Last night I finished the novel The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey. The book is a deeper story disguised as an Alaskan take on an old Russian fairy tale. At the heart of that fairy tale – at the heart of many fairy tales – is darkness, is longing and loneliness, desire, disappointment, letting be and letting go. So of course The Snow Child is more than magical and dream-like. It is very real. It’s about loving something desperately but not being able to own it, fix it in time or place, rein it in. It’s about overcoming your own deepest cravings and wounds to see and accept another person, place, or animal as it is. It’s about loving something wild and untamed, and having to adjust your manner of loving – all you’ve been taught about what and how it’s supposed to be – adjust it to the true nature of the beloved thing. It’s about letting yourself actually see the beloved thing, beyond your own projections. Mary Oliver, in a poem, asks the reader to just “let the small animal of your body love what it loves.” The small wild thing, the animal of the body, isn’t always a rational creature, and it isn’t always pretty or polite or well-behaved. It’s difficult enough to know and then focus on that small animal’s meanderings, its desires and impulses and instincts, much less ask others to honor them too. But that’s what love does, doesn’t it?
When your love gets cancer, get ready. The small wild animal, stuffed, buried, contained, muffled, suppressed, awakens. No, you didn’t sign up for this insurrection of the body, did you? You didn’t sign up for this particular train ride. Even when your love, the day she was diagnosed, asked you directly, “So are you ready to get on this train with me?” and you said, “Yes,” how could you understand? You didn’t know the train was heading down this particular narrow cut through a dense forest, jumping the track your life was on and careening down another. You didn’t anticipate that when the treatment was over, she wouldn’t want to jump off that train and trudge back in the opposite direction, searching for the one you started on together when you first hooked up. That when you finally found that old train, finally hauled yourself into a boxcar, she wouldn’t follow. And now you see her there, waving from a boxcar on another train, swaying down a parallel track, but you can’t make out her words. They don’t make sense. They don’t sound like the language you used to speak together. And she can’t seem to understand your words either.
Two years after cancer, on the home front, nothing is the same, and everything is the same. I still get mad when he forgets to bring cloth bags to the grocery store and comes home with plastic. He still gets mad when I drive too fast on our dirt road. I still get mad when he chainsaws down the elderberry bushes in the orchard to let in more light for the raspberry patch. He still gets mad when I buy more books than I can read in a year, more books than I can afford. But I don’t know the terrain of his inner life, exactly. I don’t know what happened to him during the year of breast cancer, what path those months carved into him, and where that path led. It’s a private place. There’s that song, “Stand By Me,” and when I hear it, I think of Craig and my sister, my mod squad, and all of our trips to Boston, to the hospital, and all of the shit we faced together. But the truth is, cancer doesn’t happen to one person with everyone rallying around, standing by. And it doesn’t happen to “a family.” We each take our own trip with it, alone. I write my way through. That is not Craig’s way. I talk about my “healing process,” a lame phrase, a euphemism for the way I flail through the elderberry thickets, lost, following the small animal of my body, which is sometimes frantic, sometimes exuberant, and sometimes afraid. Craig says he can’t go there with me, into that thicket. By god, he wants to clear it out with a chainsaw, let the light in. And I think I’ve got the map and key, but it doesn’t fit into his door, it doesn’t show the way to his wilderness. His way is equally a mystery, equally a place, and a path and a language, and someone walking alone through a landscape only he can see. Does this sound lonely? Sometimes it is. But maybe it should be.
Breast cancer changes something about the small animal of the body. Not the obvious things. Not so much the animal itself, but one’s access to it. In my case, it leapt out of its woodpile like the red squirrel in our shed, and chattered at me, and it hasn’t stopped. This is what I love. This is what I want. The best times are when the big gawky human of my body and the small animal are one, as in the other morning, when I walked down the road from my house. The puddles had frozen in the night, the air was cold against my face, but birdsong flamed here and there, deep and near, in the forest. The sky was pale and flat as old tin, not yet bright. And this all-out, desperate, obsessive, consuming love for the earth, the wild dead grass, the freezing air, the frenzied push-of-the-world birds arriving year after year, their rough songs, the broken branches, the moose-chewed alders and willows, the rabbit-stripped spruce trees, the scruffy rabbits themselves, mangy and tousled and fleet, half-brown, half-dishwater, the ground without its snow clothes, which behind our house resembles the matted, damp coat of a moose, like we are walking around on the enormous body of a moose that is sleeping (thank god), and I wondered, how could I ever let it go? And this desperate voice inside me said, “I want to stay right here forever, this is my heaven.” There are two forces at play in this moment: my intense fear of cancer coming back, of dying, and my equally intense desire to be alive. The flip side of fear, for me, is joy with a knife in it. I cannot stay here, in my heaven. I will love it anyway.