The last installment from Prince William Sound. This post was written on the date of my surgery, the one year anniversary. The day before we left the Sound, Craig and I hiked on Squire Island, behind "Whale Camp." I spent some time with "King Tree," the large hemlock above the camp, another of the places I imagined going during my cancer treatment. I probably imagined King Tree most often, as I could so easily visualize everything there, down to individual blueberry bushes. Before my step-daughter Elli went off to college for the first time, she made a wreath, wrote a letter to King Tree, put it in a baggie and attached it to the wreath. She hung the wreath on a low branch on the tree, in thanks for her childhood summers in Prince William Sound. We've all leaned on King Tree, all of us who've spent time at Whale Camp. And I leaned heavily on King Tree last year. So it felt magical to climb the mossy bluff above the pond to reach it, to see Elli's wreath still hanging there, to sit with my back against the massive trunk in the spot I imagined myself sitting. I had several meditation CDs by a woman named Bellaruth Naparstak, one for surgery, one for chemo, one for radiation, one for insomnia, and in all of them, she tells you to imagine a place where you feel completely safe, to "look to your right, and then to your left," to notice the sounds, the smells, the textures. After awhile, she says, you notice a sensation that "something magical is about to happen." And then there's a light, or a circle of helpers, and the meditation proceeds from there. I watched the sunlit patches of moss. But I didn't need to wait for that sensation. In Prince William Sound, something magical -- healing -- is always about to happen. It has just happened. It is happening right now. Now and forever amen.
We just pulled our shrimp pots (with several jumbo shrimp inside) and are heading toward Prince of Wales Passage, leaving the Sound by the same geographical route by which we arrived, but in other ways, leaving in a very different place inside. There’s always a shift that happens after about a week in the Sound, when “town life” fades in significance, when I don’t care if I wear the same clothes every single day as long as those clothes keep me dry and warm. I don’t care if my hair’s flattened against my head. In this part of the Sound, Knight Island Passage, we don’t get cell phone reception, and that urgency of maybe missing a call disappears too. And at some point, paddling up to the boat in the kayak, it always happens, I feel I could live here. A primal part of myself wakes up, the part that’s linked to the animals. It helps when the weather’s as good as it’s been the last few days, sunny, with a stiff north wind. So you can turn your face one way and feel a brisk cold brushing your skin, turn another and feel the sun’s heat, squint into its brightness. The sea’s been a dark indigo blue, the sky clear and extra-blue too, it seems, the way it is in autumn. It might be because the muskegs are still russet-brown and tan, so there’s the intensification of color against color. Since the orca sightings are slim this time of year in this part of the Sound, and since it’s too windy to work in Hinchinbrook Entrance, we’ve relaxed into just being here, hiking twice a day, climbing up bluffs and lying down on the ground or doing yoga barefoot in the sun.
And now we’re heading south down Fleming Channel. Fleming Island is on the left, and every time we pass through here (which is often, as this was, in the past, a favorite killer whale haunt), I think of George Fleming, who grew up on that small island, farming foxes with his family. George’s parents once left the kids on the island while they delivered pelts to Green Island, about ten miles away, and their skiff capsized in Montague Strait. They made it to Montague Island, but didn’t get back to Fleming and the kids for a month or more. I think about those kids; they must have imagined their parents dead. They probably knew enough already to survive on their own, but still, how they must have stared out across the water, hoping for a sighting of that skiff. I scan the shorelines with binoculars, picturing George as a boy wandering these beaches, hunting or beach-combing or just poking around, following a set of bear tracks, startling at blows just off the shore. Looking up to see four fins slipping into the water, four vapor trails dissolving. The whales we see today would be the direct descendents of those whales. The Flemings are long gone, though, and no matter how hard I’ve looked, I’ve never seen a trace of their fox farm. Only the trees would remember them. George was still alive and living in the Sound when Craig started doing research here, and we have a picture of him framed on our bookshelf in the living room. He looks like a gnome, with a craggy face and long gray beard and woolen clothes. He was a bit of a hermit, a man of the woods. The legend is that once he left the Sound by way of Whittier, to see Anchorage. But he turned around before he got there, returned to the Sound and never left again. He wanted to die in the Sound, but by the time he was a very old man, he lived in Mummy Bay, helping out around a lodge and former herring saltery, a slave to a legendary character (some say madame), an enormous woman named Marla. He got so sick she brought him to Cordova, to the hospital. Cordova’s in the eastern Sound, but it wasn’t the real Sound to George, and it broke many people’s hearts that he died in Cordova, something he didn’t want. So friends brought his ashes back to Fleming Island.
I arrived in the Sound a few years too late to know George. But there’s a part of me that gets woken up when I’m out here for any length of time, a few molecules of George. Just now we scooped up a big piece of glacier ice with our net, and I broke off a corner and put it in a cup of water I collected from a stream on Squire Island, and I’m drinking it right now. Perhaps it was windy, blowing easterly, the day they scattered George’s ashes, and one flake got away, got gusted up and over the low hump of Bainbridge Island, whirled and tumbled across Whale Bay, cleared the next ridge into Icy Bay, landed finally on the Tigertail Glacier. Thirty years later, one late spring, suspended within the ice, it calved off with part of the glacier’s face and plunged into the fjord. The tide pushed that piece of ice along, and the sea water and May sun melted it. It spun and drifted to the northern shore of Fleming Island, and on the 12th of May, 2011, a woman leaned over the side of a boat and caught it in a net and hauled it aboard. And she’s drinking that flake of George down now, and it becomes a part of her bones.
Last night, we hiked up the muskegs above Squire Cove, a place we call Blueberry Hill, because it’s a favorite stormy day berry picking spot come August. As we climbed, we ate a few blueberry flowers, which are sweet, like rose water. Near the top, we scared up a short-eared owl, the first I’ve seen in the Sound. We wandered around looking for signs of deer and bears, and then we started back down. We paused and sat on a rock, and I asked Craig, “Do you want your ashes scattered on the water or on the land?” I knew that we’d both talked about Sanctuary Bay being the place. “I guess water would be fine,” Craig said. It wasn’t the first time I’d hiked in that particular place on Squire Island in late evening and thought, “This is where I want my ashes scattered.” But I couldn’t imagine being apart from Craig like that. “I think I’d want half in Sanctuary Bay, and half here,” I said. “That sounds like a good plan,” Craig said. You might think it's morbid, what with the owl sighting and last year’s cancer and all, but it didn’t feel that way to me. It felt natural. There’s something about this part of the Sound for us that erases the idea that death's an enemy, the anti-life. This place is a long drink of cold water from a stream, a blueberry pie, sweet shrimp fried in a pan, a bluff top from which you can see two humpback whales thrashing their flukes five miles away, the way you can lie back in the muskeg, a cold wind on one cheek, the sun on the other, and fall asleep on a bed of reindeer lichen. And it's also a scattering of fawn bones in the moss, the wings of a murrelet under a hemlock tree.
During cancer treatment, two different people, one my counselor Wilderness, and one Hester, the social worker at Beth Israel Hospital, asked me to name my deepest fears in regards to cancer. The first time, with Wilderness, I broke down. She said, “You have cancer, Eva. Of course death is there. If you push the fear of death away, it will only get bigger. What exactly about death scares you the most?” She asked me to imagine a “good death,” and what that would be like. As I talked my way through what seemed a thicket of anguish and terror, I circled around to a story about a solitary kayak paddle in the inner lagoon of Sanctuary Bay, years ago. It was raining that time, mist rising off the water, the mountains obscured by clouds, dozens of waterfalls crashing down around me. I filled my water bottles from the same stream I filled them from the other night, and afterwards, I felt compelled – I don’t know why – to lie face down on the ground, there by the stream. It was rocky underneath, angular and hard against my torso, but cushioned slightly by matted-down grass. High tides deposit bits of rock kelp and “sea paper,” an amalgam of algae, on that grass, so it smells green but also like the bottom of the sea. I breathed it in. I felt myself dying in that moment, letting go completely into the place. And it was okay. "I could die right here, right now," I thought, "and it would be okay." Some people say that all of living is a preparation for that final, most powerful transformation. And sure, cancer jump-starts an inner preparation, but at the same time, and even more, it asks me every day to be completely here, completely alive. And this is the place I feel the most alive. And it’s also the place I feel unafraid. My friend David wrote a song out here he calls “Giddy on Eternity,” based on something my step-daughter Eve shouted out after a hike we took to find “Aphrodite’s Garden.” (We found it). We were paddling back to the boat in the Zodiac, Eve and her sister Elli wielding the oars, and rather than steering us forward, they spun us in circles. “I feel giddy!” Eve cried. “I’m giddy on eternity!” Elli and Eve shouted it, laughing, and we joined in. "We're giddy on eternity!" That’s how this place makes me feel. Giddy to be alive, like the short-eared owl, like the Steller’s jay that scolded us off the island last night, like the marbled murrelet pairs flipping their tails up as they dove at the bay’s head. And giddy on eternity, on the mountains, the rocks, the sand, the water, the glacier, the rocks and bones. Giddy at the thought that I could be one fleck of ash landing on the back of a deer. That I can, though today I’m leaving, stay here, always.