Spirit is the art of making what's blocked start moving again.
—the 13th century Afghan poet Rumi
Fourteen years ago, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I gathered every good story I could: about my college roommate's mother who had breast cancer thirty-five years before; about my colleague who called to say she'd had a double mastectomy ten years earlier; about my good friend Sue who had had three lymph nodes involved and ten months of chemotherapy and looked terrific three years later, better than before.
These stories were like a talisman that helped me not only to heal, but to get on with my life. The darker stories, of those having problems, of those who didn't make it, felt dangerous to me, like a jinx. So I stayed away from the breast cancer support groups and avoided articles with titles like "The Anguish of Breast Cancer" I wanted no anguish, only stories of good luck that encouraged me to say, six weeks after my mastectomy, "I had breast cancer."
Fourteen years later, I still say "had." But the further I get from my mastectomy, the more I realize that my old definition of "good" is too limited. For it allows luck to override the power of spirit; and it is stories of spirit, unconcerned with luck, that are the really good stories.
I began to realize that on the beach of Cape May, walking in mid-January with poet Judy Michaels. It was two years ago, and we were both teaching in the Cape May Winter Getaway in Poetry and Prose, held every year over the Martin Luther King weekend to lift the winter spirits. The crisp air and frozen sand let us move at a good clip, and I marveled at her energy after a second round of chemotherapy. Yes, it made her sick for a day or two, yes, she had lost her hair, "but I'm fine!" she said and started telling me about the house she just bought, her first. It sat on a ridge of the Sourland Mountains, a renovated hunting cabin with big windows, a wood-burning stove, and—best yet—a hot tub in a garden off the back porch. So much better than the cramped second floor they'd rented in Hopewell for years, she said: "A health-giving space, something my husband and I always wanted, but never got around to buying until now."
Maybe she'd live in it a year; maybe twenty years, maybe a few months. It didn't seem to matter, which is what I loved. She never mentioned luck. She had made her own—by buying a mountain house and going daily into its "big bedroom/study with its big view." And here all the anger and fear we feel when we discover we might die went into new poems, her best ever. Through poems like "No Guarantees," she moved beyond those dark feelings into a life she savors—whatever lies ahead
…I drink fresh coffee my husband brings in
from the café where I used to write at dawn,
I drink fragrance of white stock and tulips,
the bright, pointy, yellow ones traced in green.
I have washed, combed my dying hairs,
welcomed the nurse changing sheets,
over which the doctors stand disputing.
I count invisible morning stars to find
new statistics, number off flower petals,
I imagine I taste a new drug in the coffee that no one
will yet guarantee, like a moon pit where you might
fall forever or crawl up the other side, gleaming.
We trim the tulips' stems to make them
live a little longer; the coffee's
gone cold. X rays are shadows that grow
in the long afternoons, and where they lead, you follow
into an uncertain twilight, tailing your IV.
Two weeks ago, again at Cape May, I told Judy's story to another friend who told me she had had chemotherapy all summer and fall, also for ovarian cancer. "Two years and Judy's still in the house," I said, as we walked the beach, soft this year from the warm winter, our feet sinking with each step. My friend Barbara smiled, and I told her that I liked her wig. It gave her a zippy look, a thick blond, Buster Brown cut, much more dramatic than her fine, wavy chestnut. I asked her if, like me, she needs good stories to survive, and she said the one she counted on most was her own. She needed to repeat it whenever she could: how she fainted in class, how her students called 911, how the ER doctors saw a shadow that meant more than a bad reaction to antibiotics, and, most important, how her good storytelling (which improved with each retelling) helped to save her. The doctors, nurses, orderlies, and nurses' aides paid closer attention, and so she got better care, she was sure—not to mention a sense of control. "Now I'm fine!" she said cheerfully, as if cancer was behind her. We talked about the power of the verb 'had' vs. 'has'—and how cancer as past tense makes the future more real. And then she told me about a friend of hers with breast cancer who just got married. She didn't even wait for the pathology report. Why should she? We both agreed in delight.
"You have to play the hand you are dealt—and play it as well as you can." That's what my husband Stu kept telling me when we were recovering together. He'd had a heart attack four days after they discovered my lump and had angioplasty a week before my mastectomy. He was 48; I was 47—and out of the blue, our whole safe world became unhinged. As part of the post-war generation, we took guarantees for granted; the thought that we could die so early had never seriously crossed our minds.
But Stu's metaphor—of playing life like a hand of bridge—gave me that needed sense of control. Much better than the "Why me?" response I had come to expect from media stories of women in anguish, in dark rooms, paralyzed with fear. Seeing myself as victim scared me; appearing brave felt better.
Which is why, ten days after a mastectomy, I decided to hold a Passover Sedar. Nothing big, just for Stu, my two children, and me. I wasn't religious, didn't even like ritual, but somehow I needed to eat the traditional dishes and sing half-remembered melodies about a hapless goat, bought and eaten: Had Gadya, Had Gadya. A year later, I wrote and published "A Night for Haroset," an essay about this night. I told how I wanted to convince "whoever is up there to see us as solid types, not flaky, and so agree that we should be around a lot longer, cancer and heart attack notwithstanding." I mentioned my "Why me?" rage which intensified every time I had to say "Thank you, God", over and over. As the others recited, "May the Merciful One be blessed in heavens and on earth!" I was silent, thinking, What about the Holocaust? And Somalia? And Mai Lai? And what about me… us? We are good people…
But I didn't dwell on this despair—or the others nights of looking in the bathroom mirror, darkly. I moved onto the pleasure of an evening as sweet as the honeyed apples I had chopped, my stitches notwithstanding—buoyed by a continuity beyond our own lives. Passover, itself a bittersweet celebration of survival, made me part of a long story that gave me new spirit. I wrote: "Even if the cancer spreads and Stu slumps to the floor tomorrow, we are saying words that have been handed down for three thousand years, and they will be repeated next year no matter what." I held onto that comfort.
Last week I received a note about this essay—from Judy Michaels. It had been published in Calyx and she'd seen it, had been comforted by it, and had passed it on:
"I sent copies off right away to three women friends—two Jewish, one not—all of whom have struggled with frightening health crises in their families. One, my office mate, came over to hug me the day she read it and said, 'You always know what I need'"…
I suddenly realized that I had become as brave as Judy, who bought the mountain house, and the friend of a friend, who got married before reading her pathology report. My story had come full circle, a gift with new spirit. No matter that I hadn't felt particularly brave that night and on other nameless nights; I had captured a good three hours, and it had turned my small steps of risk into full strides of bravery that others joined, as we carried each other along, lucky or not.
* "More Than Luck" first appeared in New Jersey Monthly.
** "A Night for Haroset" is part of Thoughts from a Queen-Sized Bed, University of Nebraska Press, 2002.
*** Judy Michael's poem "No Guarantees" is part of The Forest of Wild Hands by Judy Rowe Michaels, University of Central Florida Press, 2001.
322 Review is a journal that publishes provocative emerging and established artists. Operated by Rowan University graduate students enrolled in the Master of Arts in Writing Program, 322 Review is aggressively seeking the best fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, mixed genre, and mixed media works of visual art.
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