reflections on gardening, nature, poetry, life. The end of one poem, “The Testing Tree,” goes like this;
In a murderous time
the heart breaks and breaks
and lives by breaking.
It is necessary to go
through dark and deeper dark
and not to turn.
I am looking for the trail.
Where is my testing tree?
Give me back my stones!
I think of my own trail, around Cliff Pond, on Cape Cod, which I circumambulated so many times last summer and fall, a round to walk off the fog of chemicals at work in my body. And my testing tree, the sprawling beech at the end of another trail in the woods behind my sister’s house. Partway down a slope to the swamp and a cold spring, it spread multiple trunks toward the sky. I’d wrap my arms around that trunk, gray like an elephant leg, and Piper the dog would jump up and place his paws beside me, wondering what I was doing. And my stones. I carried a small cloth bag of them away from the Cape when I left in December. At my goodbye circle gathering, each friend gave me a stone and a slip of paper with some words, a poem or a prayer, and I carried them to Hawaii and back up to Alaska and now that bag is on an altar in my writing room. People ask why I’m going back to the Cape for so long, when my doctor visits are over in one week. It’s for the tree, the trail, the circle, and the stones, the dog, the family, the cottage, the trails, the bay. We just broke through the clouds and I can see the earth below.
12 April, 1:30 pm, Testing Tree
1n the waiting room of radiology with all of the other scared women, clad in our light blue cotton johnnies, women with two breasts, or one. We wait while the radiologist checks images, wait to be released from purgatory. At least there’s no blaring TV. Just terrible, outdated “women’s” magazines, including one called Lucky. Which is ironic, as that’s exactly the case here: some of us will be lucky today, some of us unlucky. Some will walk out of here back into the life they left outside the door, some will walk out of here into an altered life, like I did last year. No one in Lucky magazine looks like any of us, though.
Mrs. Malcomb, a 50-something short blonde finally gets called. Earlier she told a group of us that she was scared waiting such a long time.“Mrs. Malcomb, you can get dressed and then go back and see the radiologist.” She walks to the changing area. I send a prayer chasing after her. But then I realize: “You can get dressed” is code for “You’re out of here.” Once you see the radiologist, you leave by a separate door. Goodbye Mrs. Malcomb. Good luck to you.
Two women in the waiting room need ultrasounds. One looks like she might be hip when not in her johnny, with layered dirty blonde hair and rectangular glasses. But whatever she is outside this room has vanished. The hospital Johnny is the great equalizer, stripping us of masks. We’re all, from the waist up, primarily flesh and bone creatures. And it feels like we’re imprisoned, awaiting sentencing or release. The look of fear in the eyes of the woman across from me, one of those waiting for her ultrasound – her pale skin and wide eyes, the cell phone pressed to her ear, the way she glances around at everyone else, meets my eye – locks me into sisterhood with her. We sit here and reassure one another, sometimes with just a look. One lean, dark-haired woman in a pixie haircut like mine realizes she’s hungry, didn’t anticipate the long wait, and Mara offers to go downstairs and buy her some food. But her husband is outside the door, and she tells us her name – Nora, in case they call her – and leaves to get a power bar from him.
Mara asks the older woman in street clothes sitting next to us, who speaks Portugese to her johnny- clad friend (who is exceedingly thin, bird-boned, like me, one-breasted), if they call everyone back for their results, not just “if there’s something bad.” The woman reassures us, yes, they call everyone back. It’s nothing to worry about, if they do an ultrasound, they just want a better look. The other women who needs an ultrasound looks over at us, and I think she feels better, hearing that, whether it’s true or not. Her face opens momentarily.
We’re like people randomly thrown together on a small plane on a stormy flight, or in an earthquake shelter. We’re not strangers. Nora gets called to put on her clothes and go to the back office. When she comes out of the dressing room, she strides, already gone from us, already part of another, brighter world. The yoke of worry’s off her slim shoulders. I can see her wings unfolding.
Then I’m called into the mammogram room.
I’m back after less than five minutes. Two views of my left breast. I found the rough, brisk treatment reassuring, with its air of the routine, the rote, the breast just a pound of flesh to mold and press into place, my shoulder something to push down away from my ear. Right before I stepped up to the machine, I thought I might cry, but the no nonsense orders: put your shoulder down, put your arm up here, doused the emotion. I came back out and picked up my computer, began writing. Erma and Rosa now are welcomed into the rooms with their humming machines and dim lights.
The Portuguese woman in street clothes has a hot flash, waves a magazine at it. “Eight years,” she says, sighing. Then she and her bird-thin friend get called back, return. Now something isn’t good. The one-breasted one comes out of the ultrasound room upset. She gestures with her hands, violently, in front of her chest. She keeps glancing down at her remaining breast. She shakes her head no; she looks more angry than scared or sad. I nudge Mara, who’s working on her computer next to me. She understands Spanish, but not Portuguese. I type: Something bad? The look she gives me says something not good. There are no tears with those two. Just intense conversation. My heart drops several inches and leaves an empty spot at the center of my chest for that tiny woman with her arms crossed over her chest. And then the two of them burst out into laughing that sounds more like hyenas crying. And there’s something incredibly strong in that. How the blows come out of nowhere, on some random day, and we just take them, reel for awhile, and go on.
Another friend, at exactly the same time, is having a mammogram. A ten year survivor of breast cancer, she found a lump in her other breast. She too is at this moment waiting, in fear even more acute than mine. She will need a biopsy. I send a prayer like a smoke ring, but first, I take some deep breaths, to clean the anxiety out of the smoke, so it’s a clear ring drifting off to find her. I imagine her looking up from paging through her O or Woman’s Day magazine and catching it on her forefinger. I call up the smoke ring prayer “Mercy Now.” There’s a song by that name, by Mary Gauthier.
Yeah, we all could use a little mercy now.
I know we don’t deserve it
but we need it anyhow.
We hang in the balance,
dangle between hell and hallowed ground.
Every single one of us could use some mercy now.
Writing helps in this limbo between hell and hallowed ground. The anxiety flows out of my fingertips; the faster I type, the faster it flows. The waiting is terrible. When I stop typing, I feel like an intertidal creature exposed by the tide on a hot sunny day, slowly drying out, the salt on my skin itching. I hear the sound of water licking back up the beach, but it doesn’t rise fast enough. I wait to hear the sound of my name called.
A woman comes out with a clipboard to check the names on our wristbands against the names on her sheet, and says she’s trying to memorize us. But she comes out and does it again and again.
One of the women who had an ultrasound, the hip-looking one, gets called back, then comes out smiling, practically flouncing. After she gets dressed, she returns to the waiting room to get her bag, glances around with that relieved face, as though the other face she wore, the scared, vulnerable one, has been peeled back like an onion’s brown, dry outer skin. She stops and locks eyes with me, asks if she knows me. She tells me I look familiar. “I’m not sure,” I say, because I do feel know her, maybe a part of her that many of her loved ones have never seen. But the look on her face now: we’re strangers again. There she goes, back into the land of the lucky, with one more smiling backward glance, and it washes over us like a blessing. You go, girl.
3:18 It’s now past time for my appointment to see my oncologist. Now the waiting room takes on the atmosphere of a torture chamber. I was called back, not asked to get dressed. In another room, the same efficient technician mashed my breast even more radically, trying to squeeze out the “thing” the radiologist wanted another look at. “Don’t worry,” she says. “It’s probably nothing.” On the picture she hangs on a lighted screen, the “thing” or “no thing” is a diffuse white blob, like a smashed moth on a windshield.
And after that, I was called back again. And told that the radiologist wants to do an ultra-sound. The technician tried to reassure me, “The radiologist is very thorough; it’s probably nothing.” But I’m seriously scared now. All the confident, healthy woman energy I carried into this place pools around my feet and runs away. I shrink into my johnny, cross my arms across my chest. This is not how I imagined the day going. I tell Mara, and then I start typing again because my heart’s racing. All the poise and confidence I entered with is gone, like my new jeans and flowered shirt balled up in the changing room. The woman with the clipboard who can’t for the life of her remember any of our names, comes out again to check our wrist bands and offers to call the oncologist’s office, to tell them what’s happening, that I’ll be late. Again we wait. Then I’m called, and Mara gets up with me and we walk to the back door.
A short, dark-haired Latina woman named Helena, maybe 50 years old, leads me into the ultrasound room. As soon as I see the examining table under the dim lighting, I start losing all semblance of control. I turn to hook my jacket on the back of the door and I don’t let go of the corduroy and burst into tears. What comes out of me is a spontaneous cry. “I can’t face this again. I don’t want to do this again.” Mara puts her hands on my shoulders and just as before, I do turn and face the room, the machine, the letting go. Miles away, my friend, the breast cancer survivor who found the lump, also does it again, faces what she believes she can’t. She too lies down on an ultrasound table. Mara and Helena calm me down, and then I lie face-up on the table and bare my breast. I cover my face with one arm and cry as the jellied wand slides along. Then I try to read Mara’s face (she watching the screen) but she’s at such an angle I can’t tell what she’s thinking. “There it is,” Helena says in her calm voice, her slight accent. “It’d definitely fibro-adenoma. That’s a bit like cyst with thicker shell, and it’s never cancerous,” she says. “See?” I crane my neck back to look at the screen, at the small, dark lens shaped like an eye amid the whitish and grayish strands that are the fatty and glandular tissue of my healthy breast. Hello eye, I think, Eye into which I do not want to look. Eye like the black oval in the middle of my friend Jo’s otherwise colorful paintings depicting what she says is the black holy void, the creative generative center of life within us all. The void from which we come and into which we go. Hello eye.
Hours later, I am lying on my back in shivasana after a yoga class in North Boston. We rushed here in a taxi, leaving the empty 9th oncology floor (we were the last patients, and Dr. Schnipper, my beloved oncologist, spent an hour with us, past the closing of the office) in a rush.
Having looked again into that black eye, that void, creator, destroyer, I sense, in my whole body and spirit, as I lie on the wooden floor, that this reprieve, this “all clear” is the very gift of life itself. It’s been handed to me. Like never before, I know I’ve been offered a rare treasure. And it’s temporary. How long I can keep it, I don’t know. In my mind’s own eye, I reach out my hands and take the gift, and there’s something inside me that wants to say: “I promise to take good care of this. I promise not to forget what this is.”
April 14, Westin Hotel, Boston, rain outside
Mara reads the morning prayer from The Book of Awakening. It describes the yoga mudra known as “profound bow,” where by you kneel on the floor, and “bringing your head to your chest while extending your arms up and out behind you, you can practice placing your head beneath your heart. And from this humbling position, you can’t help but tire, and so, you must put your arms down.”
I realize that this is what we all did in that waiting room, yesterday. In those hospital johnnies, we bowed down to everything we couldn’t control. We all bowed to that void. Some of us got reprieves. Some of us got to put on our street clothes. Some of us walk further into the fearful unknowns. I send out my smoke ring prayer to each one. I get down on the hotel room floor and bend into a profound bow to the void. The words to the song plays again in my head: Every single one of us can use a little mercy now.
And here is a link to the song:
And here is a link to the song: