Part 3 of “Wreckage, Wonder & Ways Through the Impossible: Writing about Life’s Hard Stuff”
That’s what Theodore Roethke writes in his villanelle, “The Waking” (“I wake to sleep and take my waking slow…”). Mary Oliver writes “In Blackwater Woods,” “To live in this world, you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.” Both poems show us that the deeper we love, the deeper we feel loss; the greater our love, the greater our life. Yet nothing is truly lost: the phantom body parts, according to energy healer Ursula Gilkeson, glow in the energetic body. Our dead beloveds travel with and in us, sometimes gently present as if a silk shawl was suddenly draped over our shoulders. Our words on the page give us a record not just of what was lost, and how much it still aches or surprises, but what is always, what is near.
“Oh, no! Not another learning opportunity!” the bumper stick of my life read a decade ago when I was diagnosed with cancer and lost a parent to cancer within the same year. I wrote my way through breast cancer, chemotherapy, multiple major surgeries, and what it means to lose hair and breasts, discover a genetic mutation, and witness many family members living through or dying from cancer.
Sometimes we also need to unfurl the deadness and energy, rage and exhilaration, fear and tenderness, particularly of what was beyond language at the time. Willingly surrendering my favorite body part led me to the poetic power of language, where I could also open the door, even before I was strong enough to talk through it, into the future. This poem — part of Reading the Body — was written about the moment I returned home from my double mastectomy when I took off, seemingly angry that the house was a mess but actually needing to do something I couldn’t yet understand at the moment.
The day after they cut my breasts off,
just home from the hospital, not even
napping or talking on the phone yet,
that day, I walked on my own two legs
down the dirt road over the slope
of loose rocks, cradling, as I walked,
the broken body, the large orange handled
clippers, the big wind holding me,
the man I loved behind me getting ready
to start his car to come get me,
that day beginning the healing
from all of it – unslashed
from the expectation of what knife or infusion
was the day I made my way to my mother-in-law’s
old-fashioned dark purple lilac, and reached against
the tightness of gauze and paper tape, against
the odd sensation of parts removed and scars
just making themselves, against my sore arms reaching
toward their old strength
to gather and hold,
to cut and cut and cut
all I could fill my arms with,
all the dark purple alive with death and
birth, loss and blossom, and the white ones too.
My arms filling with the explosion of lilac,
my life filling with wind and weight of branches,
all of it against, upon, my open chest,
all of it ready to be carried
into the next life
that starts right now.
The Sky Begins At Your Feet: A Memoir on Cancer, Community & Coming Home to the Body gave me a place to name what was lost with humor, tenderness, curiosity, and even, at times, without rationalization. Sometimes we need to name the hole in the ground that has no name, the absence that is so much a presence. My body loss was encompassed in the story of another loss: my father’s pancreatic cancer, diagnosed four months before he died. Here is an excerpt from The Sky Begins At Your Feet:
Do You Recognize Me?
Hurricanes were ripping decks off beach front homes on the TV in my dad’s dimly-lit living room where a bunch of us – my son, my step-sister, Wendy, my dad, and me – were engrossed in watching “America’s Deadliest Storms.” We had just spent an hour sitting on the back deck, my father reaching for my stepmother every time she walked past so he could kiss her, and occasionally saying things like, “This is my last fall,” which made Wendy roll her eyes as if he’d told a dirty joke.
Now we were inside, storm-bound, the dinner dishes all washed and just a little time before Ken and I and the kids were to head to Baltimore. A commercial about teeth brightening came on, and everyone but my dad and I slipped off to the kitchen for butter pecan ice cream. The living room was dark, just one lamp on, and I could hear the wind outside, rattling a window behind my head. Rain was coming, probably the rain I had just experienced in Kansas.
My father turned toward me. He had grown thinner, shaved his beard, and his eyes seemed to pop out more than ever behind his thick glasses. He wore a bathrobe, dark and checkered, with his feet bare.
“Do you recognize me?” he asked.
I leaned back in the square floral chair and thought for a moment. “Yeah, I recognize you. I mean, you’ve lost some weight, but I still recognize you.”
His eyes lit up, dark and suddenly burning intensely. “No,” he said, “I don’t mean the physical. Do you recognize me?” He started to say something about his personality having changed, but I realized very quickly he wasn’t talking about personality at all, but something underneath it. He was talking about his soul.
I looked at him, and felt like I was seeing who he was for the first time in a long time, or maybe actually the first time ever. I exhaled and looked very intently into his eyes. “Yeah, I recognize you.”
I feel closer to my father today than when he was alive. I feel more at home in this body that has aged and changed in unimaginable ways than I felt when I still had breasts. What falls away is always. And is as near as is the living, breathing, generous life we are given, and as far away as the flung off slivers of our broken hearts.