I'm sitting in my upstairs office staring out the window into a tangle of birch branches. The earth is still new-spring raw, the forest floor various shades of tan and brown and russet. Only on lawns can you see a tinge of green. The snow is gone, though, and crocuses bloom in the rock garden, and perennials nose up out of leaf duff. May Dan, and it's the beginning of a new year for us. Last night, a group of friends gathered at our house for a New Year's Eve dinner and ritual. I cooked up an enormous kettle of spring curry with Sri Lankan spices: cardamon, cinnamon, black mustard seeds, cumin seeds, fennel seeds, fenugreek, coriander seeds, all pan-toasted and ground with mortar and pestle. From last year's garden: cauliflower, potatoes, carrots. From a farm far away: snap peas, English peas, onions, garlic, fresh ginger, tomatoes, coconut milk.
Craig and I dreamed up this notion of New Year's Eve on April 30 about a month ago, when reflecting on the course of the last year. It had been a tough weekend, and Craig said, "Can this year be over now?" Still ahead of us was my trip to Boston for my first follow-up appointments and Craig's trip to southern California, to meet with his brothers to begin the process of selling their childhood home. Our year had begun, we agreed, with Craig's mother's death, which preceded my breast cancer diagnosis by about a week. So we decided that May 1, when we'd both returned to Alaska from those closing-the-circle trips, would be our new beginning.
Many of the breast cancer books suggest marking "the anniversary" in some way. But what's the anniversary? The day of diagnosis? The day I found the lump? The day I felt the ache? The unknown birthday of the cancer itself? Or the day, also unknown, its seed was planted? The day I first ate a pesticide-sprayed apple? Or the first day I worked picking Concord grapes dusted with poison, picking and eating until my fingers and mouth were raw? The day I took my first birth control pill? Ate my first soy cheese quesadilla? Swabbed bottom paint on the hull of a boat? Breathed diesel fumes? It it the day I lost my breast?
May 1. Not anniversary but birth day of a new year, May Day, Beltane. I pause to look up the etymology of the name of the traditional Celtic festival between Equinox and Solstice. It's from the Celtic for "fire," but also linked to Latvian and Lithuanian "balts," which means "white." At Beltane, farm animals are brought out to the fields after a winter's cloister inside barns. In Latvia, I visited a farm once, when blue-hued cows stepped into the light, and the farmer poured water on their backs to insure abundant milk and fertility. In festivals marking Beltane, bonfires are lit, and people jump over them. The word's also related to a Lithuanian Goddess of death. I look out the window again. Death-in-life is all apparent in the birch woods. Last years dead leaves still dangle from the limbs. Last year's wild grass lies down across the earth. But it's light out until 11 pm. The light, and varied thrush and crane calls, and the saw-blade cry of a pheasant, and a fat moose kneeling on the lawn to nibble green grass say life.
Craig learned that his mother's dying had begun in earnest the day he landed on a riverbank. He and Lars, his 20 year-old son, had been floating the Green River in Utah, a father-son canoe trip through the canyonlands. He left the Green River and flew directly to Orange County, but in truth the river trip had just begun for both of us that day. And yesterday we decided was the day we beached our battered canoe and stepped onto the bank to look around. In preparation yesterday I raked the thick layer of mulch off the rock garden to give the emerging perennials, daffodils and tulips some more light and breathing room. Then someone warned me that I'd made them vulnerable to snowshoe hares. Death in life again.
Eleven friends and family members gathered last night, crowded around our kitchen table. I followed a precise instinct. No alcohol. No meat. Food served in a single bowl: brown rice, curry. One utensil: a spoon. Baked apples. Candles. Yellow flowers. My friend Jo pointed out that May 1 marked the immaculate conception of Mary, so I got up from the table and took an image of her off my altar and leaned it against a candlestick.
Jo and I had the day before attended the memorial service for our friend Trudy, who died last week of lung cancer. I sat down in a pew near the back next to Paula, an artist in her late 60's who for ten years now has lived with ovarian cancer. Dr. Kelly, Trudy and Paula's oncologist, sat down the row. He'd driven an hour and a half to attend the memorial service, which Trudy had planned herself. She'd chosen the songs and prayers, asked particular friends, including Jo, to sing. Judy, the minister, in her eulogy, spoke of the gratitude she felt that Trudy had shared her life -- but also her death -- with her community. She'd attended the Episcopal church service last Sunday, died less than a week later. Trudy's son, one of Lars' best friends, stood up and, with Herculean effort to hold himself together, talked about how much his mother had changed since her diagnosis, how a new compassion had been born in her. I thought of her arms opening out wider than they'd ever been. I was one of the people encircled by that new periphery. Another friend talked about the "old" Trudy, the woman she met years before, how formidable she'd been, how businesslike and brusque. That's right. She said "brusque." She described her evolution, too. There was not a word about "battling" cancer. Cancer was there, like a tick mark on a timeline of her life, the X that marked the spot of her road bending another way. The service shrank cancer down to size. I've been reading The Emperor of All Maladies, which portrays cancer as that sly, formidable, awesome force. There's an Empress to that malady. Call her life, call her Mary, call her Trudy, call her mother moose, call her cottonwood bud, call her healing. Jo says her Trudy's healing journey began after diagnosis. Not because of cancer, which, along with its brutal treatments, does all it can to thwart healing. Because of Trudy. She got in her canoe and launched at the crossroads. Healing and dying, the confluence of two rivers. The journey eclipsed the "struggle with cancer."
After we ate and drank lemongrass tea Toby made in a wood-fired samovar on the deck, after baked apples and conversation and three year-old Asek, Toby and Indira's son, clambering up the spiral staircase and pushing over the rocking chair, I passed out strips of paper made out of elephant dung. My step-daughter Elli brought the paper from South Africa. I wanted it to be biodegradable. I read the May 1 reading from the Book of Awakening out loud. It begins this way:
"There is very little difference between burying and planting. For often, we need to put dead things to rest, so that new life can grow. And further, the thing put to rest -- whether it be a loved one, a dream, or a false way of seeing -- becomes fertilizer for the life about to form . . . One self carries us to the extent of its usefulness and dies. we are then forced to put that once beloved skin to rest, to join it with the ground of spirit from which it came, so it may fertilize the next skin of self that will carry us into tomorrow . . . For every moment of joy sprouting, there is a new moment of struggle taking root. We live, embrace, and put to rest our dearest things, including how we see ourselves, do so we can resurrect our lives anew."
With our slips of paper, in our socks, we stepped out onto the porch into the cold spring air. I'd placed dirt in the bottom of a big pot, and we named the things we were shedding out loud, the things that had outlived their usefulness and we dropped them into the container that was both planter and grave. I realized that on my slip, I hadn't written "cancer." I scribbled it on the elephant dung as an afterthought, maybe a superstition. As with Trudy, the healing and living and dying cast a spring evening's shadow across the crab and all its nasty business. It wasn't the point, or the reason. In that moment, it was nothing. Then I poured dirt over our old skins to pot's brim and brought it inside to the living room, where all my starts are arranged on a table in a south-facing window. I separated one tomato plant from the rest and planted it in the dirt as my friends sang Old Lang Syne, and then I watered it. "We'll take a cup of kindness yet for auld lang syne" are some of the original words by poet Robert Burns, descendent of Celts. Then we placed the potted plant on the floor and stood in a circle holding hands around it. Except for Asek, who wove around us in a May Day dance, like we were the Maypole, and he was holding the ribbon and weaving it around our legs, binding together our resurrected selves. Happy New Year.
P.S. The "cup of kindness" calls to mind a song by Emmy Lou Harris, which brings us back to Mary again. I listened to her song "Cup of Kindness" repeatedly before and during cancer treatment: "And when Mother Mary finally comes to call, she can pass right through your heart, and leave no trace at all. While you were waiting for the sacred and divine, she was standing right beside you all the time . . . The cup of kindness never will run dry."