Whale – VII: Recognition

“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.

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Whale – VI: Belong

“Do not base your life on what can be taken from you.” – Pema Chodron

The distinctive feature of the male narwhal is an 8 foot long horn. The clear purpose for the horn is unknown. 

On Tuesday I had my right breast removed. The space remaining is numb and slightly concave. I haven’t taken the bandage off yet.

My left breast remains.

My family and friends surround me. Love me. I still belong with them. 

Still, when I see the picture of a narwhal pod in the deep, cold waters near Greenland, I realize what I’ve gained in the loss of my breast.

I belong to another pod now too.

Whale – V: Visible

There is only one known albino humpback whale in the world. He lives near Australia. His name is Migaloo.

In the dark depths of the ocean, Migaloo is easily spotted. His glowing white skin is so different from the gray-blue camoflauge of his humpback family. He can’t help being visible.

This evening I went to the grocery store without a hat on. It wasn’t on purpose.

It was raining. I had the hood up on my sweatshirt. But when I got inside the store my hot flashes started (a side effect from chemotherapy) and I reflexively pulled down my hood…

Oh.

Visible now was my almost-bald head and Migaloo-white scalp. Visible now was my illness.

“October is breast cancer awareness month…”  started the public service announcement over the store’s loudspeaker.

I decided to experience the visibility. I kept my hood down the entire trip.

It was harder than I thought it would be.

Whale – IV: Unfold

“In day-to-day terms, to let time unfold tests our courage. It asks us to repeatedly stand by our core and unlock our fear and let the story we are in continue, so that we might live closer to the elemental moment that is constantly forming everything. – Mark Nepo, from Finding Inner Courage

How I thought I would be during cancer treatment and how I actually am are different. It is work in itself to let that be true.

In some ways preparing my mind and myself was helpful. Yet listening to how I feel each day has also brought an unexpected peace.

Grey whales have the longest migration of any mammal. They travel 10,000 miles round trip every year. Migration is an urge to move. To listen and follow a natural rhythm.

I woke up the other day ready to take a gentle yoga class. A friend said she couldn’t make the noon class, what about evening?

No, I am going now. I don’t know what 4pm will bring. I may feel too ill or tired. This moment I am ready, and grateful that I can hear the unfolding.

Whale – III: Authority

“You are the authority on your experience.” – JJ

Dear Fin Whale,

You are causing quite a stir here. Did you know you had become a rarity? I imagine you are just following your large heart and doing what feels right. How’s the water?

I started losing my hair yesterday. It was harder than I thought it would be. My spouse cut it very short last night so it would be easier to manage the loss. Many people are telling me stories about people they know who have lost their hair during chemotherapy and what they have done. I find myself tugging on the short ends and out comes another clump. I still can’t picture myself totally bald.

Is this your first time here? It’s okay if you don’t want to share why your family hasn’t been back in eighty years. Maybe you don’t even know. Don’t be surprised if you hear a lot of explanations…

I look forward to hearing how you are.

Love from afar.

Whale – II: Solace

Solace not as a passive experience, not solace as just coping and not solace as just comfort, but solace as an active way of being equal and large enough for the circumstances of our life. – David Whyte

Blue whales usually swim alone or with one other whale.

The age of a blue whale is measured by the layers of wax in its ears. Like a tree. Their life spans are often even longer than humans.

I sit with uncertainty after my second surgery. The margins were not clear and neither are next steps. Next steps…I hear those words so often. The implication is doing and my judgment is having a product or outcome to show for it.

Cancer is practice. In being. In moving through. In appreciating my  participation in each day. In deepening. In understanding that finding peace in myself is an act of doing.

I think of whales, in the ocean, swimming alone for ninety years.

Existing.

Moving forward.

Solace.

Whale – I: Manifest

A week ago yesterday, I had my first surgery to remove a cancerous tumor in my breast. In the days before, my fear about cancer was replaced by terror about surgery. That anxious self was a child, afraid of not being taken care of. She was consuming me, crowding out my adult self. I was overwhelmed.

“What can you bring forward to help you?” my therapist asked the day before surgery.

After a teary long while, I opened my eyes.

“A whale.”

The blue whale is the largest animal ever to live on earth. Their hearts can weigh as much as a car, with chambers a child could crawl through.

The blue whale doesn’t have teeth; instead it has something called baleen. To feed, it takes in large gulps of water and then pushes the water out through the baleen. Millions of tiny krill are left behind.

I closed my eyes and imagined the whale gently taking my fears into the deepest waters. Diluting. Diffusing. I took deep breaths and pushed them out.

“I think it’s a really good sign that a whale came forward,” my therapist said when I opened my eyes. “What comes forward is what is in you. You have something that big to help you.”

The next day, fear returned. I held my breath and closed my eyes.

The ocean appeared. A whale breached.

I exhaled.