Sunday, May 15, 2011

Earth to Mouth Resuscitation, Part 3: Of Ponytails, Orcas and Tangled Tape

A cool cloudy spring day, but the birds don't know the difference.  They sing just as exuberantly as they did two days ago, when it was sunny and warm.  I just walked up the road with my pockets full of devil's club shoots to put in a woodland quiche, along with watermelon berry sprouts, nettle tips, duck eggs (from our neighbor) and fireweed shoots.  Now if only I could find some fresh morels.  Below is the next installment of my Prince William Sound research trip narrative.  But first a couple photos from a cancer event on Cape Cod the other night, two luminaria, one for me and one for Bennett.  My stepson Lars, who's staying with my sister and family for the next couple weeks took part in the walk.  We're all "doing it," Bennett, me, Lauren, Cathleen, Paula, Helen, and my friend Nancy whom I ran into last night.  She was diagnosed with early breast cancer last year, shortly before I was.  Nancy's an elder, and she was "doing it" at a fundraiser for our non-profit gallery.  Lauren was "doing it" yesterday, getting her hair cut short in anticipation of it falling out, her daughter picking the style.  One week before it's gone, but who cares?  She's the one who told me that she became extremely adept at throwing up and continuing to do what she was doing last time around with breast cancer, namely talking on the phone, saying "excuse me a moment, missing a few beats to barf, then continuing on.  That's what I mean by "doing it."  Living life.  Last night, at the fundraising event, several people I hadn't seen came up to me and asked the "How are you doing now?" question.  It's losing it's charge for me.  Maybe that should be my answer:  "I'm doing it."  One woman told me she had a dream, right after I started chemo last summer, that I was standing in front of her, completely well, and that she felt like she was back in the dream at that moment, that it had come true.  She hugged me and quickly scooted away, teary-eyed.  Now it's time to start "doing it" again:  turning forest greens into quiche.  The literal version of earth to mouth resuscitation.


8 May

Evening.  A front’s moved in, and its first squall just enveloped us.  Rain drops bead up on the windows and the boat spins around the anchor.  It’s 9:30 pm and the light’s dim, and I’m hoping, actually, for a weather day tomorrow, a day to write and drink tea and read and don rain gear to kayak to the beach.  We started our day early, eating on the run.  We heard killer whales on the hydrophone first thing, recognized them as AE calls, and we found them not far from our anchorage.  They led us out Hinchinbrook Entrance toward the Gulf of Alaska.  There were twelve of them, including a calf born over the winter, the first calf in AE pod since 2006.  The little whale was sturdy, already sporting a saddle patch behind its dorsal fin.  The youngest calves we see don’t have saddles yet, and their eye patches and bellies are orange.  We threw around ideas for names, and settled, finally, on "Schnipper," after my oncologist and his wife.  After photographing the whales, it was time to take a biopsy.  This is an aspect of the research I dislike, and I made Craig spell out again the how’s and why’s of this year’s effort.  He explained that he and his collaborator Dave Herman, a chemist, wanted samples from one focal animal, an adult male, in each of five pods.  It would be sampled three times over the course of the summer.  From the chemistry of its blubber, the fatty acids and stable isotopes, Herman can describe how an individual whale’s diet changes over time.  I worried about taking biopsies from the same animal repeatedly in one season, concerned that it would begin to associate us with being hit by a dart.  This led to one of our frequent boat arguments, and eventually, it led to a deeper conversation. 
Craig told me that he was still coming to terms with a change in me over the last year, how I take stronger stands around what I do and don’t want to do.  We verbally pushed back and forth against one another until I finally put it into words.  I’m no longer willing to be passive in my life.  It’s not that I want to change or even challenge everything I do since breast cancer.  I just want to choose consciously, even if it means choosing to continue doing what I’ve done in the past.  My default mode, what seems almost an addiction (I’m thinking that word because I’m also, on this boat trip, battling my addiction to chocolate), is to do a complex math in my head when making plans or decisions.  If what I want is X and what other want is Y, and what I need to do to make a living is C, and what I choose in the end is Z, the normal equation is X + 10Y + 5C = Z.  I want to experiment with a new equation, perhaps 10X + 4Y + 4C = Z. 
We followed along with the whales as we had this very involved conversation, waiting for Nowell, the young male Craig had selected to be the “focal animal” for AE pod, to give us an opportunity to collect a sample.  He was busy fishing, surfacing erratically, diving for long periods at a time, and our attempts to predict where he might come up were unsuccessful.  So we hung back and watched and motored slowly south with the whales and talked.  And then, after three hours, we let them go, no sample “in the bag,” just photographs, and another layer of clay carved off the sculpture that is our lives post-cancer. 
Cancer treatment stopped my life as I knew it.  It’s staggering what happens when you stop your life.  It isn’t like pressing a pause button.  It doesn’t just resume when you press play.  In fact, just pressing play jams up the cassette tape, and the tape has to be pulled out in one tangled ribbon until you find the unmarred length.  Then the tangle has to be snipped off and parts worth saving spliced back together.  And then you have to listen to it again and again:  the song with the hole in it.  Until the hole becomes part of the music, until it’s essential.  Until you can’t imagine the song, the life, without that gap. 
And what to do with the tangled ribbon clipped off?  Throw it away?  Put it in a hope chest?  A scrap book?  Bury it?  Burn it?  Turn it into a collage, into art?  It’s like the shank of long hair I found in a drawer, the ponytail I had snipped off to send to Locks for Love a couple years ago, but never got around to sending.  I found it in a drawer when I got home from Boston.  I held it in my hands, stroked it, marveled at is colors and texture.  I had hair like that!  A part of me said:  “Send it.”  But I just couldn’t, not yet.  I put it in a cloth bag and hung it from the body cast my friend Deer made of my torso before the mastectomy.  The body cast sits on a low table in my writing room.  I imagine bringing it to the Sound and finding a place to leave it, the hair and the cast, in a hidden forest, perhaps under a moss-draped, massive boulder.  I know the perfect spot in Sanctuary Bay.  But I’m not ready to let go of it just yet.  The long, dark blonde hair, the form of my two-breasted body:  I’m still holding on.  I have to trust I’ll know when it’s right to let them go.   
Later in the day, after a walk on the beach through what I called “the forest primeval,” another of Montague Island shoreline old growth forests ... and here is a taste of the woods and muskeg on Montague (including some forest yoga and forest high fashion):

we’d returned to the boat and I was chopping veggies for a stir fry.  I looked up from the onion under my knife and suddenly felt disoriented.  On the left hand side of my peripheral vision, lights dappled, as though from a reflecting a pool of water.  A blur swam in front of my eyes.  My head ached in three places.  “Is something wrong?” Craig asked.   I described the phenomenon to him, then put down my chopping knife and lay down in the bunk.  And fear had me by the throat.  Was it my brain?  Had breast cancer metastasized there?  A tiny voice of reason peeped out “migraine,” but the louder voice drowned it out.  “Cancer,” it said.  “You’re going to die this way.”  So easily it had hold of me.  I got back up, and the dappled lights became an aurora borealis, a haze of bright and shifting colors which gradually faced.  I felt a familiar sick feeling in my stomach.  “Migraine,” the voice insisted.  I took two advil, but I was unnerved, and eating dinner, when the song “Fields of Gold” came on, sung by Eva Cassidy, who died of brain cancer “before anyone even knew who she was,” as Craig said, my eyes brimmed over with tears. 
I thought of my pre-cancer self as that figure running through a summer meadow, her long hair loose around her shoulders, the ground solid under her feet.  She’s the one who charged around the Sound on a small boat believing being a vegan would keep her safe.  Yeah, I remember her.  What was her name?
The boat swaying in a slight aftertaste of swell seemed to emphasize that fact that no such solid ground supported me now.  A leg cramp, a head ache, a lower back pain, indigestion, the usual aches and pains of a 47 year-old body are all it took to call up the fear djinn, a flaming dervish, which in those moments feels like all I have, like the substrate that’s replaced the solid earth beneath me.  Fire, not earth.  The fear is bottomless, sudden as a lightning strike, overwhelming as a tinder dry forest on fire.  But I know it isn’t so.  Beneath the fear is earth, solid as it’s ever been. 
I place my hands on the pile of rocks we’ve collected, and I remember the feeling I had in the forest earlier today, when I leaned into the trunk of an old growth hemlock tilting out over a cliff.  Its great roots held it in place, some of them dangling in thin air.  I pressed my chest against the bark of that tree, hundreds of hears old, and breathed in its scent, my nose buried in its mossy bark.  I stretched my arms around it.  The earth beneath my feet was solid, and the trunk against my body was solid.  Which leads me to something else solid, which are these words, written by Hester Hill-Schnipper.  They are part of her address at the recent annual “Celebration of Life” put on by Beth Israel hospital’s cancer center.  Fear, powerful as it is in the moment, is, like a forest fire, temporary.  It burns itself out.  It runs out of fuel.  It meets a river.  River douses fire.  Earth channels river.  The river is paper to fire’s rock.  Paper covers rock.  Love is the paper.  After fire, I find a piece of granite in my hand.  I find a piece of fish on my plate.  I find some words to live by:
“I think we are all learning how to live. This diagnosis, which none of us wanted, brings us a chance to change.  It brings a luminous perspective, a chance to pay attention, to learn how to be idle and blessed. It asks us what we plan to do with our “one wild and precious life.”  It permits us to loosen the yoke of unnecessary burdens or worries and wrap ourselves, instead, in a joyful cloak of many colors. I hope that your cloak, woven of all the experiences of your life, shelters and embraces you. I pray that each of us, surrounded by blessings, carried forward by love, will learn to live as lions of courage and does of grace. Jane Kenyon wrote: 'Let it come as it will and don’t be afraid. God doesn't leave us comfortless, so let evening come.' And remember, always, that we stand together and strong in that evening."
I pray for the courage to enter each day that forest primeval, habitat of my brown bear Hanuman, to place my feet on that moss-covered earth, to find that one solid thing, be it rock or human hand, to grab onto when, for fear’s sudden flaring, my feet lose contact with the ground.  To put my faith in earth, not flame.  To embrace what's here, to let go of what's gone.  The way the Sound itself responds to weather.  
The squall’s passed over now.  It’s 10:30 and the light’s dim, but the water’s still shimmering.  Craig just made me a bowl of yogurt with raspberry jam and mandarin oranges.  The dapples are gone from my eyes.  Let evening come. 

No comments:

Post a Comment