Another day, another waiting room. This time, I’m waiting for my follow-up visit with Dr. Molly Sullivan, the radiation oncologist. Through an open door I see the inner waiting area, where last fall I went five days a week for radiation treatments. There, in the narrow corridor where people sat in their johnnies across from a bathroom, a television blared, hung on a wall near the ceiling. Here, sappy music plays in the background, and this soothing green room, unlike the inner, darker one, is brightly lit and spacious. The magazines here are a bit more reasonable than in the mammogram waiting area of Beth Israel Hospital. Some even provide helpful advice about going through cancer treatment. There’s also O magazine, Martha Stewart and Architectural Digest. While you wait, you can learn how to dye fabric with crushed mulberries, make candles or bake a strawberry layer cake. Thankfully, there’s no Lucky magazine to be found. This is waiting room is a place you come only after you’ve been deemed unlucky in mammography or some other scanning salon.
It’s been overwhelming to return here to Cape Cod, and I’m sure that will change over time. I left in late autumn, and now it’s early spring. Hints of red and green budding leaves, white magnolia blossoms, daffodils and crocuses soften the landscape, which is still largely brown, a thick layer of dead oak leaves on the forest floor, and dead cinnamon colored oak leaves still clinging to branches of trees. Yesterday, it rained non-stop, and the gray and cold reminded me of last fall. Everything reminds me, I have to admit. But rooms and landscapes lose their deja-vu charge after the initial hit. I’ve had to shake myself at times, shake off all the memories like a dust that’s settled on my perception of the present. Places in my sister’s house where this phenomenon is most striking are the bathroom, the living area, and the stairs up to the third floor, where I lived (and where now the boys sleep). The first time I went up to the third floor with the boys to see how they’d decorated their new spaces, I remembered ascending those same stairs on all fours hunched like a moose, during chemo, after my red blood cell count dropped. My heart would pound so hard by the time I got to the top that I’d often lie down for a few minutes to recover. At night, I’d lie up there for hours listening to my heartbeat in my ears, a sound like distant water pulsing through a turbine.
The bathroom too is full of haints. It’s one of the only rooms that’s remained unchanged: the blue-polka-dotted towels, the view of the backyard and woods out the window by the shower, the cupboards and drawers, all trigger memories. But “trigger” isn’t exactly the right word. It’s more like wading through opaque layers of time. The air in these places, at least the first time I revisit them, is thicker, like the air above a warm pond on a summer day. In the bathroom, I push my hands past memories of chemo-illness, when I got out of the shower and lay immediately down on the bath matt and curled in a ball. I remember attempting to put a brave face on in the mornings, when Mara and Jon’s kids were getting ready for their school day (today, for example: Jon cooking soups for their school lunches while the boys fly a remote-controlled helicopter around the kitchen, Phoebe reading a magazine, Mara standing at the counter eating a bowl of cereal and writing notes for the babysitter before work, and I adding to the general din by making a fruit and vegetable smoothie in a blender. Life with three school-aged kids and two working parents and a visiting aunt is … well, just what you’d expect). Last summer, lying on the bath matt, naked, was an act of surrender to how powerless and crummy I really felt, an allowed few minutes of raw truth before I gathered myself up and headed down the stairs to answer the question: How are you feeling? And I wanted, for their sake, to be able to say “Better.” But so often I wasn’t. That’s all over now. This morning, I looked in the mirror at my hair – still a source of wonder to me – and spritzed it with some kind of product I found in a drawer, and pondered if I should get a trim, and when I walked into my sister’s office room, where she was reading the morning prayer from The Book of Awakening and writing in her journal, she said, “You look great. The picture of health.” I haven’t lost the feeling of it -- health, life itself -- being a gift.
Now I’m waiting in the radiation oncologist’s examination room. My initial doctor visits and blood work already done, I’m much more relaxed today. The nurse who led me here chatted with me about “survivorship,” after I told her about my frightening mammogram. That fear, she assured me, was an aspect of this thing called “survivorship.” I think about that concept. It’s almost like walking away from cancer treatment requires special training, a certificate, if not a degree. I certainly can attest to it from my experience of the last few months. You don’t go back to your old life. Or at least I didn’t. It’s a semblance, another version. Versions, come to think of it, are what these days poets call poems translated from other languages (Google today's poem on Verse Daily, for example). There’s no such thing as an exact translation; language is too deeply specific to culture and place and its own grammatical architecture. Each translator is a unique filter through which language is sieved. Five translations by five translators equal five versions of a poem, sometimes five separate poems. It seems that “survivorship” is like that, too. No two women experience breast cancer in the same way. No two women walk away from treatment in the same way, either. Each woman after breast cancer is her own poem.
The nurse told me that the oncology department at Cape Cod Hospital was launching a new survivorship program, and asked if I’d be willing to talk to the social worker about my experiences. Since a deep-seated wish of mine is to help some other woman (or more than one) going through what I went through, to transform some of this scrap metal into, if not gold, than at least into something useful by a kind of alchemical process (which right now is simply writing), I gave the nurse my e-mail and blog addresses. She, like so many of the nurses who work in the trenches of Cancerland, has absorbed an understanding of a patient's whole experience, not just the medical. We credit our oncologists with saving our lives, or fighting to save them, but it’s the nurses who save our spirits by keeping their ears to the ground, passing on wisdom from women they’ve seen over years. “It’s scary, I know,” she said, after I told her about being called back for an ultrasound the other day. “I know women feel like they’ve been thrown off a cliff, too, when they walk away from treatment. It's all part of survivorship.”
And that’s exactly right. Psychologically, for Craig and me, those first two months were the hardest, that limbo between Cancerland and the next chapter of life. But I’m coming to see that it’s not a sandwich: one slice cancer treatment, a filling of limbo, another slice of normal life. The top of the sandwich is a dark, coarse bread made from all that came before. Once your eyes are open to the reality of a thing called cancer at loose in the world, like Eve and Adam post-apple, you can’t stick the peeled skins back on your eyes, you can't go back to the old Subway sandwich. Your eyes are bare; your bread is multi-grain. After a cancer diagnosis, either yours or your loved ones, you know the stakes. You sit in waiting rooms and breath the fear and hope drifting around you, and recognize its smell and taste. In the outer waiting room today, words drifted across the room to me from a woman sitting with her husband. “I’m really scared,” she said. Once you know that fear, the way you look in other women’s eyes changes. Now that I’ve walked “through the valley of the shadow,” I can’t close my eyes or turn them away.
I wrote a poem in anticipation of that last summer, during chemo. I wrote it after drawing money from the ATM at the Hot Chocolate Sparrow Café on the Cape, a place I went often to write. I was wearing my head scarf. Here’s the poem:
WOMAN AT THE ATM
Wherever I go, she's there, but she doesn't look
like me, bald head concealed
by a cotton bandana. Mostly, she's
invisible. Though I catch a stranger’s
pensive glance now and then. Today, she’s thirty-something,
blonde hair, long, shimmering. I was getting some cash
from the ATM, and she was sitting at one
of the tables, drinking coffee, and when I looked up, her eyes
shifted back to her cup. One out of seven,
I’m told. In this crowded café, how many? Someday
I’ll be the one leaning on her elbow, watching
the woman in the head scarf at the cash machine, I’ll be lost
in remembering, maybe I’ll be playing
with a strand of hair, and when
she glances up and meets my eye, I wonder if
I’ll look away.
I know the answer to that question now. And I understand why I didn't, back then.
April 15, morning
My eyes, my inner eyes, eyes peeled of so many layers that shielded me: today they are fixed on a friend, a long-time breast cancer survivor, who not long ago found a lump on her remaining breast and this afternoon goes to the hospital for a biopsy. As she lies there on that table turning her face away, as she hears the voices of the doctor and nurse above her working to position and guide the needle, as she startles each time she hears the terrible snap (but in that prone position it arrive in your ear sharp like a gunshot) that signals a sample’s been taken, my inner eyes will be locked with hers, the way my eyes were locked with my sister’s when she stood by my head last year, when I lay on my back in utter surrender. I wrote about profound bow yoga position last time, but when you are lying on some examining table, it’s more like camel pose. In yoga yesterday, we practiced it. You stand on your knees and support your lower back with the flat of your hands, tuck your butt and lean back, opening your chest to the sky, dangling your arms back until you can hold your heels. You drop your head. It’s the ultimate exposure and surrender posture, especially if you have had breast cancer. Every unsaid word, every unexpressed hurt, every terror seems to rise to the surface of the skin, to catch in the throat, to throb in the center of the chest. My inner eye already, hours before her procedure, is locked with my friend’s as she lies back on that table, in her inner camel pose. That woman poured strength into me after my diagnosis, shared everything she’d learned from her cancer experience with me (at that time, a stranger to her), loaned me her juicer, her nausea spray, took me to a deserted beach called Crow’s Pasture where we found a red-handled knife and three square beads in the sand that spelled out “SLY” (a perfect alias for cancer), (this a few days before my surgery). She took me after surgery to swim in a clear deep secret pond in the forest. All day today our eyes pour strength back and forth like a cup of that pond’s crystal clear water poured from my glass to her, from hers to mine, again and again. This woman taught me how to laugh in the face of cancer, and this morning, when I called her, hours before the procedure, she asked me to guess where she was.
“Where?” I asked.
“Getting my hair done.”
I burst out laughing in surprise. I knew that this woman, two days ago brought low by despair and fear, had risen again. The warrior woman who taught me how to be a warrior – the kind who bends back in camel pose and bares her throat, the kind who gets up out of bed after her “suspicious” mammogram and makes dinner for her family – was resurrected.
My brother sent a copy of my last blog post to the singer/songwriter Mary Gauthier, telling her that she’d impacted my life with her music. She wrote back that “A songwriter is merely a lightening rod....looking for the electricity.”
We’re all lightning rods. Maybe the way we bend and break and rise again is the electric song that's found its ground and plays through us. On this earth, which is at once hell and hallowed ground and the ecotone between, the best we can do let ourselves be struck and sung for one another.