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“Our soulmate is the one who makes life come to life.”—Richard Bach

Jonah’s white, wrinkled button-down shirt and navy-blue pants hang on the laundry room door, the only space in the house with its original paint color. It’s also the only room upstairs without a window and has wallpaper trim depicting a line of clothing hung in a field, blowing in a breeze. 

I am looking around for a dress shirt for Jonah, without stains and perhaps with long enough sleeves to reach his wrists, two hard to come by traits at the end of a school year in which he has been stretching out like a sapling. Often when I wake him, raising the sky-blue blinds, I notice his legs sprawled out across his sheets and wonder how long his new bed will last.

In the closet he shares with Adrian, the shelves are lined with old, snow boots and a basket filled with soccer cleats and water shoes in every size imaginable. There is a drawing Jonah made when he first began creating images of the human form, taped and hanging from a shelf. It’s a self-portrait and reminds me of how children come here knowing exactly how powerful and how perfectly-beautiful they are. The body of the figure is a large, vertical oval filled up with a series of colorful shapes, all integrated, like a stained-glass window. It’s as if he was pointing out the magnitude of his inner-world, the vast interior of us all. He also happens to have drawn himself with a wide smile and crazy hair. His limbs are rectangular, a seeming afterthought to what he views as the center of himself, the important part where he is bright and complete.

The drawing falls occasionally and when I find it on the floor, I either prop it back up on the shelf or go looking for tape to make it more secure. 

There is a second closet in what is now a study with a wall-to-wall, window seat for reading and a large, sliding wooden door. I still hang a few of Jonah’s clothing in there. Discovering a couple of options, I finally decide on long-sleeves given the cold air that comes draping down the Maine coastline with the setting sun, like a damp blanket.

The two closets are connected by a (secret) passageway that has provided endless entertainment and intrigue to children visiting our home. Sometimes I’ll listen from downstairs as a pack of kids go running and crawling between the doors and the narrow opening on the far side of the closet. When I hear one of the doors slam with excitement, I wait for a cry to follow—fingers inadvertently caught. I don’t remember this ever, actually, happening. Just a fear of mine that it might.

I think about leaving the ironing for afterschool and before the concert but decide to get it out of the way. Filled with uncertainty, my mind has been scattered in this blur of weeks, gone by like a subliminal-flash on a movie screen. The tactile experience of household exertion gives weight to my wandering thoughts, tying my drifting energy down like a balloon connected with a slip-knot at my wrist.

Adrian chooses seats for us in the front row where folding chairs are lined up in the auditorium. We settle in not more than five feet from the stage and near a row of steps where Jonah’s class will later stand, clapping out extraordinary rhythms, singing in rounds. We will somehow, magically, be lined-up. Mother and son, face-to-face, in a way we could not have planned. 

For now, looking up at the stage, chairs and music stands are set up in two, arching rows on either side of each other with the violins on the left facing the cellos on the right, forming a semi-circle. The room fills up quickly and the lights are dimmed. Adrian is vibrating with excitement next to me, chatting with a friend. I lean toward him, reminding him not to talk during the concert. Jonah walks onto the stage with his classmates and sits to my left, in the second chair in the second row. Unless I contort my body, I cannot see his face when he is seated. I can see his high-water, navy-blue pants and grey sneakers—new but already shabby. I never seem to prioritize the purchase of dress shoes and take comfort in the fact that the color, at least, is neutral. 

Just before the start of the concert, my friend, an oncologist, rushes in and sits in the seat behind me. I can almost feel my ponytail begin to burn, as if under a spotlight, as if his presence alone portends my future hair-loss. I won’t find out until the following morning about my test-results and my doctor’s ardent recommendation for chemotherapy. I will wish I never knew about the option of freezing my scalp as a means of preserving my hair.  

It would be so much easier to just surrender.

I imagine my friends within the wellness community nudging me toward another way. Haven’t I cured endless sore throats, knee injuries and avoided the flu with my powerful mind? Adrian loves to tell people about the time Jonah had a terrible, stomach bug and how I crawled into his bed with him for comfort, lying next to him, cheek to cheek, never succumbing to the illness.

I had faith in the power of love to protect me.      

In reality, my holistic-minded friends say, do what you need to do. They trust my intuition and suggest that, some combination of treatment is probably best. They tell me about their colleague who is receiving palliative care. They bolster me with offerings of nourishing foods, herbs and flower essences. They transmit their palpable, energetic vibes.

Plentiful affirmations are coming my way. You will come through this. Stronger. Wiser. Happier. I wonder how much more of these things a person is supposed to be.  

Maybe it was the cigarettes, smoke-inhaled in my 20’s in bars at all hours of the night after the towers came down. Or the anger—expressed fervently in response to the ubiquitous, mental-load thrust on women, on mothers, in the modern world. Perhaps my implacable call to nurture is to blame. Shouldn’t the copious consumption of anti-oxidants in the last decade, my diligent morning meditations, have balanced this all out? 

The resonant peace, deep within my bones, has to count for something.  

I decide to blame Glyphosate and send a text off to my friend who joins me in this abhorrent club. You did nothing wrong. You did nothing wrong. You did nothing wrong. I encourage her to rest and I take solace in the idea that life is a co-creation with forces at work I will never fully grasp. I listen for the still-deeper, whispers of my own inner-voice. I am pointed in the direction of our collective experience. In this construct, all we encounter individually is shared in the whole of our universal, energetic body. I am not alone.

At the concert, I listen to songs Jonah has been practicing for months and notice the tempo is much slower than his regular pace at home. I hold my breath for all of the students, noticing their heightened presence, a vast contrast to the relaxed way in which they hang-around at pick-up—knocking each other off of benches and hanging from a tree branch near the parking lot, their backpacks strewn about on the ground. I often have to go looking for Jonah in the school café where, upon dismissal, he has taken to picking out a roll, slathering it with butter and consuming it as we walk to the car.  

Their bows move in remarkable unison. Many play without looking at their sheet music—gazing at each other across the room and at times out into the audience. They have accomplished the ability to collaborate and their capacity to play in steady-unison sends chills up my arms. Their teacher turns to the audience and shares how one student, Jonah’s friend with the golden eyes, came into class a few months prior playing around with the notes in an arrangement usually reserved for older students. She decided this class was ready to take it on.

They begin plucking out a group of familiar notes and the audience becomes captivated by a song most everyone knows. Another teacher joins in on his guitar and the conductor adds her violin. Eventually, the students put down their instruments and begin singing. Their words come out in an authentic tenor, almost as if they are not engaged in a performance. They sound like themselves, like they are using their exquisite, everyday voices. The source of the melody seems to be channeled straight from the wide, oval girth of their colorful inner-bodies. 

I absorb this truth of them, hoping they might always be so in-touch with their original natures.

My face grows hot with emotion. I shift in my seat and make a conscious effort to usher the intense feeling rushing through me around my body where it finally makes its exit through my pores. 

I won’t cry, I won’t cry. No, I won’t, shed a tear. Just as long, as you stand, stand by me.

I have been observing the kind-way of a violinist in the front row since nursery school. I admire her sweet, side-bun, done-up for the occasion. A tune created exclusively with finger-plucking, lightens my heart. 

When the strings part of the concert is finished, the students place their bows on the music stands and make their way down to the row of steps in front of us. Jonah is standing in the front row directly before me. I could reach out and touch him. We smile at each other and I notice the way his face lights up in waves, first his eyes brightening and then his lips and entire mouth following. He looks at me in this way, multiple times, as he waits for his classmates to find their places. It seems as if it could have been just him and me, alone, in that big auditorium.

Finally, we come to the song I’ve been anticipating. The first time Jonah rehearsed it at home, he was moving in and out of my view in the doorframe of the laundry room while I folded clothing. I was taken-aback by his capacity to embrace a passionate voice. I could tell by his grin he knew he was presenting differently than I had ever witnessed him. He suddenly seemed more mature, more his own person. The scope of his private experiences, separate from me, seemed to be expanding exponentially.

Even despite my previous emotion, I didn’t expect my heart to contract so mightily when the music began. If cancer does one thing, it frames your life. It reminds you that time is fleeting and all we really have are individual moments in which to see people, exactly as they are. It also shows you how you can endure way-more than you think you can. 

Beaming in his white button-down, Jonah begins singing to me about this very thing. He looks into my eyes, into my soul, really, with his sparkling, baby-blues. 

If you love somebody, better tell them why they’re here.

Rocking a little, side-to-side, he continues smiling, the message far lighter to him than it is to me. 

My breath catches in my throat and I can hardly contain myself, tears immediately springing to my eyes. My husband notices a shift in the energy surrounding him as if the air has become more humid and turns toward me. It takes Jonah a moment to recognize what is happening. Then I see a brief flash of revelation cross his face. It isn’t the first time he’s seen me try to hold back tears, by any means. But it’s too late to recover myself for his benefit. 

He pivots subtly in the direction of his teacher, so he can stop looking at me. 

By the end of the song I pull myself back together, and perhaps recognizing my recovery on some visceral level, Jonah turns slightly back in my direction. We connect, his face lighting up again like a cresting wave. He finishes the song safely within my gaze. I wonder if he understands the power of the words he delivers in the final few lines of the song. 

And I know it’s hard when you’re falling down. And it’s a long way up when you hit the ground. Get up now, get up, get up now.

Just after this last song is finished, the audience is invited to move all of the chairs and to clear the floor for a line dance. The room erupts into a cacophony of metal being pushed across wood. There is a discernable exhale, like the top buttons of a shirt being undone. 

Each student chooses a partner to join them in the community dance. Jonah takes my hand and we join a row of friends in two lines running parallel across from each other. We discover a fast path to joy and laughter as we follow the call of the fiddler’s song. 

Over and over we come together and part ways again. Hands clasped, we duck through a tunnel of arms raised above our heads finding ourselves out on the other side. We stomp our feet, hard, and clap our hands and bow at each other. It feels good to be light in my body, to let go and be free. You never know when you’ll have another moment like this.

“Women are going to form a chain, a greater sisterhood than the world has ever known.” ― Nellie McClung

An ultrasound room seems an odd place to find joy. I would not go looking for it there. The place where tissue is extracted and examined for cells gone-rogue has qualities antithetical to human-magic. Cold and sticky gel is rubbed across bare skin while danger lurks on a glowing screen. Places you loved before are suddenly deemed suspect.  

As the technician led me down the hallway, I noticed the way her wavy hair was cut in a subtle, angular manner so when it draped down her back it fell into a V-shape. I didn’t know at the time it was likely a fresh cut for her wedding in Vermont the weekend before. She showed me where I could put my bag, overflowing with a heavy book and multiple other weighty items. I thought about how later I would be told I shouldn’t pick up anything heavier than a milk carton. I would carry my belongings out like a bag of groceries, not slung over my shoulder, as usual. Bending forward, I unzipped my mud-splattered boots and climbed onto the table imagining the experience might be restful. A rare luxury to lie-down, mid-day, in a dimly lit room. 

I was ill-prepared for the first biopsy, afterward canceling a full-day of activities, so I could crawl into bed with an ice pack. I rely heavily on a high pain-threshold and a can-do attitude to get through things I might do better to prepare for. I had not considered the signals my body would receive having three of these same procedures back-to-back. My sister described how my immune system might go on alert imagining it was under attack with each removal of a valuable part. 

What I was in-for started to become more-clear as the ultrasound wand was pressed down forcefully on my bare chest in the same bruised area where I’d had the previous excision. My arm, raised in an L-shape above my head, began shooting pins and needles into my hand even before we had begun.

The technician apologized for being silent for a long stretch as she mapped out the red and blue landscape of my inner world reflected like a military radar screen to my right. She lined up the suspicious locations of density like targets. l told her I welcomed the quiet. Her presence felt immediately familiar in the way of an old friend. Of the five women who would occupy the room, she seemed the most like a sister and in the days to come I would think of her. 

I heard an assistant come in and when I turned to look, I recognized the back of her frame as she quickly dove into her preparations. Her fuchsia scrubs were the only notable color in the room, and brightened the space, like a bouquet. When she finally turned toward me, her hair swung around at her chin. Her face reacted with happy recognition. 

I thought it might be you! 

I filled her in on the results from my previous test and watched as the space between her eyebrows contracted with concern. This has become a familiar facial expression in the people I share my experience with. Then she brightened, doling out affirmations of hope, like candy.

I couldn’t say her age, she wasn’t likely all that much older than me, but she brought the mother energy into the room. From beginning to end she filled up a halo of comfort around me with endless offerings of support. Her presence was like a siphon, keeping me fueled and abreast (no pun intended) of what was happening. She left the room to find a warmer, softer blanket, better, she thought, than what had already been draped over me. 

The radiologist came in like a force of nature, with a resident in her wake. She made a comment about how the doctor with her was fortunate to be on her service in a room full of women. We all laughed as she quickly pardoned herself, affirming the many capable men working in the hospital.

We were acquainted from the previous biopsy and she greeted me warmly then quickly switched gears, detailing her plan to the others. She was like a sergeant barking out orders, only kinder and with an upbeat energy. There was a lot to be accomplished. She had a commanding voice and presence I might have once found off-putting. I might have read her as brash or overconfident. I understand better now about what it takes. I understand about how many ways women have been taught to shrink and to be quiet, to dim what allows us to make a needed contribution in a flailing world. I could recognize in her the many layers that must exist in order to demonstrate so much skill under the weight of responsibility with alternating humor and seriousness. 

The sound of a breast biopsy is exactly like the sound an ear-piercing gun makes when penetrating cartilage. It’s like a hole puncher making its way through a stiff sponge. I began bracing myself for the sound as everyone in the room lined up images on two screens with the reality of what was going on inside my chest. The last time I was there, the radiologist suggested I look away when she began inserting numbing needles into my breast tissue. This time, I closed my eyes without her prompting. I began concentrating on my breath, dropping my awareness down into my belly, softening and gripping simultaneously. 

The assistant came around by my head and propped a pillow under my arm and then took my hand in hers as the procedure got under way. Chatter began about weddings and stinky, boy children—several of us had a couple of those—and honeymoons filled with reading and sleeping late. We laughed more than you might expect given the circumstances but there was always a pause and a sense of sacred space being held in each moment when the real work was undertaken. I could feel a force of goodwill building in the room, like oxygen was being pumped in.   

Each biopsy target required multiple shots for numbing that felt like exaggerated bee stings, and then one long needle inserted deeply into hard to access locations in my breast. I steadied myself for the pressure of the reach and turned in my mind to the energy of friends who promised to be with me from afar. I experienced a sense of them, as if they hovered over me. Their personalities fell away in my mind and I knew them in the backdrop of their being. 

With the numbing agent, you can’t really know for certain whether it has fully-deadened the area in question until the contraction of the biopsy tool is made. After each compression, the radiologist questioned me, Are you ok? You doing ok?

She said she could hear my heart beating. I assured her I was okay.

At one-point trouble-shooting was necessary. The resident sat at a computer across the room, meticulously considering the best course of action based on the imagery from a previous test. Peering through horn-rimmed glasses she contributed her opinion and then stepped back to observe. We celebrated between biopsies and the bed was turned around multiple times for better access. Each time I was spun around, it was as if a slate was being wiped clean or like I was being let up for air. Everyone seemed to take that moment to breathe again and I realized each of these women were every bit as much invested in the experience as I was. 

I watched as the clock ticked closer and closer to school pick-up time and when I was finally finished the relief was palpable. I was ready to jump out of the bed and leave but my mother-for-the-afternoon encouraged me to move slowly. She helped me to sit up and saw I had water in my bag, encouraging me to drink. She wanted to know my plan for the evening. I didn’t tell her my husband would be working late. I told her, instead, a friend had brought food. 

Afterward, I felt elated. It was more than the adrenaline surging through my body. Even as I had experienced extreme discomfort, I felt as if I had also been held for many hours in a gentle womb by a group of women who knew their job extended well-beyond the technical aspect for which they were each responsible.

Walking into the damp, Maine air, I made my way to my car and just as I was getting in, I suddenly made a connection. I thought about joy and instances that elicit this human-magic, this fleeting knowing that all is right in the world. I realized that whenever there is love, there can be joy. These two qualities are inextricably bound. It doesn’t matter if it is a bleak time. It doesn’t matter if you and your friend—a woman of grit and dogged humility—both have cancer. Whatever the circumstances, love is the gateway to the very highest realm of experiences we may have as a species.

In the aftermath, my chest turned all shades of grape-purple and yellowish-green. Waiting for the biopsy results was grueling. I’m not a worrier at heart, but I ruminated plenty in this instance. Positive results would likely have changed my plan for treatment significantly. Bursting into the room, my surgeon spilled out the good news. When we discussed next steps, I somehow managed to simultaneously admire her stylish, strappy heels (at a time like this!) and when she hugged me, in the uniquely, warm way she does, I knew I was in good hands. 

“Being at ease with not knowing is crucial for answers to come to you.” —Eckhart Tolle

Adrian has a preference for how I style my hair, if you can call it that, a style. When I let it air-dry after a shower, it springs up in waves throughout the day. At Adrian’s request I’ve let it grow out longer, like when he was a baby and would grab hold of it when nursing. One tiny, hand curled around my pale breast, the other tangled up in my hair. It becomes thicker the longer I wait to wash it. Sometimes I wait a long while, avoiding getting it wet under the stream of the shower. I hide the expansion of it, like unruly weeds, under my grey, woolen hat through long stretches of frigid temperatures. Wearing head-to-toe wool is warranted in Maine right into the second week of May. 

Often, I tie my hair back at the base of my neck. Or I pull it way up on the top of my head in a tall bun. This style, apparently, has a name—the ninja bun. I’ve been wearing my hair in this way since I was a teenager. All those many years back when I sprinted around a track, my chest pressed forward, the smell of rubber wafting around me. The silvery spikes in my cleats puncturing the springy, cadmium-orange surface both steadying me and propelling me forward, channeling my intense desire to gain distance at the curve. We started out crouched and staggered. I tried closing the gap before rounding the corner where, suddenly, I could catch up with my advantage. 

I collect my hair in this way now to feel cool air on the back of my bare neck after being wrapped in layers all throughout the day. I pull it up to be lightened as I circle my kitchen putting away the white mugs with the red fox painted on the side. The plastic lids get stacked in the bottom drawer before the incense is lit where it burns in the smooth, red bowl on the ledge by the front door. 

After I’ve unpacked the lunches—a responsibility technically belonging to Jonah and Adrian—I notice Adrian milling around, not having settled into a game or book or some other unwinding activity. I invite him to come over to me on the floral rug, so I can wrap my arms around his still-compact body. I remind him we haven’t yet had our afternoon hug. He walks toward me leaving foggy footprints on the wood floors with his socks, damp from the humid interior of his shoes.

I kneel down in front of the sink as he approaches me. He eyes my hair pulled-up and begins to grin, a beguiling expression coming over him like an expanding aura. Warm air blows around us from the vent at the floorboard as he drapes himself into my arms, looking suspicious, as if he is going to play a trick on me. He pulls back from our embrace and then acts like he is walking away. While I’m still within reach, crouched down, he moves around the side of me quickly and like a bandit, reaches up and pulls the elastic band out of my hair. My bun comes tumbling apart and my hair windmills down to my shoulders, all the while he’s exclaiming,“Let it be free! Let your hair be free!”  

When my phone finally rang, it was a call I’d been waiting for. I was sitting by the ledge of a large picture-window in the library where the sun streams in all throughout the shortest days of the year. I can rest my coffee on a step-stool there, my computer in my lap, and look out at a courtyard with a jagged, stone sculpture. A rectangular church spire can be seen above the other buildings in the distance. I’ve witnessed this scene in every season in all manner of weather. 

Although conscious of the quiet atmosphere, I experienced a breathlessness in my voice that didn’t come from an effort to speak softly. It came from the river of small talk I had to wade through while balancing a bucket of fear.

The room was suddenly hazy, titles of the knitting books lining the section in front of me all began blending together, as if in a dream. I tried to find a place where I could speak freely finally settling on a small, un-occupied room. I went in with my laptop and closed the door behind me, leaving my bag with my wallet on the floor in the other room where anyone could have taken it. There were no windows and sitting at a little desk, I could have touched any of the four walls. As I listened, I managed to think about how much I would rather be anywhere else, and also, how perfectly-appropriate it was to hear such news in that drab place.

I listened to everything being said, and yet, it registered as if it were happening to someone else. The size of the tumor was being described, and the grade. I suddenly became privy to things like proliferation index and types of receptors as indicators for treatment. I held the phone between my head and shoulder, something I have never been good at, and began typing into my computer. I titled the document breast cancer and put words and actions to the page I had no interest in ever impressing upon my body.  

My body is for breathing through in the still, quiet of dawn and for filling up with luscious, green foods—sprouts and arugula and wheat grass. It is for standing tall in, engaging my muscles and learning to invite my rib cage upward so it doesn’t land like a basket set-upon my lower back. It is for feeling the earth on all corners of my feet sunk in soil, learning to find balance upon this tilted earth. My body is for cradling what is unique and infinite and timeless in me and for connecting with the universal in us all.   

Who will make the lunches? Who will unpack the wet and muddy, rubber rain pants from the backpacks? Who will soak in the sweet aroma of my boys after baseball practice or a bath? Who will be patient with their unreasonableness, their profoundly exacting command of language? Who will count the number of connections in a given day, ensuring there have been enough? Who will rub their ankles, their necks, their knees after the third-goodnight? Who will look beyond the words escaping their lips and dive deeply into the pool of them beyond the place where language matters? 

The need for color came on suddenly, like a hot-flash. I drove directly to a home-goods store and bought new throw-pillows for our couch. Never mind conscious-consumption. There was one really long, velvet pillow that I come across with a flourishing scene filled with jungle animals—a black panther, a giraffe, various monkeys and a gorilla. It would demonstrate to Jonah and Adrian how intently I understand their passion for wild animals. I imagined them piling on top of it in their room. The powder-blue, floral pillows with tassels on the ends swirled with abstract flowers colored in rose and tangerine and pear-green. These would contrast nicely with the orange bench in the living room.

My husband was seated beside me in another sort-of living room, wearing a black, collared shirt, notes scribbled in red all across the papers in his lap. They bring you to these cozier rooms with real furniture to review troubling results, in-person, as if the couch cushions might soften the blow of life’s capacity to turn on a dime. His face became increasingly red, his eyes welling up with tears as he expressed his understanding of all that needed to be considered, treatments studied and absorbed late in the night. I took his hand in mine as he tried to manage things in the way he does with our mortgage rate and insurance policies. He was looking for absolutes, hard to come by in the world of unruly, cell division. 

He sometimes mistakes my propensity for surrender as passivity, our natures at odds when it comes to ideas about commanding outcomes. I comment to the doctor about how I make most decisions on instinct, from the gut. The truth is, I operate largely from the heart, feeling my way forward as if leaping, stone to stone, across a river. 

For a few days I experienced the world through a haze, like peering out a foggy windshield trying to find my way. The endless rain and low-hanging clouds and Xanax taken for a particularly difficult medical-test didn’t help. Then, in a single, distinguishable moment, driving down a steep hill not far from our house, life returned to focus. I arrived at the bottom and came upon an enormous, golden forsythia bush. Its hue was so vibrant, so luminously-yellow, it might have qualified as a new color all-together. I sat in my warm car, the heat blasting and absorbed this glowing vision of nature’s capacity to reemerge even despite its darkest days. Its branches arched up and around, cascading down like a wild head of golden hair. 

Despite the raw temperatures and our seemingly endless wait for the sun to splash down upon us in these damp parts, the creatures have come out of their nests and burrows and holes, making their way among us. Just this week I witnessed a skunk scurrying across the road at dusk as if in a hurry to get back to work, a black cat pausing and looking out from the edge of a forest and the neighborhood osprey, constructing their nest once again on an electric pole from which it has been twice removed.

A ruby red cardinal swoops back and forth from a small pine tree down into our newly tilled garden bed. I watch hopefully as this symbol of energy—of vitality, fire and life—prepares for the days ahead.