Spring. Will it always be a season of recall? A year ago I was writing about radiation recall in this blog. My body remembering its ordeal. A red rash on my face, arms and chest. Now almost two years have passed since I was diagnosed with breast cancer in April of 2010. And this morning I recalled a couple women – strangers -- I met along that year’s weird, difficult way. It’s been a whole year since I returned to Alaska after months on Cape Cod, returned a different person, inside and out. Returned not to reclaim or re-inhabit a life, but to figure out exactly what that life was about, what it looked like, what it meant. My home, Alaska, was my mirror. Into its face I gazed every morning through my kitchen window for some glimpse of my own new face. On my daily walks and runs I breathed its breath, trying to understand the composition of my own breath. Its birdcalls and branch-clatters and wind-sighs echoed tiny new-formed sounds of a soul reconstructing itself (as I wrote in a poem, out of nothing more than sticks and paper, it seemed), a big empty within gradually being refilled: bare ground upon which sprouts appear, and prints of animals, and suddenly it’s summer. It took a year. A year for a forest to grow up. It happened so fast, it left a part of me behind. Now that part is wandering in the new-growth forest, drawing maps, writing field guides to plants, animal tracks, trees, birds, mushrooms. Testing the waters. Studying the rocks and ice formations. Underneath the work I’m doing on the surface of things, the teaching, the writing, is this other work, a natural history investigation.
My hair is a symbol of this, I suddenly realize. It’s now thick again, curly, a bit wild and unkempt, in need of a trim. A tangle, like an alder patch, the stuff that grows up when the earth’s damaged, when the ground’s been disturbed. After glacial scour, avalanche, tsunami, it’s alder: the colonizer, the scrapper. That’s how life – the forest around me – feels. I can’t completely believe it’s mine. And yet, that woman I was at 46, that woman lying on an examining table, mind racing far, far ahead of the words issuing forth from doctors’ and nurses’ mouths, watching, like clouds, the looks crossing their faces, worry, dismay, that woman is not me either. Her life is not mine any longer. I left her back there, it seems. The language of cancer careering past her like a gale. She is lying on the table, and at the same time she is lying on the earth, looking past that wind, above it, so her soul can escape. Her soul left her body during those day, caught itself in a branch. It is safe there. Safe from chemotherapy, needles, radiation beams, IVs. A poet I know has a book with a title that’s always haunted me: And Her Soul Out of Nothing. Sticks, paper. Wind. Bird call. Snow flake, raindrop. Soul out of melt, out of shadow and leaf-fall and gravel.
Talking to my sister-in-law MiSook this morning, I recalled two strangers from that time of treatment. Suddenly they appeared, one, then the other, in my memory’s field. Out of the many faces of my breast cancer year, theirs, vivid, clear. When I close my eyes they are standing in front of me. One, in the foyer of the Dennis yoga studio where I practiced a sweaty, cleansing form called Bikram in the five weeks leading up to my surgery, and where I practiced gentler forms as I went through chemo. I was bald, wearing a head scarf that day, and after class, as I was putting on my jacket, this woman said, out of the blue, “I know what you’re going through.” I looked at her. She was petite, dark-haired, in her thirties, olive skin, beautiful, that pure no-make-up natural beautiful, and I’d noticed during the class the suppleness of her body. She radiated health, yoga-glow. She told me that five years before, she’d been diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer after giving birth to a child; she’d gone through chemo with an infant in arms. “I’m fine now,” she said, with utter confidence. “And you will be too.” At the time, it was like talking to someone across a river. Do you remember the scene in the movie Into the Wild, when the half-starved, half-crazed main character finally decides to make a break for civilization, hikes to the riverbank, but finds it in full flood, water racing, angry, turbid, concrete-gray, deep? That kind of river. And that woman was standing on the other side, in another landscape, a landscape that to me felt utterly inaccessible. A landscape that looked a lot like the one I inhabited, but was not. Cancerland is where I stood, that other place, the land of illness and treatment. And while the words of many others, and the experiences of my body, flowed past, beneath my watching but detached soul, that woman and her words brought my soul back into my body for a moment. Her words didn’t flow past so quickly. They entered my body. “I’m fine now. You will be too.” What she didn’t say was what fine meant, what place I’d come to inhabit, what it was like, that landscape on the river’s other side.
Now I stand here and look back across the other way. The wind is blowing through my crazy post-chemo hair. I scan the opposite shoreline through binoculars. In case there’s a woman standing there looking lost in her head scarf, in her wig, with her lymphadema sleeve, with her pathology report, with her scars and fears. And there, I spot her. She’s just about across the river, actually. It’s Denice, who commented on my Facebook photo today, how all the hair on my head gave her hope. “Denice,” I call from across the water. “Over here. Denice, it’s me. I know what you’re going through. I’m fine now. And you will be too.”
Getting ready to post this, I saw that it's #101. And just like all the other river crossings I've made in the last two years, I didn't know until it was already done, that I was on another bank. In a new century. All I can say so far: there are great horned owls on this side of this river. Calling at dawn in the woods around my house. In this new century, snow melts off the roof all night. And the earth under a basement window cracks as a green shoot breaks out. I like it here.