“The sun doesn’t rise for us. We turn to it and the day begins.” – Mark Nepo from Finding Inner Courage
The crab is under the rock, carapace touching, rough to rough. My chest is hard beneath my hand, bumpy with scar tissue, held between bone.
The crab doesn’t need me to name it or see it to be what it is. Claws folded and resting in cool, shallow water. Tucked into a rock like a ball in a socket.
“Are you going to do anything with it?” My surgeon asks about my scar.
“Do you want a prosthesis?” Asks my oncologist, again.
I shake my head.
I want to claim this body as my own. As valid. As beautiful. As whole.
And that is mine alone to do.
Two hours from now I will have my port removed; a pebble-sized device that gave easy entrance to my body and allowed in a year’s worth of medicine. It is the last thing; a small finial atop a tall, seemingly insurmountable year and three months of treatment.
I am hopeful for an uneventful day and am holding the image of a bird losing a feather. It served a purpose and helped me get where I am. The loss is insignificant and hardly felt. I’m here now and releasing what is no longer needed.
Now when I lay in bed, reading, my right hand rests on my chest. Where my breast used to be. It is an unconscious gesture. I just noticed it the other day. As if my body is comforting itself.
My right arm folds in.
Like a wing.
“My grief work is not so much about climbing a ladder to get out of it as it is about the awareness of how many people are in it with me.” – Madge McKeithen from Blue Peninsula: Essential Words for a Life of Loss and Change.
The dermatologist knocked and opened the door. I took in her face, her smile, her small stature and then…her prosthetic right arm.
Recognition was immediate; a full body sensation. At the same time, a startling realization that this wouldn’t have been my reaction five months ago. This is my first time with a visible difference.
The appointment became less about my mole of concern (she wasn’t) and more about what it was like to be in the world with one arm (her) or one breast (me). The grief, the responses, the internalizations. She lost her arm in an accident at sixteen; I’m guessing at least thirty years ago. Her prosthesis is functional at work. She doesn’t usually wear it otherwise.
Whales vocalize to find each other. In the vastness of the ocean, it must be the only way. I walked out of her office with a new sense of myself. Like I had finally gotten a response to a sound I made months ago.
“The irony is that we share a great kinship in this struggle to be real, though we all think we’re alone in our struggles to be here.” – Mark Nepo from The Art of Being Sensitive
For several years I’ve noticed hawks at times of distress or worry. To me, the hawk is a comforting sentinel. To the hawk, I am just a speck in their broad landscape.
Today is my 40th birthday. This past week many people have asked me if turning 40 is hard or depressing. I know they ask because that is our narrative – 40 is the big one.
At first I nodded until I realized I was just following the same script. It felt good to be real and say:
“No, cancer was hard. I’m grateful for 40.”
“I’m sorry, I’m pretty certain that’s cancer.”
We heard those words a year ago today. Received on a Friday from the radiologist after a diagnostic mammogram. That day I started on the path in, like following the whorl of a snail shell. Me and cancer, no longer just passing each other, but now walking together…or more so, cancer charging ahead and me trying to keep up.
A few months later I found myself in a labyrinth; a large dirt and stone spiral, like a giant earth snail shell, spread flat before me. At the center was a tree. I walked in, meditating on what I now knew was coming…a long, slow walk through treatment. One I would have to do alone as the only one inhabiting this body.
Now I sometimes imagine myself walking out from that labyrinth. Treatment is almost over, my breast is gone and so is (I hope) the cancer. But am I ever all the way out?
Then I see a snail. Maybe we are always on that spiral, just with different companions. Slowly going in and out of center…and then starting again.
As a child, I loved rocky beaches. I upturned rock after rock; each one revealing a different family of crabs in a house of pebbles and pools. I was awed that these worlds existed, hidden, until I opened them to the sky.
I was always careful to put the rock back.
“What happens to my breast?” I asked the surgeon before my mastectomy. “Is it just medical waste?”
“Oh no, we thoroughly dissect it to see what is there,” he replied. “I will call you with the pathology report.”
He did. It turns out an invasive tumor remained in my breast even after two lumpectomies and six rounds of chemotherapy. It’s gone now. My breast too.
What remains is the space underneath. Another world now open to the sky, forever.
As I look in the mirror, I’m trying to view myself with wonder.
What is revealed now?