Let’s get together and feel all right.
We're heading out from Seward on the boat, motoring slowly toward Agnes Bay, where the orcas congregate this time of year to feast on the first runs of king salmon. Craig's on his back on the cabin floor doing bicycles, trying to work off a weekend of graduation feasting (no fresh king salmon for us, alas, only frozen red salmon we brought down with us). A lovely clear morning with a few mares’ tails suggests the next weather front approaching from the west. The big low is still spinning in the Bering Sea, throwing off its satellites of wind and rain. We woke this morning to frost on the boat's deck.
Before graduation on Sunday, our little family entourage met at the Patisserie, a coffee shop and French bakery and favorite Whitman student and faculty hang-out. As we sat in the sun sipping green tea, Akka, Elli's grandmother, and I talked about books. We discovered that we both love The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiensen, which chronicles his pilgrimage (in the company of the wildlife biologist George Schaller) in the Himalaya after the death of his wife from cancer. That led to a discussion of books that convey biology or nature in a way that melds heart and spirit, and I brought up The Emperor of All Maladies. "Did you really read that book?" Akka asked me. "How did you bring yourself to do it?" She said she couldn't imagine herself reading it. (As I wrote in a previous post, she was treated for early breast cancer several years ago). I had to think a moment. The best answer I could come up with was that for me, the unknown is more frightening than the known. “I was so scared after cancer treatment,” I said. “I guess knowing all I can about cancer’s biology (or biography as Mukjerhee puts its) helps put the fear into a manageable box.”
Thinking about it now (it’s May 24 and we’re anchored in Agnes Cove, in outer Resurrection Bay, and it’s raining), I see that cancer’s entry into my life scared me the way the Devil scared me as a child. That’s right, with a capital D. (40 years later, he’s been, I’m happy to write, demoted to lower case: devil). Raised a Catholic, coming of age during the Cold War, two monsters kept me up all night: the Devil and nuclear war. The idea of Lucifer was the cold claw reaching up from under the bed, the humped figure in the closet, the shadow on the wall. When I was ten or so, my oldest brother Andy came home from his first semester at Notre Dame. I adored my brothers and missed them intensely when they were away. I counted the days down to their college vacations. Their leaving the nest was my first sensation, I think, of grief. I can still feel the big empty of walking into our house after school, knowing they were gone again.
So that night, put to bed as always at some (I thought) ridiculously early hour, I snuck into the hallway and listened to my brother tell my parents about seeing The Exorcist. They were sitting around the kitchen table. He and all of his Catholic friends, guys who worked at the Notre Dame fire station and played basketball, had been so traumatized by the film, some had slipped rosaries under their pillows after seeing it. It wasn’t the gruesome scenes I heard him describe that implanted a terror so immediate and deep I stashed my own rosary under my pillow that very night, but my brother’s fear that impacted me. He’d always seemed fearless. When I’d told him of my anxiety about nuclear war and my insomnia, he’d explained the concept of “mutual assured destruction,” or MAD as it was known. A rationalist even then, my brother expected I’d take comfort from the mad idea that the U.S. and Russian presidents were rational, and wouldn’t launch a nuclear strike knowing it meant certain annihilation. I had a more tentative relationship with the rational. At night, my brain examined all the ways the irrational could subvert the rational and put someone’s finger on the red button. Maybe it was a premonition of cancer. Cancer ignores the concept of mutual assured destruction, come to think of it. If cancer kills you, its own destruction is assured, but it does it anyway.
Andy obviously got over his Devil fear pretty quickly. That summer he bought the soundtrack to The Exorcist, Mike Oldfield’s creepy Tubular Bells, and played it incessantly in our basement. The Exorcist haunted me for years, even though I never saw the movie. Just the idea of it overturned all of my notions of safety. In Catholic school, I’d learned to believe that prayer and goodness and sacraments could protect me. But those things didn’t, I eventually learned. And The Exorcist drove it home: evil could take over an innocent child, just because she played with a Ouija board. (And it didn’t help that my friend Elise, four years older and into the occult, introduced me to the Ouijia board. When we asked it it’s name, it spelled out “Lucifer. When we asked it if it wanted one of us kids sitting around the table, the plastic dial drifted to the letter “E” and stuck there, unable to decide: Elise or Eva? Coincidentally, decades later, both of us got breast cancer in our 40's.
See how irrational I can be? Maybe that’s why I read The Emperor of All Maladies. My warped imagination can make cancer out to be an even more hideous monster than it already is. So I’ll switch gears now, to prayer, the age-old antidote to devil-fear. For me, running is a prayer, and so is music.
Running yesterday morning, before we left the dock, I listened to my I-Pod and thought of Lauren, my friend on the Cape who’s getting her second chemo treatment this week. Last night, she held her first “healing circle” at her house. The ride’s rough for her now, I know. She and her husband and daughter are in the center of the cancer treatment vortex. A toxic drug is the first in the oncologist/exorcist’s arsenal, one that I know can feel like the devil itself, instead of an ally. That’s where healing circles come in. I know too, that all the support you know is there, when you’re in that lonely place, bald and sick, scared and angry, is sometimes no more than a notion. It’s like you’re flying high above the earth, alone in a capsule of suffering, and you know that 35,000 feet below you is a cushion, a white, billowed, lit-from-within cumulous cloud of love and prayer and friendship and energy. It’s carrying you even in those moments when the phone won’t ring and the nausea won’t relent and the fear won’t back down. And that tiny scrap of knowing is all you have, because you are so far up, and feel so far removed from what I called during chemo “the land of the living.”
So I ran thinking of Lauren, and the first song playing in my ear was “Stand By Me,” the version from the amazing CD Playing for Change, sung by a blind New Orleans musician, “Grandpa,” in overalls accompanying himself on a washboard. “When the night has come, and the land is dark, and the moon is the only light you see. Well I won’t be afraid, no I won’t shed no tear, just as long as you stand by me.” That’s the point of the healing circle too. I wish it were enough, but I know it isn’t always. Sometimes you’re still afraid, you still shed buckets of tears. But the healing circle still stands there, below you, holding the edges of that cloud. I ran along the shore of Resurrection Bay on the bike path as the song played, past the early arrival RV’s parked on the gravel, past the tents in the public park, past a fishing boat floating on the bay to my left, and remembered my own healing circle, and imagined myself among those surrounding Lauren.
“One Love,” the Bob Marley song, came next. “One love, one heart, let’s get together and feel all right.” I thought then of Willa, the woman I’d met at Elli’s graduation this past weekend, at a party. A Washington, D.C. lawyer about my age, she’d been diagnosed with breast cancer, the early type called DCIS, three weeks earlier. Everyone had cleared out of the kitchen to sit in the evening sun on the deck, but Willa and I stayed and talked. Our common experience of cancer sliced away several layers of social barrier that exist most of the time between strangers. Within minutes we were talking bodies, fears, and breasts. In Willa I could see the rational and irrational, known and unknown, dancing their dance as she faced all her unanswered questions. She kept saying, “I know I’m just at the beginning. I know nothing. You must think I’m so naïve.” But I didn’t think that. She already knew too much.
There’s no threshold to breast cancer. You don’t enter gradually. You’re pushed off the ledge. I recognized Willa as a sister, a fellow pilgrim, through the fear and uneasy hope in her eyes. I thought of all of the strangers I’d encountered before and during treatment, women who’d been through every kind of breast cancer: DCIS, triple-negative, Her/2/Neu positive, sarcoma, metastatic. It didn’t matter what kind, what stage, we were all citizens of that “other place,” as Joan Didion put it. Cancerland. Tumortown (Christopher Hitchens’ moniker). We found each other at coffeeshops, in yoga classes, in hospital waiting rooms, at parties, in the dog park. Those women, last year, recognized where I was, and they gave me everything they could. Our connection was not just the fact of cancer, however. It was “one love, one heart,” cancer’s greatest enemy, and our strongest healing elixir. In Bob Marley’s song, it’s the “father of creation,” from which cancer has “no hiding place.” It’s the flashlight shined under the bed to reveal no monster, only a dozing cat. We shine that flashlight for one another. We get together and, despite our fear, “feel all right” in our commonality.
Not that The Emperor of All Maladies -- which, like all knowledge, is another kind of flashlight in the darkness -- revealed cancer to be any less of a monster to me. It portrays cancer as a force worthy of an exorcist, a continually morphing, possessing devil. You think it vanquished in the last film, but then comes Exorcist II, or The Entity, or any number of knock-offs. The beast arises in sequel after sequel, with new powers. You cut off his legs and he grows fins. You cut off his ugly head and he grows an uglier one. Only with knives, poisons, beams of radiation, and chemicals can he finally be beaten back in the body. But in the heart and spirit, he’s already dead. “One love, one heart.” No matter our diagnosis, prognosis, stage, receptor status, grade, we can be that for one another, that flashlight. In the beam of its moment, standing in a kitchen at a party, we’re already healed, even for just an hour.
The next song: I don’t know the title or singer, but it’s one of the most beautiful pieces of music I know, with sitars, and drums, and guitars, and a man singing in English along with an Indian chanter wailing in the background. My brother Andy introduced me to it, told me it was part of the Dead Man Walking soundtrack (You might be thinking that my brother is attracted to grim movies with haunting soundtracks). I listened to it incessantly on the road trip I took before I landed at my sister’s house last spring. Before I was diagnosed. When unconsciously I knew but didn’t want it to be true. “We all walk the long road – cannot stay. There’s no need to say goodbye. All the friends and family, all the memories going round, round, round.” At this point in the run, I entered the woods, along the edge of Mount Marathon, a trail through a mossy forest. I belted the words out. The song’s not a song, but a prayer. I stopped when a red squirrel scolded me from a branch tip, a few feet away. “We all walk the long road,” I sang to it. I sang to Lauren. “How I wished for so long. How I wish for you today.”
When the trail broke from the trees, I sang Emmy Lou’s “The Pearl.” A most amazing prayer.
Well the dragons are gonna fly tonight.
They’re circling low and inside tonight.
It’s another round in the losing fight
Out along the great divide tonight.
We are raging soldiers in an ancient war.
Seeking out some half-remembered shore.
We drink our fill and still we thirst for more.
Asking if there’s no heaven, what is this hunger for?
Our path is worn,
Our feet are poorly shod.
We lift up our prayer against the odds.
And fear the silence is the voice of God.
And we cry alleluiah. Alleluiah. We cry alleluiah.
So there’ll be no guiding light for you and me.
We are not sailors lost out on the sea.
We were always heading toward eternity.
Hoping for a glimpse of Galilee.
Like falling stars from the universe we’re hurled
Through the long loneliness of the world
Until we behold the pain become the pearl.
Crying alleluiah. Alleluiah. We cry alleluiah.
(I no longer fear the silence is the voice of God. I know it is).
Here's a link to Emmylou singing it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BbXBYaujTG8
Know thine enemy. That's one strategy. But equally valid is finding each other on our way. We’re on that long road together. We’re crying alleluiah. Living as if cancer is no devil, no god. Standing by each other. Witnessing how we’re hurled, how we fall, until we become pearls, the beads on our own rosaries, our own prayers, our own saviors, our own reliefs, elixirs and cures. You and me. Together.