The storm that blasted through the southeastern US is now barreling up the East Coast, and here on Cape Cod, the wind’s already gusting. I’m sitting in my room watching the trees sway and twitch, listening to the gusts lean against the corner of the house. I love a good storm. I can hear my nephews’ voices. They’ve constructed a giant landing pad of cushions and pillows at the base of the stairs to their room, and they’re leaping off the stairs onto it, something I remember our kids doing, only they leapt from a loft.
Mara and I went to yoga at 8:30 this morning, and then stopped to visit the friend who had a biopsy yesterday. Her hair cut looks great. But the doctor doing the biopsy went deep, and she hugged us sideways, still very sore. After a half hour of tea-drinking and conversation, another friend came over, the woman I used to call my chemo-carpool-buddy. We went through treatment together at Beth Israel, and I often hitched to Boston with C. and her father. C., who has a different brand of breast cancer than mine, is still getting a monthly infusion of a non-chemo drug called Herceptin. She is through the worst of treatment though, done with Taxol and Cytoxan and The Red Devil, done with radiation, and she has a head of thick dark hair, still at brush-cut stage (she was diagnosed several weeks after I was), and she looked great in her black tights, short black skirt, and sheepskin-lined work boots. We sat on the couches and had what Craig calls a “laugh yoga” session.
There’s nothing like laughing with other women who’ve been through breast cancer treatment and recovery. Because the breast cancer experience is not only traumatic and humbling but also absurd. The focus this morning was on awkward encounters with people – the ones in our spheres who know we had cancer but don’t know any details. They've "heard." These encounters occur out in the world in public places when we’re trying to step outside of Cancerland and just be everyday human beings, i.e., grocery stores, post office lines, ski trails, clothing shops. We invented responses we’d never utter, except in one another’s company, or in our mean-girl fantasies. Because of course we know that the people who ask these questions are well-intentioned or uncertain or down-right scared. Here are a few examples (it’s important to imagine these questions coming at one not over a cup of tea in a quiet café, but during the intermission of a concert, for example, or over a display of ears of corn, and often accompanied by a certain concerned, pitying, anxious facial expression):
Q: “Did you have a mastectomy?”
A: “Have you had a hysterectomy?”
Q: “Did you have to have a mastectomy?” (I know this is a repetition, but I’ve been asked more than once).
A: “I don’t want to say, but can I tell you about my latest pap smear?”
Q: “Are you cured?”
A: “How’s that alcoholism doing?”
Q: “Okay, what kind?” (This was an actual question posed to C. with no prelude from a stranger who walked up to her at a performance she attended, when she still wore a scarf).
A: Frankly, I’m struck as speechless as C. was. If you have any ideas for a response to this, feel free to post a comment. I guess “Gap Skinny Jeans, why do you think they make my ass look good?” might work.
Q: “Do you know why you got it?”
A: “Well, I did chew a lot of gum.” (Use this with gum-chewing inquirers).
Q: “Have you recently gone through medical treatment?” (This was asked of me by an elderly stranger at a state park after I got back from a run, my first without my scarf. I was sitting in my car changing into my swim suit and she looked in and asked).
A: “Are you lost?”
We laughed with wild abandon, sitting on our friend’s leather couches, nursing our peach tea. She held an ice pack to her biopsied breast, and I hope the laughing didn’t hurt it too much. On days when camel pose and profound bow are just too much, laugh yoga is a good alternative. Laughter is a trump card. Laughter is a power play over something we’ve very much powerless over: cancer, our future, the questions we’re asked out of the blue while we’re buying socks.
At one point, C. said something about how she was “going through cancer,” and our friend challenged her. “You had cancer,” she said. “You don’t anymore,” I piped in.
I watched C.’s face. I saw “the look,” a kind of momentary cloud shadow sweeping across it. And I knew that look. The same cloud sweeps past me whenever my sister says, “You’re cured,” or “You got the ‘all clear.’” It creates the confusion, the little storm inside me whenever someone asks, “Are you cured?” Or “Are you okay now?” It’s a little doubt-cloud. Mixed with flying leaves, which are errant scraps of hope. Mixed with motes of data, anecdotes, words, phrases like "five year survival." We believe and don’t believe and are afraid to believe and not to believe, in rapid flickers, like the shadows of moving water or fire. I want to tell C. it’s okay. We learn to live with that little fluttering thing, and it’s perhaps the most private thing, more private even than what happened to our bodies. Will it ever leave us? I don’t know. But I doubt it. It's our weakness and our strength. It's how we recognize each other.
I want to tell C. that, from my vantage, just a couple months further down the road, the walk back to life and health and trust and that “new normal” everyone talks about takes as long as it takes. It’s like walking to a distant mountain. Wanting to get there faster doesn’t get us there faster. It only makes the walk more torturous. And the mountain we see from where we are is not the mountain we eventually climb. The view from here is not the view from the alpine ridge.
And then the cloud shadow passed away from C.'s face. And she said, “That’s right, I don’t have cancer anymore.” And then she (who’s Catholic), threw out another question for our list:
Q: What are you giving up for Lent?
A: I gave up my boob. Do you think I need to give up something else?”
And then it was sunlight on our faces again.