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“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.

“A very small degree of hope is sufficient to cause the birth of love.”—Stendhal

It was Friday afternoon and I was perched at a weathered, picnic table at the top of the stairs overlooking the dock.

The sun burned hot and bright—shining through the just-barely-fluttering birch leaves hanging out over the water creating a sense of transparency, like when light is diffused through kite paper.

The breeze was cool and intermittent, softly lifting a few strands of hair around my face and placing them back down so I could sweep them from my vision again and again.

I did what I could to brush aside, as well, the many, mounting rejections intrinsic to creative pursuit—and to temper the sadness and dismay building in my bones over innocent children dying in school once again.

There are ample reasons in any life to lose hope for humanity and for our aspirations—to lose faith in the power of benevolence and our ability to live safely, fruitfully, joyfully.

Even the smallest injustices can take root in any-one-of-us and germinate into something distorted and more powerful than what is merited if we allow it to.

Might we all find ways to examine this inner-alchemy and insist instead on a personal evolution—a way forward—expressive of greater compassion, deeper insight and specific calls-to-action unique to each of us.

Might our efforts spread and take root and become intertwined between us so that we might weave a world fit for us all—like an intricate basket—weighty yet giving to accommodate the vastness of our differences and our distinct need for one another.

When they first went down to the dock, Jonah and his spritely—his sisterly—friend tied heavy, metal objects to long ropes and tossed them out into the water repeatedly.

They noticed a pair of hermit crabs in the distance and wondered aloud if their rope could reach to touch them.

Adrian sat on the long part of the dock alone soaking in the sun and sea air, resting in his private thoughts.

Then he placed a frisbee with a mesh center and a faded, pinkish-orange frame over his head like a bouncy hat.

Later he made his way onto his stomach—legs stretched out behind him, arms propping him up—resting again.

A motor boat passed through the cove briskly heading for the shoreline off to our right creating fast, undulating waves and jostling the dock.

The quiet mood transformed with the rapid rhythm of the water and the kids sprung-up steadying themselves on the rocking raft like surfers, suddenly filled with new ideas for play.

In the distance an unusual sea craft appeared—one-part tug-boat, one-part barge—with a narrow tower emitting a small stream of smoke into the clear, blue sky.

I pointed it out, speaking in a regular voice despite my distance—my call-to-attention carrying swiftly and clearly in the vicinity of water.

This tendency has to do with air temperature and soundwaves and the way this dynamic allows for more of what we say to reach those who are listening.

Jonah ran up the stairs past me toward the house—inspired.

“Where’s the camera?” he shouted, unwilling to stop to hear my reply.

Soon they had the camera with the zoom-lens and a notebook with crayons poised to capture and record all that they saw and thought about these mysterious happenings.

I tried not to worry too much about the lens getting wet and perused the websites of the chosen artists on my laptop—at first glance the work appeared quite different from my own and impressive.

The mood by the dock changed again when the water calmed and a pair of ducks with a trail of five or six ducklings crossed just a few yards out into the bay.

We all seemed to notice them at once and expressed our glee at witnessing such a sweet sight.

It wasn’t long after that when a sock got stuck in a tree.

On a property with children, socks can be found just about anywhere.

The exploration moved up from the dock and behind me into our yard where Jonah had brought out two, long nylon ropes he found in the shed and together with his friend threw one side up high into a sprawling oak tree and over a branch.

Now there was a length of the rope hanging down on either side of the branch.

They decided to attach a thick, wool sock—one of Jonah’s—between the two strands of rope to create a sort-of seat or thick-knot where they could gain leverage with their bare feet or rest their behinds as they climbed up higher and higher, carrying the rope wrapped up in their legs with them.

When they tired of this pursuit, they threaded the other rope through the circular base of a swing that hung on the opposite branch of the tree.

They took turns climbing onto the swing and allowing the other person to pull it upward with the rope into a steep incline—then letting it go forcing the person holding the rope to run forward along with the swing so as not to get dragged by the momentum.

It was both inventive and dangerous-looking.

I took in their ingenuity doing my best not to gasp at the close-calls and thought about the delicate balance between allowing my children (and their friends) to test their abilities and pursue their visions and to be free, really, all the while trying to keep them safe.

Often giving them space to explore and believe I am not anywhere nearby feels like the most crucial choice I can make now to impact their future-ability to thrive.

It’s so hard to trust this critical process—this birthright—given what I know about the world, given what we all know.

It was a relief—and a return to balance in the weighted-scale of the afternoon—when Jonah and his friend left the swing and brought out the violin.

They both play and passed the instrument back and forth on the porch steps.

I noticed the way the light fell on them like actors on a stage.

Eventually I realized it was time to gather up the ropes and get us ready for an outing we had planned that evening.

The kids pulled on one side of the rope to retrieve it from the tree.

The sock-side went shooting to the top where it became lodged between two branches.

We yanked on it briefly attempting to release it and eventually had to abandon it to leave on-time.

I was surprised a few days later when I noticed the rope and sock had somehow been removed without my knowledge.

Jonah explained that he had accidentally released it when he had once again climbed the rope the following day and it came loose suddenly sending him onto the ground—onto his back—with a thump.

I’m not sure the sock ever made it back inside.

The days have grown longer in these last weeks—the sky illuminated at dawn and brimming with the emphatic narrative-of-the-birds, settling in for a season of greater ease.

 

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