“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.
Walking in the woods with my dad, we came across a tiny, empty snail shell. The inhabitant was gone. Yet in the loss, something still existed.
An eight inch incision and a round indent. That is what remains of my right breast.
Like a footprint or an empty shell, the space is a reminder of what was once there. It is also something true on its own.
“Always be ready for happiness.” -George Selden, from The Cricket in Times Square
I am in awe that I have room for cancer and for happiness. And I do. I have even more room for happiness now than for fear or anxiety. How that happened is a beautiful question…one I will continue answering for a long time.
Snails range in size from a few centimeters to a foot in length. Yet they always have room in their shells to pull their bodies completely inside. The shell can hold all that we see – like the foot and the head, and all that we don’t – like the heart and the lungs.
I also imagine that shell holds a cozy chair, a warm blanket and a cup of tea…
Or whatever might make a snail happy.
Yesterday I completed my second chemotherapy infusion. I am eating one bean at a time. I can’t walk very fast. Today my biggest accomplishment was rearranging a bookshelf.
A recent study in Britain found that garden snails can travel up to 82 feet in 24 hours. That is about 15 times the length of my body. I don’t think every snail observed went that far.
I know this time will pass. Time always does. The other side though is still this, these small movements and tasks. One goal is to do them without cancer. Yet I’m realizing that may not be the only goal.
“There are pros and cons to being young and healthy,” said my surgeon.
“The pro is that you are young and healthy. The con is that your treatment will be aggressive because you are young and healthy.”
Many times I have plucked a snail off the side of the house and tossed it into the yard. I was only thinking of it as a pest and not as a creature that has worked hard to get somewhere.
The next day, the snail is back on the house. It retraced its path and found itself in a place I don’t understand.
Next time, little snail, I will leave you be. Understanding isn’t everything.
“…we are rested when we let things alone and let ourselves alone, to do what we do best, breathe as the body intended us to breathe, to walk as we were meant to walk, to live with the rhythm of a house and a home, giving and taking through cooking and cleaning.”
– David Whyte from Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words
My surgeon authorized fifteen days off from work to heal after surgery. He told me that it was important to take the time to recover. I dutifully took the days off, unsure what to expect.
Today marks thirteen days post surgery. My incisions are healing well. I am still a little sore. My days are spent learning what it means to rest.
Before surgery I drew a picture of myself sleeping inside a snail shell. At the time, I viewed that drawing as an acceptance of slowing down and allowing refuge for my body to heal. The drawing is propped up on a shelf in the living room. I look at it every day.
Snails grow their own shells. Whorls of calcium carbonate create a complete spiral. When facing a predator or hot weather, snails pull their soft bodies completely inside their shell.
Humans use spirals to symbolize movement between our inner consciousness and outer world. We create labyrinths to meditate; following a path into the center and out again.
Last week while doing the dishes, I became aware that my mind was blank. I wasn’t thinking about anything. For a moment I panicked. What’s wrong!? Why didn’t I have any thoughts? I took deep breaths and looked out the window at my garden. Is this resting?
I relax and circle the soapy sponge inside my cup.