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?
“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.
“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.
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…
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.
“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.
“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.
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.