“….the rush forward to the end, the leap that you take into the middle of danger when all you can do is look straight at it, because whatever is coming will come.” — from The Postmistress, by Sarah Blake
I found it because of a sudden chill. I was chatting on the phone when a draft floated by, making me step closer to the hot wood stove and tuck my right hand into my left armpit for warmth. The swollen lymph node, the size of a pigeon’s egg, floated into my cupped fingers and rested there.
In that instant, I knew. I knew that my steady plod through a life I was trying to rebuild was about to come to a screeching halt, that once again I was going to be pummeled with the simple fact that life is not predictable or controllable.
Lina says I’m the unluckiest person she knows. I tell her no, really, I’m the luckiest person in the world. We’re both right. And we each know what the other means.
In the months just before I found the cancer, I was deep into the clean-it-up, patch-it-up, make-sure-it-isn’t-going to cave in phase of refurbishing the barns at my new place in North Park. They are actually four separate buildings, strung together into one long row of shelters. A couple of the sections were built 40 or more years ago, on site. One was moved in from a homesteading ranch on the west side of the Park. I’m not sure where the shed on the end originated.
Right from the start, in spite of precariously sagging roofs and cockeyed doors, it wasn’t hard for me to imagine these weather beaten buildings coming back to life to house the horse, sheep, goats, geese and llamas who needed to live there. Beneath the floor to ceiling jumble of rusting motorcycles, broken furniture, discarded boxes of books-turned-mouse nests, shattered glass, and an ancient Coca-Cola machine, there was a whiff of the spirit of survival I knew could shelter the animals I love with a passion beyond reason.
It took me weeks to clear out the debris and haul it to the landfill and rudimentary recycling center 18 miles away. It took two hydraulic lifts I found rusting in the sinking junkyard on the eastern end of the small ranch, and several hours of coerced help from Don, to jack up the one shed roof most at risk of imminent collapse.
By the time I’d made my way to the northern end of the string of barns, Don was offering advice on what could and couldn’t be done to salvage them. Of the small section that originally sat on homesteading land, he said it couldn’t be saved. Shouldn’t be saved. That one piece of history had to be torn down.
Which is what was decided about my left breast and all the lymph nodes in my left armpit. The cancer in them had gotten too large and spread too far for repair work or rebuilding.
And so, after stumbling across it, after painstakingly assessing it, treatment for my cancer began with the demolition of a big chunk of my body. Throughout it all, there would be dozens of people to cook for me, send me sympathy, pour love on all my hurting places. But in the beginning, when the demolition began, three people bore witness and carried me across the threshold from whole to diminished. Barbara, Lina and Don paced the hospital hallways, monitored my pain, helped drain blood from my body. They guarded my passage into a less certain life, doing so with comfort, admonishment and humor.
Two days after surgery, I was engulfed in a kind of pain I didn’t know how to describe. It felt as if my heart was hurting — stretching, burning, skipping beats over what had been torn away from it. As if it was realizing greater vulnerability because the breast above it was gone. Who knew that a woman’s breast is also the heart’s shield?
As Barbara looked in on me before going to bed, I drank in her familiar expression of sweet concern. She showered me with love, but all I could think was that I hadn’t stayed ahead of the pain, hadn’t judged the right quantity, type, or time spacing for pain medication. When Don called to check in one last time for the day, I told him it was my fault I felt so awful — I didn’t deserve any sympathy. He told me he felt sorry for me, even if it was my fault.
Settling into the long, nightmare journey of treatment, I stubbornly resisted adopting a cancer identity for myself. It’s a club, after all, against which I’d sworn becoming a member. I tried to immediately squash a well meaning friend’s suggestion that perhaps “you’ll write a book about this!” No, no, I assured her. This won’t become another one of my causes. I can’t possibly create an entire life composed of personal crisis-induced career paths. “Well,” she said, “you never know.”
The conversation left me in a hyper on-guard state. The journey through cancer proceeded in spite of myself.
When I pushed strands of hair behind my left ear, the sensation radiated down the side of my face and neck, into my armpit, on to the muscles, nerves and skin where my left breast used to be. What connection was that? What reminder? Of the missing lymph nodes now marked like a grave by tightly puckered ridges of skin that in the beginning screamed in protest when, daily, I forced them to stretch a little more than the day before? My determined grab for range of motion. What connection was that? The physical and emotional struggle, casting around for evidence of spiritual purpose?
After a while, it wasn’t quite pain that tugged against the muscles connected to the breast bone that no longer supported a breast. It was more like memory. Years of pleasure and purpose, identity, aesthetics and objectification, all rolled up together and peeled away to carry off the enormous tumor that had set up housekeeping there.
I don’t understand cancer. It’s something about unchecked cell growth, but really, how many people with cancer understand what the hell that means? I don’t even understand cells. Have no desire to.
For a long time after surgery, when I pushed strands of hair behind my left ear, I felt it in my left armpit. It was a tug of memory that traveled through every nerve and muscle traumatized by the demolition that dug into and around them. Every once in a while, the pull reached far enough to remind me how my son’s cry used to tug on the same region, in a demand for milk that flowed willingly, pleasantly, in a life giving response to that connection.