if you move carefully
through the forest,
like the ones
in the old stories,
who could cross
a shimmering bed of leaves
without a sound,
to a place
whose only task
is to trouble you
but frightening requests,
conceived out of nowhere
but in this place
beginning to lead everywhere…”
– David Whyte from “Sometimes” in River Flow: New & Selected Poems
I am grateful and terrified to have reached that place in an experience where you start to forget, to view it from above, to give it another name. I am trying to hold the pieces that will let me, that don’t want to squirm away or drop through the space between my fingers. I think about fossils and drawers of museum specimens…only holding what someone else has found and called meaningful or momentous or worth saving. Yet so much more existed for a time that did not become that. It just went away…breaking up into the dirt and becoming one with the rest of us. And now I am that too…back with the rest, part of everything, not removed or called out.
I just met with a social worker I saw right before chemotherapy. I wanted her to know where I was now, to place me again on her map. I wanted her to understand that she was part of it all for me, that she helped me when I was in that separate place, when I didn’t know if I would ever rejoin.
She told me of a patient, younger than me, who died a year after his diagnosis yet remained grateful for the gift of the otherness he was experiencing, the breaking open, the glimpse of something else.
I carry him with me now…someone brave enough to hold that, even when he knew he was dying sooner than most of us expect to.
I left her office with the continuing paradox of what to hold and what to let go…
What is wondrous and useful enough to keep returning to?
And what is just as beautiful being reabsorbed, with everything that has gone before?
Yesterday was my one year anniversary of completing chemotherapy. This morning, on the edge of the never-ending ocean waves, I ran.
But next to.
The sand was littered with crab parts – carapaces upturned and filled with water, pinchers holding nothing, legs attached only to each other.
I ran and thought about the life I have, now. How strong my body is, now. How happy I am, now.
And as the waves kept coming in, washing over the scattered crab pieces, I let myself think about death. And even in that thinking, I was still strong and happy.
There was a time, before cancer, when even thinking of death, would cause panic. When feeling connected to a bigger presence meant life might turn and go wrong.
I know fear will return someday, just like any emotion.
And I know, it is not here now.
“What’s the catch?
The catch is that there is no catch.”
– Anne Lamott from Hallelujah Anyway
A few weeks ago I had my first mammogram since my diagnosis. As the technician said, now I go back to routine screening. Except what is routine now is an annual mammogram on one breast. Something that doesn’t feel routine to me at all.
It was normal. And now I go back to waiting – for another year to screen again, for a few more weeks until I see my oncologist again. I am waiting to feel safe and okay.
Except this morning I woke up in a warm bed newly covered in a heavy comforter; a lovely chill in the air. I had a much-anticipated breakfast and a small cup of coffee in my favorite owl mug. I started reading Anne Lamott’s book about finding mercy, not only for others but for ourselves. I started thinking about the barriers that we carry around to put down at various points in our search…
like large orange traffic cones,
to mark that we are still scared (or angry or confused)…
To justify that we aren’t ready yet…
Yes, I am that snail.
Thank you morning, for coming. For showing me what I’m carrying. For helping me to start over again today.
“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.