Thursday, October 18, 2012

Going With God and Chocolate

After my appointment with Dr. S., the oncologist, my sister Mara and I walked the narrow streets off Charles, off the Boston Common, and in that moment I wanted to live my whole life right there, I didn't want to be anywhere else, I didn't want any other day.  I wanted it all, and I had it.  Do you know what I mean?  I was the empress of ice cream, of chocolate, the empress of a beach of sea glass and exotic shells.  I said to Mara, what if we lived in a little apartment above the Starbucks or down the alley in one of those old brownstones?  October's clear air in my lungs and on my face, the sharp-angled light on the brick facades, our bodies weaving between all the walkers in boots and sweaters, I wanted it all, I had it all.  A small wad of bills in my wallet, and I wanted to spend it, waste the currency, the dirty greenish paper, imprudently, without caution, without hesitation.  Spend it all now, every ounce of happiness, of relief, save nothing for later.  I wanted to wander the aisles of the 1950's-era narrow-hipped, chock-a-block hardware store, examining the Dutch Boy cleansers, the Murphy's oil soap, the over-my-head shelves of paints, the walls of tools.  I wanted to buy gifts for everyone I knew in the trendy hipster gift shop, each object displayed on its own small boxy shelf, each over-priced object with its own story to tell, and I wanted to hear it.  Each object a joy, a delight, a puzzlement, sitting there, unbought on its perch.  I recall suddenly a line from an Elizabeth Bishop poem called "North Haven."  It's about the death of her deeply sad poet-friend Robert Lowell.  "Fun" -- it always seemed to leave you at a loss . . . )."  Not me.  Not that day.  Fun materialized:  the Tin-Tin playing cards, the Weirdopedia, the yellow cloth bananagram pouches, the balsa-wood airplanes.  We walked on brick sidewalks past shop after shop like that.  Closet-sized pizzerias, a French patisserie, a long narrow dry-cleaners with the proprietors leaning on the counter, the rows of plastic-covered suit jackets and sherbert-colored dresses as painterly backdrop to their dark hair.  The laundromat empty, the machines still and black-eyed.  A below-ground floor level shoe repair, dusty and ancient.  A store selling only fancy writing papers.  And I wanted it all.  And I had it all, because it was there, and I was there, with my sister.  I was there.  Look, gelato.  Look, pastries.  Let's go into the chocolate shop.  We stood staring into the glass case, commiserating, as though our choices were critical:  the salted caramel, the creme de menthe, the ginger green tea dark, the dark with lemon center, the honeycomb crunch.  Walking on toward the commons, we reached into the crinkly plastic bag, nibbled, stopped to close our eyes, let the sweets melt on our tongues, described their flavors to one another, passed the diminishing squares back and forth.  Was it real, the sensation of bland buttery creaminess giving way miraculously to the barest hint of ice-green?  Was the salted caramel really the best thing I've ever tasted in my life?  Everything on those streets in high-res, even now.  Everything autumn-lit, super-saturated.  Things of this world,  I love you so, my mad-dash hell-bent heart said, and I said, watch this Mara, and ran down the sidewalk and kicked my heels to one side, to the other, and she laughed.  But I meant it.

There is no guaranteed cure for breast cancer, they say, but perhaps there is something better, even if it lasts just an hour.  There is no cure for death, no cure for our failing, ailing mortal bodies and selves, there is only this:  the immediacy, the things of this world, the wasteful, terrible beauty, the gorgeous triviality, the dirt and grit, the danger, the wanting and wanting more of it.  The knowing what's at stake.  The knowing what there is to lose and leave.  And loving it all anyway.  I don't know why this appointment with Dr. S. spilled me onto the Boston streets high and reckless and dumbfounded by luck.  It wasn't that much different than any other appointment, except that at the end of that hour, he said,  "You're the picture of health.  All I can say is go with God ... or whomever it is you believe in."  I threw my arms around him.  And I went.  And I believed in everything, including my only once-in-a-lifetime alive self.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

You Know the Drill

By this time, you understand the language under the language.   By this time you know the drill.

The drill is this:  You hit the sheets early the night before, knowing it may take an hour or more to actually fall asleep.  You lie in bed with those familiar chitterings and flutterings in your stomach, as though a flock of redpolls were trapped inside your ribcage.  You call Craig, snap at him because he’s preoccupied with harvesting lettuce from the garden.  When he asks you what you want from him, you tell him you support, and he obliges.  You take a homeopathic remedy to put you to sleep. 

You wake and shower and dress in layers and pack snacks in an insulated bag and pack your computer and papers to grade in a backpack for the inevitable waiting room waits, you fill a to-go mug with tea, a bottle with water.  You worry about the time.  Will you beat the Boston traffic?  Is two and a half hours enough?  Your sister drives, first dropping the kids off at school, first driving in the opposite direction from Boston.  Taking frequent swigs of water, you listen to her kids argue in the backseat, you feel impatient with their petty spats about who said this, who said that, who hit whom in the head with a backpack.  You get mad when Sam sasses you, you say, “You’re not the one going to the cancer doctor, my friend!” 

It’s a different day in that it’s sunny, cool and breezy.  It always seems to be raining and gray when you go to Boston for these appointments, isn’t that part of the drill?  But not today.  Near  Boston you slide effortlessly into the carpool lane.  You listen to your sister talk, you wrap your head around her troubles, you fail to be preoccupied with what’s ahead for you, with anxiety.  You take in the intense redness and maroonness and orangeness of the trees.  This lack of anxiety is also not part of the drill.  Until you pull into the parking garage.  You’re talking to Craig on the cell, and he says, “Oh yeah, the old parking garage, I remember that,” and you say,  “Too bad I don’t have a joint to smoke this time.”  Remembering how you crouched beside the car tire to smoke a doobie after a chemo infusion, to stave off the nausea, which always began about halfway back to the Cape.

You ride the elevator up from the parking garage, you walk across the lobby where a woman isn’t playing a harp, thank God.  Because something about that harp’s celestial chords recalled for you angelic orders, haloes, white-gold light, and in a hospital, being treated for cancer, or even two years after, angelic orders at heaven’s gate are not where you want to be thrust.  You want to be here, at street level, listening to the latest pop or hip-hop music or better yet, outside on the street, with the living, with the well, under the trees, in the crowds moving down Brookline Avenue.  But today there are no harps, just the second elevator ride, your sister pushing the button for floor number nine, oncology.

It’s crowded today.  You wait in line to check in.  You find a seat, you scan the room, and your sister points out that everyone seems happy, everyone’s wearing bright colors.  Did someone find a cure for cancer?  But you feel the eyes of others on you, checking you out.  You know the drill because you do it too, scrutinize each person who walks in the door, wonder about their story, their diagnosis, their fears and hopes.  You watch as the phlebotomists come in and out of the lab to check the basket for the next blood draw.  You wait to hear your name, hope it will be the Columbian one, not the younger one, the one you called “the milker” for the way she pumped the blood out of your finger every week during Taxol treatments.  But it is the milker.  She sits you down, and she’s fast and efficient, no milking, just a needle in the vein.  Two tubes of maroon, and you’re up and out and down the elevator to radiology.

So here’s where knowing the language, the drill, really matters.  You change into the johnny in the tiny cubicle, you leave your shirt and bra in the locker, you sit down in the waiting room with your arms wrapped around your chest and prepare to wait.  You check your email.  You check out the other waiting, nervous women, you flip through the magazines, rip out an article about freezing fresh herbs from Organic Gardener.  Hear your name called after only five minutes.  You walk in, she tells you to take off your johnny, she tells that since the fibroadenoma in your left breast didn’t change in a year and a half, she’ll just be doing two regular views.  You let her arrange you and your breast on the machine, you breathe when she tells you to, your hold still when she tells you to, you relax when she tells you to, you try to read her face when as she’s staring at her screen.  Go back and wait, she says, and the doctor will call you.  You wait again.  Why is everyone getting called except you?  Every woman who’s called gets the desired sentence:  “The doctor’s ready for you now, go and change your clothes.”  You understand the language under the language.  How this means “Your mammogram is normal, you can change into street clothes, you can leave, you are safe.”  No more views, no ultrasounds, no fear.

You wait your turn.  You remember a U-Tube video your friend showed you, of an elaborate prank some French people played.  With heavy equipment, they dug big hole dug in the middle of a running/biking/walking path.  They filled the hole with water, then carefully covered the water’s surface with leaves.  A hidden camera capture people chatting, walking, then suddenly plunged into water over their heads.  You remember that feeling as you wait.  What is coming for you?

“Ms. Saulitis?”

“Yes?”  You look up.  The portly technician holds a clipboard.  “The doctor’s ready for you with your results.  Go ahead and get changed.  Then come through this door, take a right.”

You hurry back to the locker, grab your small bundle of clothes, put on your bra, button your shirt.  You meet Mara, follow the signs back, the technician directs you into an examining room, you sit, and a few seconds later, a white-haired Dr. Groff with a friendly face more like that of a grocery store bagger than a doctor puts out his hand.  He doesn’t even sit down.  “Your mammogram is normal.”  He leans over the desk to sign a piece of paper.  You look at your sister, and both of you smile, melting smiles, ice cream smiles, golden retriever goofball smiles.

For you, now, this is technically just a routine mammogram, once a year, like anyone else.  But you hope you never receive those words in a routine way.  Because it’s as if you get to relive the terrible moment two and a half years ago when you stepped on what you thought was solid ground and fell through into deep water and found yourself flailing.  It’s as if you get your wish, at last.  It’s as if they’d said, “”It’s benign.  You’re fine, you’re okay, you can go home.”  And know it’s an illusion.  You can’t change the past.  But for those seconds of smiling so hard you want to grab your sister and jump up and down, you pretend.  It never happened.  It never will again.           

Friday, October 5, 2012

If on an Autumn's Morning, a Traveler ...

Leaves and rain falling, falling day after day in Homer this autumn.  Just now another rain shower.  Just now, clouds creeping in, erasing the mountains across the bay, just now, something big breathing on the glass that is our fragile world, and we’re right now breathing in this breath on glass, just now, no wind, only rain moving the leaves hanging limp and loose on the trees, the sky darkened, the umber and gold leaves sodden and glowing. 

Just now, somewhere along the Al-Can Highway, my friends are driving south, on a journey, heading out of Alaska for the fall, heading south toward sun and another kind of autumn, driving down below the ridge of the jet stream that’s kept the storms coming over Homer, over Prince William Sound, kept the Pacific Northwest gorgeously warm and clear.  Or maybe they’re just rising, that little family of three, heating tea on their propane stove in the mini-RV, sock footed on the cold floor.  This morning, I read a letter from my friend describing their journey so far.  She described her ambivalence at leaving the security of home, of routine, work she loves, a cozy house warmed by a woodstove.    She described a nascent beginning of another kind of routine, writing as they drive bumping along, reading aloud.  I miss her.  I envy her.   And her letter stirred in me this morning, nudged in me a question:  what kind of journey are you on this fall?  Staying here, staying still, and what if you think of it as a parallel journey, what letter would you write to her to describe today, yesterday?  Where you’ve been, where you’re going.  Not dramas in the town, but something inner.  Something that happens only when you sit down to write, here at the kitchen table, the only sound in the empty house the clock ticking, rain on the deck.  Writing is moving, leaving, journeying, traveling, searching.

Before I sat down to write, to pretend that I too had woken up on the road, to pretend I too was looking out my window at an unfamiliar, new landscape, I found this quote posted online by a friend.  It’s attributed to someone named Billie Mobayed.  “When the Japanese mend broken objects, they aggrandize the damage by filling the cracks with gold.  They believe that when something’s suffered damage and has a history it becomes more beautiful.”   Above the quote is a photograph of a cracked pottery vessel, the seam gold-filled, and yes, it’s beautiful.  It even seems intentional.  And how could I not think of my own body, my own spirit?  And even this broken world?

I’ve been journeying these two years, certainly, even when I’ve not been writing in this blog.  I’ve been healing, learning, struggling, repairing, asking for guidance, for help.  This fall, I’m getting “Rolfed,” a ten-week deep realignment of the body, the skeleton, the muscles, and a whole body and spirit approach to healing.  Healing into Life and Death is the title of a book on my shelf.  That’s what it’s all about, and I’m reminded that there’s no end point, no graduation, just a road you're on that disappears over the horizon.  I don’t want there to be an end to this journey.  I don't want to reach the horizon.  The first Rolfing session, Jody asked me to take off everything but my underwear and stand in front of a full-length mirror.  It was impossible not to see how I’ve been carrying my story.  It was impossible not to read the history of my shoulders, my chest, my neck, to see the cracked and broken places.  Based on what she saw in the mirror, looking at my body, Jody then worked on my neck, my shoulders, my chest.  When she placed her hands on the right side, on the scar, the tears and grief were immediate and immense, pouring up like water between my ribs.  It’s like an underground spring.  Even when I don’t lift the vegetation away to see the source of that achingly cold trickle, it’s there.  And maybe it’s okay.  How can I keep healing?  It’s not about being stuck in breast cancer, though at times I feel stuck in fear of breast cancer, or in dismay at its annoying after-shocks.  Before she started work on my body, Jody asked me to name three wishes, not necessarily reasonable ones.  “Do they have to be possible outcomes?”  I asked.  She laughed.  “These are wishes.  If you could have anything …”  “To be free of fear and anxiety and stress,” I said, immediately.  “To be free of the fear of cancer returning.”  When Jody worked on my frozen, scarred parts, oh it hurt.  “Don’t hold your breath,” she said.  “Breathe right into it.”

Impossible wish, to be free of fear.  I will breathe through the fears triggered again and again; they keep coming, like these autumn rains, arising out of that cold spring, out of the cracks, still unfilled, maybe never filled entirely.  Because there are, as Leonard Cohen wrote, cracks in everything.  My first rolfing session was the day my beloved aunt Valija died of pancreatic cancer in Toronto.  The aunt who coached me during my chemo days, taught me how to fry chicken livers.  “Cross the threshold, Mom,” my cousin whispered into her ear as she took her last breaths.

This is not a passing shower.  The rain falls straight down, continuously as I write.  Varied thrushes wheeze from the alders.  In autumn, they sing again, one more time before journeying south.  They are the first migrants of spring and the last of fall to speak.  Cross the threshold, they say.  Today and tomorrow.  Cross the threshold and keep going.