Tomorrow I’ll roll out of bed before 6:30 so I can pick up my dear friend on the other side of the city, then ferry her back my way to the hospital. I’m doing this because I have so cared about her for fifteen years. There is a grab bag of chortles and sighs to sort through as I consider what’s ahead for her. She lives alone now. How few people we might call upon; our neighbors are usually not the first choices for such events. Just as she has been with me through upheavals and victories, I am for her. For one thing, she extended herself immediately at a women’s recovery meeting when I was in need of a particularly female place of both daring tales and ready kindnesses. It became obvious the meeting was exceptional and her rhapsody of laughter and open-heartedness made a real difference. We remain close, checking in with each other, enjoying a meal, attending movies or plays. Life has thus far been pretty darned good to us. She and I haven’t had one fall-out though we are quite different in many respects.
But tomorrow I know it will be humbling, even taxing, to pull on one of those visually defeating, chill-inducing gowns, then to lie back and submit to various drugs and tests. Then wheeled into the room where medical staff organize and implement surgical procedures. They try to reassure you as full consciousness fades. Still, you are left stripped down to vulnerability, set sailing into a narcotic-tinged land from which you emerge an amnesiac. If lucky.
It’s not a situation to be wondering why you are somehow left alone. It is not what anyone of us would want to be doing, at all. The smells, the sounds, the equipment and the faces you don’t even know but must trust…well, we do what we have to do.
She is having a lumpectomy, whereby a discovered but not yet scientifically identified mass will be removed from breast tissue and sent to pathology. I’m not certain just how the rest works after I remind her God is watching over her now and always, and I am with her, too, only in the waiting room, then give a small wave.
However, I do recall some of what it was like for me in 1977.
It seemed the room to which I was sent was right inside the exit of the small hospital. I think there was greeness seeping through curtains, undulating shadows of branches. Then the rudeness of a light so huge it swallowed me up. Or was that later? It was mainly like swimming in dreams, peculiar yet exquisite, memorable enough that I wrote a poem about it two years after the excision, at age 29. This was way back when I used the name Cynthia Guenther-Falk. It was published in a small college lit journal, Wave Two.
How is it that beauty sprang from overriding fear as my eyelids fluttered and fell? My husband at that time had brought me to a small city from the country–we were rural then–but I don’t remember his being near in other ways. We were at odds then and our teeth were set hard as we faced this new ordeal. There was a love that exhilarated us with its creativity, the countless possibilities between us, yet we could not keep steady footing for long. Before the atmosphere grew heavy, passion woven with recurrent patterns of resentment and disbelief. A sculptor and carpenter, he was an echoing force without uttering a sound. I, a writer and singer who needed to excavate obscure meanings, a lost and elegant measure. I wanted happiness to take deep root but it grew spindly, in the end. Failed us even as we held on.
And in the midst of this snarl of warning signs was that well-defined lump, left breast. An unyeilding bit of matter that made life more strident. What were we to do if it was–trying just not to think it– cancerous? What would be left of me even if not? Would this bring us together, like two feet walking in a pair of shoes as meant to be? Or would there be one more expanse taut between us as we moved into opposite positions?
There was and has still not been any breast cancer in my family–in fact, very little cancer of any sort. There is heart disease that kills in many ways; it got hold of me at 51. But before then I was horrified of that three-inch mass, how it dictated the tone of my daily life, threw long shadows onto any future. For a while. When it was sliced, tested and certified benign we were released of staggering options that would have brought more grief. But I remember how the sudden hug hurt as he pulled me so close. That after the winter I nearly subsisted on air, stress and a foolish, stubborn hope. His father was dying. The air thickened with angst. We were unable to say to one another the saving words. Then finally one late spring day he passed the children and me as we drove away from that life, and he shouted from his truck that he had already filed for divorce, anyway. How that made me cry out as if another kind of knife had rent the skin of my soul.
But the breast tissue healed. The scar was not too big, was even tidy. Sometimes I felt guilty knowing things were not fine for so many other women. I had been a hippie mom, nursing long and well, and would again. My biology had often felt easy; being female even felt irrelevant as intellect worked hard. Yet being female also had hindered and hounded me. Still, although that life was not one fitted with sturdy happiness I was able to reclaim it as my own when the diagnosis came.
In youth we feel it all but understand–indeed, can barely claim the truth–much less. I don’t today live in fear of breast cancer and the spectrum of experiences I did then. Even though anything could happen that is worse than imagined. Even though some things have. I am much older now, older than I thought I wanted to be when only 27. But I know the veil between this life and the other is nearly transparent. I have slipped through it, have even been comforted. Amazed. Life reconfigures us and we, it. I am most fearful of not living in truth, with enough depth. Not seeing the kaleidoscopic beauty of this current life. Not finding enough of God moving among us. Not loving enough, without one regret.
The physical scarring that was left me has remained visible; it has been tagged at every mammogram, explained as partners’ fingers have found it. There was another biopsy but less invasive; decades have passed and there is so much more knowledge and good treatment. But women still suffer and die way too often from the proliferation of treacherous cells. And, I know, from treacherous lives.
My first husband, he who accompanied me to the breast surgery, passed away this year. I dream of him and say his name without speaking. We had something rarefied as an orchid though it also needed more or different nourishment. He died from long-ignored cancer, which haunts me (though he would have said: it can be anything, anything that gets us, it matters little). Maybe that is why I was able to locate the poem; it longed to be recalled, the caring and errors of caring. I went right to it, found it wedged beside greater volumes on crammed and dusty bookshelves.
When my friend told me she had to have a similar procedure as I had once had, it came right back as if it was yesterday: that day, that year. And when the page was opened I felt again that disassociation, the weirdness of biopsy. But also how much any kind of love can elicit moments rare and unsettling and crucial. Friends, lovers, children, husbands. We find the intersection of such moments and take them with us or are the lesser for it.
We know how much we care for others and our very lives by how our hearts keep close their names–and the fierce and tender ways we continue living.
This is the poem from 1977. It tells a portion of that surgery’s story and what surrounded it.
I am swung high into whiteness
as voices skitter beyond.
In the chrome-ringed sun–
is this Saturn, have I come
is my head, hair spread out
over shoulders in silken
riverlets, my neck
smooth as a moonstone.
Breath is drawn somewhere
near my toes,
vaporous breath and sensibility
rippling about veiled flesh
Soon the singing comes even though I have not called it, bird-voicings, light sounding the whiteness through a tangle of vines. Wings of many colors, eye of jewels, flowers like plumes in the wind. Your shaman hands dipped into sweet waters, my throat.
Whirling, we lose our legs to shadows, lengths of light. And stop. See here? My forehead bears our imprint and more, and less; nothing is lost. But we migrate to the certainty of earth, changed and unchanged together. And I become mountainous, my narrowness overcome with leaves and blossoms, blossoms and leaves. Wind. I try not to sing aloud
now it is done. I see that from my breast has come something as large as a pigeon’s egg. The pocket of skin is embroidered shut; I am covered with a new breast of soft gauze. And rise with quivering sight, the knowledge of so much fine-edged steel in a lifetime, your fingertips dreaming in my shoulders
(from Wave Two, published 1977)
So, tomorrow morning I will sit and read, pray for my friend. I may even recall my own experience but will accept my past self as I was, a young woman filled to the brim with intimations of good to come yet blinded by wrong assumptions, too. But for my friend I will be present. Will hope against hope that she comes through this without any weeping but if weeping is needed, I will hold on to her. Love shared is that easy–it comes from a place of grace, thanks be to God. I want her life to be reinvigorated by joys. Balanced by peace. If difficulty is ahead may I take that road with her. The light we seek and find is always there. We are charged with keeping it bright. May it fill her being and body now and tomorrow.
An imperturbable demeanor comes from perfect patience. Quiet minds cannot be perplexed or frightened, but go on in fortune and misfortune at their own private pace like a clock during a thunderstorm.—Robert Louis Stevenson