3 July, 7:15 am
A cloudy morning, the world outside lush, green, misty and still. I’m sitting across the kitchen table from my sister, a kettle of water boiling on the stove. She is writing in her journal. My nephew Quinn, who’s eight, inspects the pieces of flint he collected on Bishop’s Beach at 11 pm last night. He arranged them on top of the warm woodstove to dry, and now, he checks to see if overnight they turned red, a sure sign that they’ll make fire. Frantically, he rubs them together, trying to strike a spark. So far, he hasn’t set our house ablaze.
I get up to make coffee for Mara, and tea for me. A door opens upstairs, and Jon, my brother-in-law, appears on the stairs. I fill the stovetop espresso maker, then sit back down. Jon checks the news on the Internet, gives us a report. Quinn can’t generate any sparks, asks if he can borrow a lighter. “Well, it only works with friction,” I say. Mara finishes her journal entry and her cup of coffee, and walks up the stairs to fold the laundry we hung all over the banister. I walk up the stairs to help her, and we chat about the kids, and Sam’s face (he’s ten) appears at the top of the ladder leading to the little loft where the boys sleep. “Good morning,” he says. The door to our right opens. It’s Craig. Now the house is bustling with life. Phoebe, who’s twelve, practically a teen, sleeps on in my stepdaughter Elli’s old room. It’s finally real, that this family is here with us in Alaska. When they first pulled up in the driveway in a big brown van driven by Lars, my stepson, and piled out, it didn’t feel real. When they sat around our table to eat bowls of seafood soup, it didn’t feel real. When we walked down the hill to the birch tree swing, when we saw the young male moose grazing by the ball fields, when the house grew quiet as they all settled into sleep, it started to sink in. The family who’d sheltered and nurtured me last year on Cape Cod was here, in my house, in my Alaskan life.
* * *
This morning in yoga, I cried onto my matt. The body and mind slow down and the heart opens up. That’s the way it is. Mara and family leave tomorrow, I drive to Anchorage to teach graduate students with my friend Nancy for 12 days. I cry for the same reason I cried yesterday when I told my brother-in-law how much I wanted their Alaskan trip to be perfect, to in some way express our gratitude for all they did for us last year. But I realize that there’s no way to pay them back. There’s no adequate expression for my gratitude.
Survivorship. That word arose in my mind during yoga class. It’s one thing to fear cancer recurrence or metastasis, to fear death. In the acute moment of fearing death, of imagining a year to live in a healthy body, let’s say, or five years, or ten, that moment expands and gets wide, a Pacific of a moment, a wilderness of a moment, the wind in the birch leaves satisfying every need, the ink-wash of clouds so like Quinn’s paintings satisfying every need, the sound of my sister’s voice reading Harry Potter out loud to Quinn, the pop of a log in the wood stove, the smell of Natalia’s (our downstairs renter’s) burning cedar and sage, it expands to hold all of these things in my consciousness. And then I breathe.
But in every other moment, in the thick of living life, it’s such hard work to stay present, to transform old patterns, to resurrect. For me, cancer meant no more business as usual. I’m driven to change my ways, to release old habits, and I fall down again and again, and when I do, it hurts more. In yoga this morning, I cried for that hurting. Change your life, change your life, a voice inside me whispers, urgently. There’s a poem that ends that way, Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo.”
We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,
gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.
Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:
would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.
Being in the moment, being quiet, whether in company or alone, focused on what’s right in front of me, a cup of tea, a pot of coffee, a poem, a birch tree, a photograph of a birch tree in the Pratt museum, being in Prince William Sound, I feel it: “there is no place/ that does not see you.” But my old ways drive me forward, out of that moment, frantically trying to make everyone around me happy, afraid of failing.
My sister and I sit on my bed as I sort through clothes to pack for the residency in Anchorage. “Do you think I’m doing okay?” I ask her. “Because I’m not doing okay. I feel sometimes that I’m at the end of a very long tunnel, and everyone else is outside of the tunnel, I feel so alone. This part of the journey out of breast cancer is the hardest.” I tell her that last night, crouched in that tunnel, trying to go to sleep, I reached for the one balm that soothes me in those moments, Hester Hill Schnipper’s book After Breast Cancer. Hester Hill is my oncologist’s wife, a two-time breast cancer survivor and social worker at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston, where I was treated. I lay in bed, Craig asleep beside me, and I read the intro, written by my oncologist Lowell, then the first chapter. It doesn’t matter that I’ve read those passages a dozen times. They never cease to soothe me, to tell me that I’m not alone at the end of that tunnel. That I don’t have to change my life. It’s already changed. Cancer changed it. I will never be the same. Survivorship is to carry that change forward, but first to catch up to it, to consider it, to take up habitation in a new country. I tell Mara how hard that is, how scared I am. Scared that my loved ones won’t like this person I’m becoming, a person who more than ever needs solitude and also needs support. A person who says yes and also no. A person whose work is writing and teaching and also healing. We talk on the bed. I tell the truth to my sister. We hold each other and cry. She gives me her hand and I crawl out of the tunnel into the new country that is my life.