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?
“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.
“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.