Saturday, April 23, 2011

On the Edge Between Earth and Easter

It's the day between Earth Day and Easter, blustery, rainy, and gray here on Cape Cod.  And it feels very much like I'm pressed between heaven and earth, between death and resurrection.  Jo in Alaska just e-mailed to say that our friend Trudy died today of lung cancer.  I read the words and the wind outside my window swept up through my body and back out.  I looked out at the trees crazily swaying and for a second couldn't understand why it wasn't plainly visible:  the energy of Trudy, swirling up and away, like a funnel cloud generated down here on earth, but leaving.  Unbounded.  While her family's feet stay planted firmly on the hard ground of loss.  With one ear, I listen to gusts shoving against the side of the house.  With the other ear, I listen to the family, Mara and my niece Phoebe stuffing Easter baskets in the next room, Jon herding the two wild boys, who've dressed themselves in big sunglasses and huge, garish aloha shirts and stuffed them with pillows so they're waddling around, triple their normal girth.

Last night, I got in bed exhausted, but then couldn't sleep.  I kept thinking of L., who called last night to talk about her cancer diagnosis, and her visit to the doctor regarding the pathology results.  She sounded so scared.  The type of breast cancer she has is rare, and she was worried that the regular breast cancer team she's scheduled to see next week won't be enough, that she'll be shunted to another specialist, thus delaying treatment.  At 10 pm I e-mailed my oncologist asking him what he thought.  I wanted to give her some reassuring word, to lessen the weight of tomorrow's barrow-full of wait-n-worry.

Waiting.  The waiting cancer entails pushes you beyond your psychological edge, as the yoga instructor this morning did with my physical limits.  "Feel your edge," Petra said, winding her way through the heated room, among 23 bodies on 23 matts, one of them mine, sweat raining down so freely on the purple surface that my hands in downward dog just slid forward.  "Feel your edge."  Maybe there's a yoga to cancer, to cancer's waiting.  But no "Cancer Yoga for Dummies" handbook will suffice.  Petra, adjusting the graceful body of a woman in the full expression of some impossible contortion, suggested that we look around at one another sometimes, study the way different people enter into a pose, see where we're going.  That's what people who face cancer do for one another.  Show a way past to and beyond the edge.

Lying in bed last night in the dark, my mind roiling, I stilled myself by praying.  I know I've written more than once about unanswered prayers, but the impulse is still strong in me, I guess, at moments like these.  I was once a little Catholic girl praying in the dark, reaching my hand up to take God's hand to quell my fear, like my brother Andy instructed.  I still sleep with my right hand curled up around empty space.  I whispered an incantation, calling in all the forces of human and nature and unknown I'd drawn upon during my cancer journey and sent them to L.  And when I still couldn't sleep, I turned on the light and reached for my phone.  I don't know why I did it.  Maybe just to check the time.  But the e-mail popped up and there was a message from my oncologist.  There were the reassuring words L. needed, just two brief sentences sent from his I-Pad at 11 pm.  No mush, no love, no sentiment, just the unexpected answer to a prayer in that moment.  Is it just me, or is this world telling me again and again to look here for solace?  But I can't help myself.  I still glance out the window and half-expect to see the tendril of a prayer drifting up like a lost balloon.  A gust of hope still carries the wish that Trudy will somehow intercede on behalf of L.  But the answer comes from right here on earth.  The ordinary, everyday miracle in a storm of hurt.  And we rest on just that.  And sometimes it's even enough.

Yesterday's reading from The Book of Awakening by Mark Nepo stopped me short when I read it a day late, after yoga.  I sat at the coffee shop in my sopping yoga clothes and read it aloud to Phoebe and Mara between spoonfuls of white bean soup.  Here are some excerpts:

"It is hard when in pain to believe that all we ever need is before us, around us, within us.  And yet it is true.  Like leafless trees waiting for morning, something as great and as constant as the Earth turns us ever so slowly toward the light . . . Never was this more painfully true for me than during the aftermath of my first chemo treatment.  I was in a Holiday Inn at five in the morning after 24 hours of vomiting every twenty minutes.  I was slumped on the floor, holding the space of a rib that had been removed three weeks earlier.  And my wife--in anger, in panic, in desperation--called out, "Where is God?"  And from some unknown place in me, through my pale slouched form, I uttered, 'Here . . . right here.'  . . . Time and again, we are asked to outlast what we want and hope for, in order to see what's there.  It is enough."

I believe it wasn't just Mark Nepo's enlightened response that created the agonizing miracle he describes in that story, but just as much his wife's angry question.  It's not just the "spiritual" but the gritty, not just the spectacular sunset but the dingy gray one, not just the wind moving through you but the rage, not just the sympathetic ear but the straight answer e-mailed at 11 pm on Good Friday (which in my experience, is never good; take the '64 earthquake in Alaska, and the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and my grandmother's death).  In a moment of laughter at the end of our conversation last night, L. said, "Well, I guess I really got Good-Friday-ed today."  I said, "Well, at least you won't have to live through that one again."  And the answered prayer was the clock pushing past midnight into another day.  And the answered prayer waking into another ordinary, difficult, scary resurrection.          

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