The poem on yesterday’s Poetry Daily website was “The Mass Has Ended Go in Peace,” by K.A. Hays. Yesterday, a Sunday. The poem’s title sent a jolt of recognition through me, sent me back to Sundays growing up. How many times did Sunday morning include those words, but with a tag end: “The mass has ended. Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” The mass has ended, releasing a tide of relief inside my teenaged heart, followed close on the heels by major chords. Standing. Looking up and over my shoulder to see Lucille Neveu, my piano teacher, face lit by the lamp illuminating her sheet music, leaning forward into the hymn. Leaning forward into the rest of Sunday, brunch, homework, scumbling around in my father’s potato patch, 60 Minutes, Masterpiece Theatre.
Yesterday didn’t seem like Sunday, really, until I woke last night at 12:30 am, wrapped myself in a blanket, and wandered to my writing room in the dark. To be honest, the only time Sunday feels anything like the Sundays of childhood is when I’m on Cape Cod, scrambling with my sister and her kids to get to the Unitarian church on time. But reading the poem, my laptop glowing in the dark, I sensed a Sunday taking shape behind me.
I can tell now, waking up as I do almost every night, when trying to fall back asleep is a fruitless enterprise, when lying in bed kicking the sheets off, yanking them back on, turning on my side, my front, my back, results, inevitably, in hooking onto wherever my mind’s freight train’s headed, unknown destination, unchosen, like a grass seed latched onto a runner’s leg. Then all the day’s replayed, rewound, respun, stitched with worry, litanies of discontent, confession of sins, analysis of data. In my mind’s church, I’m trapped on a hard pew listening to a rambling homily that never ends well. It never ends with the words "go in peace." It just hitch-hikes to another train, my hobo brain.
So I found myself on the futon couch in my writing room, reading “The Mass Has Ended Go in Peace.” By then, it was 1:30 am (it actually took an hour for me to accept that those weary hobo mind thoughts would not bore me back into sleep, they were no lullaby).
And then the train pulls into its inevitable stop. The middle of the night is Cancerland. You’ve crossed into another time zone. In Cancerland Pacific Time, it’s always the middle of the night. You’re always the only one awake. And it aches, the flat place on your chest, where you can feel the contour of each muscle, rib, hollow, divet. And you remember images you saw recently, black-and-white photographs of young women with breast cancer, women under 40, nudes, on a website called “The Scar Project.” The images haunt you and at the same time keep you company. They stand beside you, faces lit by the fuel drum fire hoboes kindle along the tracks. Those women defy the dogmas of the weird other world you inhabit day to day, where you walk around and act like an inhabitant of an ordinary time zone. After a day like yesterday, the throb, the tightness across the landscape of your scar is particularly intense. Like a physical manifestation of a psychic state, loneliness. Loneliness also haunts you and keeps you company in the middle of the night. It draws your hand to your chest. In case you’re confused about which place is real, which place is home, it calls your hand to feel the dips between ribs, the bony escarpments and rift zones. It calls you back. The images of the Scar Project women bare so much more than their physical selves, their scars, amputations, reconstructions. The bare expressions on their faces haunt you and keep you company in the dark. Their eyes more naked than their chests. In their looks of loss, fear, defiance there’s also WTF. WTF is what your mind says whenever you look in the mirror, still after nearly two years.
It’s beginning to feel strange, time, and the memory of that summer of surgery and waiting and testing and chemotherapy. Not like a bad memory receding, a town receding as a train pulls away and rounds a bend. Sometimes it feels like she’s still there, that version of me. Last night, listening to the trade wind muscle around the house, I thought of the attic room of my sister’s house, wind buffeting the roofline, the dormers. I put myself back there. No door, maybe a light leaking up from the living room, where at 1:30 am my sister might still be transcribing her medical charts into her computer, watching Rachel Maddow, or asleep curled over her laptop, the dog asleep at her feet. The ping of emails arriving on my brother-in-laws office computer. Feeling as though I am on a boat, being carried. Feeling the house below me, my sister’s family, like an enormous rescue ship. And at the same time feeling that I’m up in the rigging, alone. Feeling safe and trapped and alone at the same time. I don’t want to leave her there, that wide-awake-me, I can’t, I won’t. As though time is a series of parallels, and I can reach across to her, still there on in the attic room, cell phone alarm set to 5:00 am for the trip to Boston for a chemo infusion. The mass has not ended. Like the Bible with its parables read again and again, the same stories, as though Lazarus is continuously dying and arising, as though the loaves and fishes are eternally multiplying.
This is a dispatch from Cancerland, from the a post-midnight time zone, a place probably unrelatable, untranslatable. Populated by voices from the last few weeks, conversations, images, things I’ve read and seen and heard about, deaths, diagnoses. A friend talking to me of the mind-body connection, of Louise Hay’s theory of breast cancer resulting from an imbalance in the way one nurtures, and my hackles arising. This friend feels she’s finally brought herself into balance, healing years of digestive problems, constipation, and when I told her how angry those theories made me (and it’s irrational, I know, but I feel the roil of it arising in my throat as I write, what I might describe as bile, or reflux, or a scream concentrated in the hollow between my collar bones), she persisted. “It’s not that you’re doing something wrong; it’s about imbalance." I said, but what about Michelle, a thirty-something yoga teacher she knew, mother of two little girls, who’d died the week before of cancer of the appendix. What was her imbalance? And the friend said, "Oh, I could see she had imbalances." And now the women in the Scar Project photos seem to walk forward, one by one, toward me. Only their WTF looks can respond adequately. They call me back from the time zone where, two-and-a-half years ago, I too believed I could keep myself safe. Enough counseling, enough organic produce, enough exercise, enough fresh air, enough healing. (And all along, I know now, maybe ten years, maybe more, I had cancer; it was growing). I step back across into this time zone, where I live now, and stand among those Scar Project women. The land where we live the whys and uncertainties is largely unexplored country, still, and we have only flashlights. Mine is right here beside me, and when I hear something bang or scuttle, I turn it on and cast the beam around until my heart stops pounding.
This is a dispatch from another time zone. In the company of my fears and unknowns, with nothing between my hand and my flat chest, alone, it’s where I feel most real. It’s the place from where I bow my head and whisper, “The mass has ended go in peace.”
Here is the link to the Scar Project sight, if you’re brave enough to look into these eyes, the inhabitants of this place: http://www.thescarproject.org/gallery/
And here is the poem:
The Mass Has Ended Go in Peace
—not in knowledge, but in calm; not in indifference,
but nearly. Under bullying fog the white houses
stand with effort on the coast, the tides teasing
the scrub blue, the land beneath hassled by waves,
drowning in salt-wine. The lichen, as scalloped and ridged
as the cliffs, breathes red and gold; its smell, like the waft
of earth to heaven, is nearly imperceptible, a touch of fish-rot
and smoke. (I asked, Lord, for stillness and lack of concern.)
The town here could be wiped clean from the land—
no streak or smear of roofs, no smudge of walls.
But the people go on painting the village white.
The weathered wood chokes on its dust; the new whiteness
laughs through fog. I asked for acceptance and got the reek
of paint and a bright house. I can see inside the house: a woman,
sweating and bent, putting away the rollers and the cans.