Tied up to the Chenega Dock for the night, to ride out the latest storm. Clouds hurtle by from the south. Swatches of blue sky run after. A low cloud dumps rain, passes on. I collected pans of rainwater all night, and this morning, I drink storm water with my toast. I have weathered out many big storms in this tiny harbor over the years. It’s not even a real harbor, with a breakwater to protect it. It’s simply a dock with half a dozen slips in a natural cove. The village, hidden by a small, alder-covered bluff, is invisible from here. Last year, during hurricane force winds, waves washed over the dock. There is a mile long road from the tiny village of Chenega to the airstrip, so weathering out a storm here offers you a chance to get some exercise, go walking in the rain. Once, during a storm, my friend Graeme and I were hunkered in the boat I used to use, the bowpicker Whale 1, just 26 feet long, most of that deck. The cabin was the size of a closet. We were probably reading when we heard a knock on our window. A rain-suited man announced a bake sale up in the community center. Graeme and I suited up and trudged through the wind and rain up the ramp to the big ugly building, up the wooden stairs past the never-working payphone, and shyly opened the door to bright fluorescent lights and the walls lined with villagers chatting, laughing, all waiting for 10 am. The ladies who’d baked the goods fussed with arrangements of sweet white loaves, buns, muffins, cookies, coffee cakes, banana breads, pastries, on long tables in the center of the hall. The only non-villagers in the room were Graeme and me, ours among just a few white faces. I searched the faces for my acquaintances: Mike, Carol, Gail, the crazy postmaster Steve. But before I could find a friend to gravitate to, some invisible signal said “10 am” and everyone rushed the tables and the baker ladies. Graeme and I, unaware of the routine, stood back, somewhat shocked at the aggressive shoving and swarming, waiting for a lull. It was like Black Friday at Wal-Mart; a novice could get run over. By the time the crowd cleared, there were just a few pawed-over loaves of white bread left, and we bought one, said hi to Mike, who sat surrounded by family, and gave me his bemused “aren’t you a funny and out of place white girl” grin, and we left. In the boat, rain pouring down, we ripped off chunks of bread, drank coffee, and listened to the drips leaking into pans placed strategically at the foot of the bunk. The bread, I remember, did not feel good in my granola-cruncher/whole wheat-only stomach, but it feels good in my memory. So now I go to take a walk through Chenega, and as I do each year, to visit Mike’s grave in the tiny muskeg cemetery. Thinking of him, I hear a magpie chortle. Could it be him, still laughing at me? Mike’s is the only grave planted with wild irises instead of plastic flower garlands. I have no good sweet bread to leave him, only a chunk of Rolfy Bar, perhaps. But that’s another story.
Rolfy Bars. Before we tied to the Chenega Dock, we rendezvoused with the Rolfy again. She was finishing up loading more carcasses (black humpies 30 cents a pound) and roe for a late run to Cordova. Despite the dire forecast, Mike wanted to make it at least to Stockdale Harbor. The Rolfy’s plowed through 45 foot seas, so the forecasted 50 knot winds and 18 foot seas outside Hinchinbrook Entrance were no deterrent, despite the Rolfy’s s72 year-old leaky wooden hull and never-ending pumps pumping. While Mike and Lisa monitored the fish chute, Trish and I, in separate boats, whipped up a communal dinner, gluten-free vegan pizzas and Rolfy Bars (Trish) and tofu stir fry with garden veggies (me) with wild, brown and red rice. Turns out Trish, Mike and I are all “pesca-vegans.” Turns out Mike has cancer, a cancer just recently woken from remission. So we commiserated on the best anti-cancer diet. They are doing the “chip,” reducing their protein and carb intake. Rolfy Bars are not part of either of our anti-cancer diets, needless to say. But I wonder sometimes if food infused with love, food as gift, as communion, doesn’t somehow override its lesser qualities, if it doesn’t have special healing properties. Like my Tante Valija’s Latvian pieragi, stuffed with bits of onion and bacon. Or is that wishful thinking, arising from the scent of a warm Rolfy Bar, chock-a-block with mashed banana, walnuts, coconut flakes, oats and chocolate chips? Oh, the power of wishful thinking. (The social worker at the Boston hospital where I was treated for breast cancer, herself a two-time survivor, applies the same wishful thinking to her nightly glass of red wine, also a component of no anti-cancer diet I know of).
Last night, after the Rolfy departed, anticipating heavy rain, we put out three pans to catch water. The boat’s tank water, even when filtered through a simple Britta, is nowhere near as pleasing as mountain stream water from Squire Cove or rainwater from a big storm. Beside me is rainwater in a glass bottle, rainwater so clear it has the slightest bluish tinge, like a diamond.
All night, the wind blasted the clouds past, and David said when he woke up in the night, the moon was bright through the skylight. So for awhile, moonlight shone on those basins of rainwater on the back deck, imparting, maybe, that diamond clarity. What kind of alchemy is that? I can only say for sure the water’s sweet and cold, and there’s an alchemy in my mind, imagining moon-blessed water entering my body when I take sips.
This morning, visiting a friend in Chenega Village, we nibbled on deer sausage and she told us about a woman she heard about who apparently has a cure of cancer in Canada. Kate’s father-in-law, a scientist, years back developed an extract of paw-paw that he says does the same. The woman’s regimen is burdock root, some digestive elixir, and the paw-paw Kate’s father-in-law produces and sells. I listened with a mixture of interest and skepticism and I admit, something darker, anger. When we returned to the boat I said to Craig and David that I hoped that if their research panned out, they would hit the streets handing out their cancer cure. Or selling it for a dollar a bottle; with all the cancer out there, they’d still make a fortune. Think of the jubilation. People tell me often that so and so was cured of Stage 4 cancer by such and such a regimen or potion, but it’s always a friend of a friend, some secondhand story. The stories I know personally are of women like me and my friend Lauren, emerging from treatment, praying the cancer’s gone, learning to live “as if”, to live with nagging uncertainties. Though no one would call western cancer treatment kind, and not all western oncologists are kind (mine is), one unkindness they don’t inflict is a false promise. They are humbled by this wily, sly, complicated, baffling disease.
Today I have on my mind Tante Valija, the pieragi-baker, who is dying of pancreatic cancer. When I was going through my treatment, she was recovering from hers. We’d never been close, but those months, we talked often, in Latvian, she offering me advice about how to cook chicken liver, how to soothe reflux. She and her daughter came to visit me, bringing Latvian food, those piragi, her black bread. Last month, she got the dreaded news. After nearly four years in remission, the cancer was back, and raging. When I talked to her on the phone, she was managing the pain with Tylenol 3 (she’s now on synthetic morphine). She was preparing herself, she told me. She was spending her time looking at photographs of family, thinking about all of us. Soon she’d be with her husband again, her brothers, her mother and father (she is a devout Catholic). Each day, she said, was a gift. As the pain intensified, that changed. She longed for death. No more life, not at that price. But then the palliative care doctor figured out the right dosage of morphine. She has weeks. Somewhere out there, in some Canadian hinterland, in some Mexican village, on a remote coast in Greece, someone claims a cure for cancer. But these people I know, they face down the dragon. What does it mean to die, to live on borrowed time? What does it mean to be uncertain? We invent our own cures for our struggles with these questions.
Of course each day I try my best, putting into my body what I hope will keep it safe and healthy and balanced. I pray for my aunt, for my friends Lauren and Denise and Susie and Rosanna, for my new friend Mike. Today I drink moon water and eat fresh halibut. A little wild deer to fortify my heart. It could become a full-time job sleuthing out some witch doctor to offer me certainty. It could take (and ruin) my life.
In my moon daybook, on the page for this week, I find this morning a poem called “The Freeing” by Dawn Thompson. “She has heard tell water soaked in the moon’s gaze becomes the sweet nectar of free life.” I realize last night, drop by drop plunking into my bowls and pots, water “soaked in the moon’s gaze” rained down for me. Unlike paw-paw or digestive elixir, that water, and this day, stormy and wet, is free of charge or promise or guarantee. It is given freely, and I am its only alchemist. The woman in the poem “eagerly tips the metal lip to her mouth/ lets the moon dusted river rush her body/ clear her all things caged” and I follow her lead.