“The irony is that we share a great kinship in this struggle to be real, though we all think we’re alone in our struggles to be here.” – Mark Nepo from The Art of Being Sensitive
For several years I’ve noticed hawks at times of distress or worry. To me, the hawk is a comforting sentinel. To the hawk, I am just a speck in their broad landscape.
Today is my 40th birthday. This past week many people have asked me if turning 40 is hard or depressing. I know they ask because that is our narrative – 40 is the big one.
At first I nodded until I realized I was just following the same script. It felt good to be real and say:
“No, cancer was hard. I’m grateful for 40.”
“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.
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 way that birdsong at first light helps birds to locate themselves and each other – in essence remapping their place in the world each day – so do we locate ourselves daily by the voicing and interplay of standing by our core and by engaging in the art of facing things.” – Mark Nepo from Finding Inner Courage
Last night we lost our beloved kitty companion Necco. She was part of my life for almost 17 years.
Today marks one month since I lost my right breast. She was part of my life for almost 40 years.
I want them both back. It is a deep, aching, heart breaking want. I carry that want as I face today. Tomorrow. And the rest of my life.
I’m not finding comfort yet. Just breathing in the connection of love and loss and holding on…
To the touch of Necco’s nose to my hand.
To the call of two owls my mom and I heard last Sunday morning.
I am here.
So am I.
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.
“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.
“Listen, whatever it is you try to do with your life, nothing will ever dazzle you like the dreams of your body…” – Mary Oliver from Humpbacks in American Primitive
The myth of transformation is that it is sudden, clean and wondrous; requiring magic, but little to no effort. Duckling to swan, frog to prince, beast to beauty.
I’m grateful for nature to show me true.
Like the awkward, messy, drawn out emergence from chrysalis to butterfly, my body is coming out of chemo. Itchy skin. Uneven hair growth. A search for muscle beneath fat and definition under puffiness.
I am not emerging as the same.
I guess that is the point.