I sat to write late this afternoon, thinking I’d recount what happened a year ago today, April 8. I started to type out the story, how in the early morning, I stood in the shower in my sister’s house. It was Thursday; she was going to work. Unexpectedly she knocked on the shower door and asked if she could open it. “Sure,” I said. When she did, I saw that she was crying. “What’s wrong?”
“I did something. I’m afraid you’ll be upset. I knew that today they’d probably call about the biopsy, and I’m working, and I didn’t want you to be alone, so I called In-med and asked them not to call you today, to wait until tomorrow, when I’ll be home. But I realized that it was wrong. So now you know. So you can decide. If you want to know today, you can call them.”
I wasn’t upset. I knew she’d done me a favor. I’d been waiting all week for that call, and the rush of adrenaline every time my cell phone rang was wearing me out. The night before, I’d called the pathology lab, and a young-sounding guy told me he was at that moment working on my biopsy. He’d fax the results to the pathologist that night. He was so matter-of-fact about it, as though we were talking about a car part. I pictured him in a white coat, lank brown hair in his eyes, leaning over a microscope, I-pod headphones draped around his neck, the phone pressed to his ear, a pizza delivery on the way. Just another night on the job.
I sat in my writing room, at my little antique desk and started to write about the rest of the morning, my calling In-Med (the pathologist was busy ruining someone else’s day), then waiting for a return call.
And I realized I didn’t want to do write about it. The journal from last spring, open on my desk. I closed it. I put it back on the shelf with all the others.
All day today I’ve carried with me the awareness of the anniversary of my breast cancer diagnosis. All this last week, I’ve counted down the days leading up to today, living suspended between present and past. But now that it’s here, I turn my back on last year. I look out the window at broken clouds, a few pale blue patches, bare trees Instead of reading my journal, I open The Way It Is, by William Stafford, and I read his poem “You Reading This, Be Ready.”
My friend Wendy showed this poem to me earlier today. I drove up to her house in the spruce forest after yoga. We sat in front of the fire in her woodstove, drank tea, ate fruit, fig bars and Vietnamese ginger cookies and talked about poetry. She told me that a woman I knew years ago, a fellow poet, her close friend, had committed suicide. She was “porous,” Wendy said, and I thought it an accurate description.
Allowing yourself to be porous is risky in this world, where the body betrays you, and people sometimes do, and accidents happen, and lovers leave, and the furnace breaks, and tsunamis hit, and politicians fail, and a brother driving a motorcycle five miles an hour falls and breaks his neck, and a mother visits her child in prison and never recovers from the sight of him in handcuffs and a yellow jump suit. Yellow knocks her to her knees. How do you stay porous to all of this, porous and hopeful and writing poetry?
A breast cancer diagnosis didn’t knock me to my knees last year. It washed over me, the pathologist’s words on the phone. Then I went upstairs, lay down, and pulled a blanket over my head. The poet I quote below, William Stafford, wrote another one that ends with the line "The darkness around us is deep." And that hour, it was deep. But then that tireless tug of life, that mindless will, rousted me from bed. I think of it like the old dog that wants his walk no matter that his owner’s father just died. The kids want their supper. The plants their water. I got up, washed my face, and drove to pick Mara and Jon’s kids up from school. Then I sat with my mother while she ate dinner. The blessed tedium of an ordinary day, mundane errands, tasks, hunger, thirst. None of it stopped. I let the old dog drag me along until my feet moved of their own accord. And then other things found me: poems, a pond, birds, music.
At the close of this day I pray to remain porous to the pain and beauty, to the acute crisis of every moment of being alive. And for the strength to hold equally the sorrow and joy.
Here’s that poem by William Stafford, and my own attempts at answers to its questions:
You Reading This, Be Ready
Starting here, what do you want to remember?
How sunlight creeps along a shiny floor?
What scent of old wood hovers, what softened
sound from outside fills the air?
(I want to remember the snowshoe hare Wendy and I watched from her writing cabin window, with a white body and a strip of brown down its back. I want to remember the copy of our dead friend’s poem, the one Wendy handed to me as we sat by the fire. How I read the poem and we sat in silence, how the silence said everything necessary. How the silence was the answering poem.)
Will you ever bring a better gift for the world
than the breathing respect you carry
wherever you go right now? Are you waiting
for time to show you some better thoughts?
(Yes, I want to write my way always to some better thoughts, not satisfied with the ones I have right now, in this dark room, Craig asleep beside me. I want meaning, but I know life is sometimes just that tired old dog who can’t tell me why someone porous and full of poetry ended her life, and why I fight for mine).
When you turn around, starting here, lift this
new glimpse that you found; carry into evening
all that you want from this day. This interval you spent
reading or hearing this, keep it for life –
(All that I want from this day, that I will keep for life: the voices of my step-daughter and her fiancé coming through the door downstairs, carrying a blueberry crisp, and before that, Craig playing his guitar, and before that, my annoyance at Craig calling up to me “Where is the olive oil? Where is the soy sauce? Where is the salad dressing? And my gritted teeth and my muttered “God damn it,” and my love for all of it).
What can anyone give you greater than now,
starting here, right in this room, when you turn around?
(No one can give me anything greater than now. Soup made of halibut and cauliflower from our freezer, and carrots from the bucket of sawdust on the porch. And blueberry crisp with strawberry ice cream. And talking about Eve and Eivin’s wedding. And my dead friend’s poem on the refrigerator. And the whale-shaped stone another friend brought me the day after my surgery which now sits on my desk).
Perhaps it’s right to live two days in parallel, one in sickness and one in health. Life on earth is nothing but paradox. The porous woman who took her own life wrote a poem I hang on my fridge to teach me about hope, and to teach me about pain, about everything I'll never understand. What can anyone give that’s greater than that? It’s as though she’s here in this room right now, starting again, turning around to begin. I keep her poem for life.