My brain didn’t remember the exact anniversary of my cancer diagnosis; I had to look it up today. I thought it was today, but it’s actually the 8th. My body remembered, though. Maybe it’s the light, the decaying snow on the ground, or some internal chronometer. Whatever, it pinned me to the bed last night in an intense flashback as I tried to fall asleep. What I’m trying to say is that I hadn’t been thinking about it. And suddenly, there I was. My heart pounding, reliving the memory of the moments before my breast biopsy, when, in the dark ultrasound room, the radiologist walked in and said, even before he’d inserted the needle into my breast, even before anyone had examined the tumor’s cells under a scope and typed the words “invasive ductal carcinoma” into a file bearing my name, days before the telephone call with its good and bad news (it was cancer; it was treatable; I’d lose my right breast; my left was clear), that white-coated bald little man walked into that room after examining the mammogram films and blurted, “I can tell you right now, breast conserving surgery will not be an option for you.” It was well before I’d even considered any option at all; I still carried one tattered shred of hope that “the mass” was benign. Long before I asked my head to wrap itself around the possibility that I might actually lose my breast. So his words hit me with the force of some crazy-ass rogue wave barreling in and driving me under and holding me there, like one of those crazy-ass big wave surfers. I can recall, effortlessly, instantaneously, the feeling, though I’ve never surfed in my life. I’ve never been held under by a wave, rogue or otherwise. I’ve never been in an earthquake where the ground turned liquid and began to roll. But yes I have. I was held under. The ground under my feet turned liquid and pitched and rolled.
Lying there in bed last night, I literally shook my head violently, trying to dislodge myself from that moment, bring myself back to the present, to the second floor of my house in Homer, Alaska, a waning moon leaking its light into the bedroom from between drawn curtains. And then I had a hot flash.
Somehow, sometime after, I fell asleep, and towards morning, I dreamed I was in a forest at night, a dense forest of tall trees with a dirt path cutting through, a straight line to a vanishing point of wilderness, a heart primeval. There was a moon, but it was mighty dark, and the moonlit sky was a narrow river above me. I knew that in the forest lived brown bears, and that they’d be roving about in the night, and I was alone and had to walk that path through the trees, the forest close on either side of me. And it was danger. I’d have to enter that forest and keep walking until I got to the other side, which was where Craig was, where home was. I had no choice. So I started walking and screaming, “Hello bears, hello bears” at the top of my lungs and panicking, my heart trying to beat its way out of my mouth. I was filled with abject terror. I don’t think, in my real life, I’ve ever experienced terror that immense. Or I’ve never let myself. Is that the fear of death? When I woke from the dream, I felt no relief, nor residual fear. Only recognition: This was a big dream. And I know that place. That place is real. It’s a real path I am, on some level, continually walking. But what’s not real is the nature of those bears; they are not out to terrify and murder me; they form no gauntlet. The gauntlet is formed by my thoughts, my imaginings, perhaps by deepest darkest worst projections of what death might be. But is not. The bears, my waking self knows, are simply bears, going about their nocturnal bruin rambles. And yes, it’s terrifying to walk through this forest of unknowns, this life of uncertainty and yes, danger. But the forest is mystery; it’s beautiful for that. And it can be safe to walk there, at least in the ways that matter. I believe the most sacred part of myself remained unscathed while being held under by an enormous wave. In wild forest where I walk, my fiercely pounding heart perhaps warns me not so much of the presence of mortal danger, but reminds me that in its midst, I’m so damn alive.
So this morning, after telling Craig about the dream, and drinking coffee, and firing off emails, and heading to yoga class, during shivasana, my friend Asia, the instructor, read a poem by Hafiz. And within it was a caption to my dream:
In the overpowering felt splendor
Every sane mind knows
When it realizes – our life dance
Is only for a few magic
From the heart saying,
“I am so damn
And to end a day that now, at 9 pm, feels like one continuous dream, here is the inscription visiting writer Steve Almond wrote in a book I had him sign this evening after his talk and reading: “Run toward the darkness – and shine.”