Full Circle, AgainOctober 17, 2012
It’s Monday morning. I dropped Toby off at his new elementary school just in time for him to dash across the street and merge into the line of children with identical LL Bean backpacks falling off their shoulders, teary-eyed parents, and strollers with younger siblings wending their way around to the entrance closest to the kindergarten classrooms. Leo and I waved goodbye and drove the few blocks to Leo’s new family day care. All morning Leo recited his new mantra: “No Heidi’s house,” punctuated at various moments by “Mama come through the gate.” I left my crying two-and-a-half year-old in Heidi’s arms with snot running down his chin and streams of drool flowing generously from his teething mouth onto her shirt. “No Mama leave,” he sobbed while arching his back out of Heidi’s grasp toward me. I gulped back my tears and the urge to take him in my arms and never let him go. Instead, I stepped purposefully through the door without looking back, lest I turn into a pillar of salt and do nobody any good.
As I rushed from Heidi’s house to my appointment at Dana Farber, I was aware that most parents drop their children off and head to work, or the gym, or return home to their home offices or younger children. I don’t know why I continue to make these fruitless comparisons; they always make me feel shitty. It’s not the appointments at the cancer hospital that make me feel angry and exiled from the normal moms with their normal lives and normal troubles; it’s the cancer.
As I lay on the table in the chilly CT room with my arms raised above my head, receiving instructions from a digital voice to hold my breath as the narrow bed slid on its track in and out of the large donut tube, I found myself surprisingly at peace. Of course scans make me nervous, and before this scan I felt the usual flutter of nervous “scanxiety” that normally seizes me the week before my tests. But lying there with my eyes closed my anxiety miraculously and suddenly calmed. I know what I’m about to tell you will sound extremely cliché, but I felt the comfort of wings surrounding me. Honestly. I think angels are wonderful, beautiful, iconic, but they’ve never been my thing. I suppose I don’t really understand angels; in fact, I find them somewhat terrifying. But what really surprised me on the CT table, what caught me completely off guard was that the sensation originated in my own shoulder blades. They were my wings.
I know I haven’t written a post in many months, and I am sorry if this caused anyone to worry. The truth is I have just been so focused on the children and feeling somewhat private and protective of our lives together ever since my return home last February. I’ve also been a bit more tired, traversing yet more treatment decisions as the good results I achieved in China have been challenging to maintain. So to jump right in after months of silence and tell you that I feel the shadow of wings on my back may seem like a strange way to begin again.
Or maybe it’s exactly right. Lately, I have been thinking a lot about why I got cancer. When I was first diagnosed, the g.i. doctor made the easy assumption that it was genetic. But it’s not. My primary care doctor told me that it was just a game of numbers, the odds after all are that 1 in 2 women will contract the disease and fate just happened to pick me. (Yes, you did read that correctly. This stat comes from the SEER database (http://seer.cancer.gov/statfacts).
The oncologists said it was probably growing for a long time but they made no attempt to cite an original cause. When the sting of the new diagnosis was still fresh and I felt entirely robbed of the joys of new motherhood being diagnosed so soon after Leo’s birth, I would cast a scornful eye at all the unhealthy people I encountered on the street or in the supermarket, filling baskets with soda and bags of processed foods. My critic was merciless. How come they didn’t have cancer and I, with my relatively healthy lifestyle and knowledge of organic foods and colon cleansing (I mean, I did coauthor a book about the subject) had to go through this?
Eventually, I came to see the opportunity for greater self-awareness and deep healing. I realized that everyone has their own version of “cancer,” their own brand of challenges and fears. I came to a certain peace. Or did I?
This summer I took up some research into cancer and its possible causes yet again. I read up on mercury, and finally had the amalgam removed from my mouth. I read again about a possible link between parasites and cancer (Hulda Clark’s perspective) and ways to cleanse parasites from the body. I wrote to my friend Steven, a five-year lymphoma survivor, to see what he knew about this. He responded to my email with links and helpful information, while managing to gently tuck in the following questions: “I am very interested to know what gift you have received from this dis-ease? Why do you think you manifested it?”
“Oh man,” I thought to myself. “I am in no mood for this.” Some days I am exactly in the type of psycho-spiritual vibe to contemplate this line of inquiry, but back in July with the skin on my eyelids and neck burning to a crisp every time I even thought about the sun and my face freshly broken out in ugly, juicy pimples like an adolescent thanks to the Erbitux biotherapy infusions (which didn’t work) and utterly exhausted by the kids and the house and cooking dinner every night and shopping and laundry and driving, well it just didn’t hit the right chord.
Steven has the luxury to think about these things because he doesn’t have children and does yoga and meditation and takes month-long permaculture courses and fasts on juice for weeks at a time. I mean, the man lives in the mountains of Thailand for God’s sake! I rolled my eyes at his questions and dismissed them as “Steven being Steven.” And Shira being Shira continued fiercely with the daily business of life and doing.
But the thing about Steven is that he has this way of asking you how you are and sincerely meaning it. He puts his arm around your shoulder, peers into your eyes, bends close and waits for an answer with every breath as though you were the only two people on the planet. From halfway across the world, I could feel that searing yet loving presence, the nudge to go deeper, to face myself stripped down and in the barest of honesty. I guess Steven did hit a chord after all, and when I listened I could hear the note reverberate within.
In the comfort of the brown leather chair on the third floor attic room of my therapist’s Victorian house, I closed my eyes and let the tears fall. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the lungs are identified as the seat of sadness and grief. Both of my lungs are sprinkled throughout with small tumors that glow bright white against the gray background of Cat scans. They frighten and fascinate, these little, deadly illuminations. I tell my therapist that I think the tumors in my lungs are calcified tears, the hardened skeletal remains of all the sadness and grief I held onto in my life.
Just as the lungs hold grief, the liver is the supreme keeper of anger, resentment, frustration, irritability. If the tumors in my lungs are hardened tears, then the plump toad of a lesion sitting in my liver is hot, hot, hot, red hot, no, white hot shrieking irrational rage. From all outward appearances I seem to have so much together, but my liver tells another story, and it is old and in a language I don’t always understand.
I ask my therapist: “Why did I get cancer?”
She asks: “Why did you get cancer?”
Then she asks: “Are you ready to let it go?”
She sits across from me in an identical brown chair. She too went through chemo, hair loss, the intrusion of constant monitoring. She sips from her large mug of tea and waits for my answer. Her loving presence reaches across the space between us, like an arm extending out to wrap around my shoulders. She waits.
“Close your eyes,” she says. “Go within. Ask yourself.”
I close my eyes. I go within. Down, down, down, I continue down the corkscrew spirals of a dark interior that feels fecund and earthy and moist. I realize that I am in the underworld. Of course. My recurring obsession. Gilgamesh. Persephone. Innana. Orpheus. Dante.
At the bottom of the world, I sit in darkness. I don’t have to wait long until a figure appears there with me. “Grandmother?” I wondered to myself, hoping that I would see the friendly wise face of the guide who has often come to me in my meditations this year. As the image becomes clearer, I realize it is not grandmother. It is, in fact, my own reflection.
Face to face. Myself. In the circle of the lowest depth. I ask: “Am I ready to leave cancer?”
“Not yet.” The answer unsettles. But I recognize its truth: I know there’s more to learn. More to release. More to come to terms with. Why is there always more?
“How will I find my way out?” I whisper.
The panic rises as I realize how deep I am below, and how far daylight is above.
And then the way shows itself. Easily, as though it had always been there, a spiral staircase appears, reaching up and up and up with every twist higher toward what I can only imagine is sky, air, light, hope, healing, future. It is not mine to climb just yet, but as I investigate closer I see that the staircase is not made of wood or steal but words, a double helix spiral of words. They are these words that I write now, the ones that float in and out of my consciousness all day, rewriting my story from powerless victim to open, attuned conduit of life force and love. Such immense joy I feel to see my life’s path! I will write my way out of the underworld one word at a time. I will rewrite my DNA.
I notice the dark air around me is full of sound, and it’s coming from the staircase of words. Oh what music. I wish you could put the spiral of your ear to the ground and hear this angelic choir emerging from the deepest center of the earth, where I sit and wait, gazing up in awe and rapture at the possibility before me.
The last time I saw my oncologist, we reviewed the results of the Cat scan, which he later dictated in his office note as “promising.” We agreed on our plan of action – basically, to stay the current course of treatment with my little oral cocktail of pills – and then I asked him about other procedures and options. I think he’s gotten used to my hunger for research, and my perpetual requests to customize the menu so to speak. While I know I sometimes frustrate him with my inquiries and outside consultations with other oncologists and practitioners, I get his goodness and that he really does want to help. As we said goodbye, I blurted out, “Next time we meet I will tell you how this is really the underworld,” I said gesturing to the generically handsome hallway of Dana Farber Cancer Institute. “Okay,” he said with a furrow in his brow.
Later, at home, the kids hit the witching hour of 5 pm and started to nag, push, and fight with each other for space on the easy chair while I lay on the couch with the unspeakable exhaustion that sometimes overtakes me late afternoon, and especially on days I have to go to the hospital. “Okay,” I said popping up suddenly, “let’s take this to the ground. Come on little puppies, time to roll around.” I moved the table out of the way. The simplest change in physical environment immediately shifted their energy. I lay a blanket on the rug. “Who wants to roll up first?” Toby pushed his little brother out of the way and plopped down on the soft wool blanket. I rolled him up and suddenly he became a pupa, wriggling around in his chrysalis. “Is the butterfly ready to come out?” I asked. Toby giggled and wriggled more, and then with great force he broke free of the dark blanket and began to move his arms slowly as though he had just sprouted wings and was uncertain how to use them. “Leo’s turn! Leo’s turn!” Leo squealed, eager for his chance to become a butterfly.
We played until David came home an hour later, and then nearly every day for the next week the children pushed the coffee table to the side and said “let’s play metamorphosis.” I watched those boys who came from my womb reenact that most primal transformation, from darkness to light, formlessness to form, again and again, never tiring of the game. Every muscle and thought in their compact little bodies focused on the moment, which buzzed with their raw vitality. I’ve traveled the world and have tried dozens of healing modalities. And what I know with absolute certainty, what my five- and two-year-olds have always known, is that the impulse of life is toward life. And it really is that simple.
As for Steven’s question, I think that I’ve always known the answer. It’s a feeling I can remember having my whole life–and maybe even longer than that–and it has to do with suffering and God and our connection to life. I’m still living inside the question, feeling along its edges and interiors. And as I continue to experience the kindness and caring of so many people along this journey, the helping hands that always appear exactly at the right time, and feel myself soften more into love and light and joy, I think I am beginning to get a glimmer of how healing might work. It’s in the gardens we plant and the photosynthesis of the leaves. It’s our hearts, and eyes, and ears opening to each other fully in the present moment without distraction. It’s forgiveness and compassion, and letting go. Healing is in the rivers and the constant flow and change of life, which does include death, but death is just another type of change.
In moments like these when my mind reaches from rapture to connection, to insight, and grasps to find just the right words, it comes in the form of images, the language of poetry. This time, it is the last lines of Stanley Kunitz’s poem “The Layers” that play in my mind. In an interview about this poem, he said: “In the middle of the night, I’d had this dream of a voice out of a cloud, and this is what the voice spoke to me.”
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered and I roamed through the wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice directed me:
“Live in the layers, not on the litter”
Though I lack the art to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter in my book of transformations is already written.
I am not done with my changes.