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.
“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.
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?
“…the longer we let relationships unfold, the more we see how everything goes together and how answering the needs of others depends on how we accept what we’re given as unexpected medicine, even if it’s not what we want.” – Mark Nepo from Finding Inner Courage
In my first blog post I wrote about being at the beach with my mom, soon after my cancer diagnosis, witnessing a scuttle of crabs.
That was eight months ago.
Yesterday I met again with the surgeon. In January I will have a mastectomy to remove my right breast. I’ve decided against reconstruction.
Tonight I’m reflecting on that afternoon at the beach. There was one crab that we watched as it followed the incoming tide. We could easily track it. It only had one large white front claw.
“Every morning we must love what is lost in us and begin again.” -Beth Ferris
The day of my first chemo infusion, my spouse got ill. It was what we both feared happening. Out of an abundance of caution, I went to stay with my mom and her partner in my childhood home.
When I return, it will not be to the first house my spouse and I bought together seven years ago out in the rural wildness, but to an apartment in town closer to medical facilities. An apartment I haven’t seen yet. A move my spouse is handling on her own.
My chemotherapy is one infusion every three weeks, a 21-day cycle. Six infusions total. 126 days. I’ve lived in my body for 39 years, yet the last 11 days have brought reactions I’ve never felt before.
Is it any wonder I dream of chasing hermit crabs?
“I turn around on the gravel
and go back to the house for a book,
something to read at the doctor’s office,
and while I am inside, running the finger
of inquisition along a shelf,
another me that did not bother
to go back to the house for a book
heads out on his own,
rolls down the driveway,
and swings left toward town,
a ghost in his ghost car,
another knot in the string of time,
a good three minutes ahead of me -a spacing that will now continue
for the rest of my life.”
-Billy Collins from “I Go Back to the House for a Book” in Picnic, Lightning
Most crabs must shed their exoskeletons in order to grow, a process called molting. I was amazed to learn it only takes 15 minutes to shrug out of their shells. The shell-less crab must then hide for a few days and wait for its protective carapace to grow back.
I am awaiting another surgery. Then chemotherapy, then radiation and targeted therapy – a long process that will heal me. I know I will lose my hair…but the most difficult loss is the future as I thought it would be. Something I never really had in the first place, except in my mind.
I go back in the house for a book, something about giving up control, about acceptance, about gratitude. The old me joins the ghost crabs, the ones that go on in the same shells they were born in…never growing.