Tag Archives: cancer

no words, only beauty

I got the news– her father passed away.  Cancer.

The news detonates a dam, and the tragedy of another triggers a flood of memories. I remember the quiet that pervaded the house during my mother’s final days, even while streams of thoughtful friends and family trickled by with somber faces.  The flocks of grey geese, a silent V slicing the grey skies above. The terrible disbelief that sets in after the final, jagged breath.

There are no words to comfort.  Maybe I can say that I understand what she is going through. Afterall, I too have lost a parent, but everyone grieves differently.  It is a lonely road, and she is a mother, she must carry on for another. The phrase “I understand” seems a bit inauthentic.

I can tell her that I’m sorry, because I am.

I can tell her everything will be different going forward, but how? I cannot predict. It is for her to discover. The truth will dazzle gradually.

What I can say, and what is the greatest truth: the only thing that knit me back together again was beauty.  People, with their awkward hugs and concerned faces, tried to comfort me, but I was beyond reach. There is nothing that anyone could do or say.

But there was poetry.  There were brilliant Arizona sunsets. There were songs that managed to fill a broken heart with joy and hope.  There were mountains that touched puffy white clouds.  There were birds, so many birds.

The beauty of the world can deliver you from her horrors if you open yourself to it.

 

Alan (4)

water was everywhere

DSC_0336I remember the rain, the gentle yet relentless rain, a percussive background to your rattled breaths. You were leaving, and water was everywhere.  Tapping against the window.  Filling your lungs. Running down my cheeks. Even my dreams were of a tidal wave.

Later that day, the sun had set but the rain persisted. There were beads of water clinging to the body bag as you rolled from your home into the car that took your body to the scientists that could learn from you, and from the terrible cancer that never flinched.  One of your final mandates had been to hang  Christmas lights, and the lights stayed on continuously during our vigil through your final days.  The droplets on the plastic bag reflected the glow of multi-colored orbs, a million tiny rainbows glimmering in the darkness

Its raining in San Antonio today, two years after you died. I stand outside and let a few drops of rain kiss my face.

I have lost you, but still, there is snow and ice and rain and steam and babbling streams and crashing waves. I seek waterfalls in the desert, I soak in my bathtub in the quiet of the night. I breathe billowy puffs of air in the cold. The water still holds me, and and clings to my sadness with the light of a million tiny rainbows.

 

JANELLE MARIE SHINER

8/29/53-12/13/11

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i have my mother’s feet

The combination of emotional suffering and regular exercise has given me what feels at times like superhuman strength.  I have endurance, I have grit, I can hike for miles on end. I ran marathons in my twenties, but this feels different.  I can dig down deeper.  I have removed the limitations of my mind, and I am healthy.  My body can carry me far if I get out of her way.

I spent last weekend hiking and backpacking 30 miles in the Grand Canyon.  It tired me, but it seems as though I could have gone further.  I could have done more. I wasn’t spent. But even so, the milage did take its toll, and my feet were blistered, my muscles protesting for several days after the trip.  The first evening after returning to work and to my regular life, I eased my swollen feet into the tub and did a double take.

I saw my mother’s feet.

Well, not the feet that flew around her kitchen, making dinner.  Not the feet that walked the beach in Mexico.  They were the feet she had when she was dying.  Puffy, tender.  Like a baby’s. I would put lotion on those feet and ease them into her trousers when she was too weak to do so.  I rubbed them when they were sore and set Epsom salt soaks to ease the discomfort. She would lean on my arm as she walked, hesitantly and slowly, the pain in her face evident.  I couldn’t cure her, but I could care for her, and every slipper I slid on her feet and every pillow propped beneath her swollen legs was done with a frantic enthusiasm of a daughter that had to do something, anything.

We got pedicures about a month before she died and she went to the morgue with pink toenails tipped in white. She looked cherished, and she was. My toenails have canyon dust wedged beneath them, appendages ragged from hiking, swollen due to inflammation from long exercise rather than a failing lymphatic system.  I think I’m far from my death bed;  I’ve never felt more alive. But still, if you squint in the bathroom , you can see them there, my dying mother’s feet peeking above the bathwater.

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Galveston, August 2011

She doesn’t visit me often in my dreams.  I don’t hear her voice echoing in the quiet. She feels far away, she feels gone.  But I have visions like this one, where she and I are a circle, an ouroboros. My legs, her feet. My eyes, her smile.  I am not superhuman. I am just a person, fleshy and messy and powerful and weak. I am living, I am dying. I carry my mother with me, and she carries me forward. Her death is part of my life, as my life was part of her death. We ended, and we have only just begun.

We are one.

released from optimism

I sort through the vestiges of a past life.  A fifth grade report card.  Figure skating trophies. A yellowed love letter.  Photographs.

I have literally carried this box of memories with me for miles.  I have moved at least 15 times since graduating from high school. How many creaky steps have a I slugged up with these relics in my arms? How many shelves have they sat on, gathering dust?

Some things I’m keeping, some things I’m throwing. But even what I keep doesn’t hold me anymore. These artifacts tell a story that today seems of little consequence, the story of a young person who no longer exists. My mother’s death is the red smudge on my timeline. It it is the plot twist, it is the sentinel event. What came before is the story of someone else. I don’t dislike this person, but she isn’t me anymore.

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Chacala, Nayarit. Age 16.

Terry Tempest Williams wrote in Refuge that losing her mother released her from her optimism.  I used to be someone that furiously planned, incessantly dreamed, a person hypnotized by the promises of the future and happy endings. But then life happened. I have said I do, and later I won’t. I have watched my mother get sick and die. My missteps and a few macabre twists of fate have cost me dearly, in every way. I have tasted the bitter knowledge that all my dreams won’t come true, can never come true.

But here is the thing- joy isn’t sequestered in some future date, nor is it bound up in the past. Joy is neither encased in romantic love, nor unlocked only by achievement.  It simply is, and it is right here for the taking. So I find my salvation in the now.  I am not mesmerized by a past which is no more, and I refuse to be transfixed by whispered promises that lie beyond the horizon. I hold my memories loosely, so as to not get too attached to things which are no more. I am released from the bounds of optimism. I no longer subscribe to the blind faith that things will get better (even if sometimes they do). I no longer practice the religion of anything that pulls me away from the present moment. Which gives me the space to relish the earth beneath me, the sky above me.

The now is the only place where I find peace.

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Sierra Ancha Wilderness. October 2013.

 

the blessing of being alive

DSC_0043Sometimes, I feel as if nothing I do matters.  I have struggled and fought and I have failed.  Oh, have I failed, in a million small ways, and in a few pretty large ways too.  Some days I feel weak and worthless.  But yesterday helped me see a bit clearer.

Yesterday, I attended a memorial service for a patient.  Her name was Angie, and she died at 45 from breast cancer.  The ceremony was held in a garden space, where a stand of trees stood proudly in the middle of barren desert.  In this oasis we were sheltered us from the Arizona sun, still so unrelenting even in late September. Native voices and drumming sliced through the air, carrying our prayers of healing and sobs of grief high in to the heavens.  We honored the four directions, the circle of life and all its infinite passages.  We held hands, a rainbow of humans from all walks of life, touched by this one woman. Years of addiction had scarred the hearts of some, yet there, under the shade trees, there was healing and love and hope for all of us. We were united in grief, united in being alive.

In this sacred space, I received kind words of gratitude for the care I gave to this woman while she was alive. I felt her community honor me as a healer to the sick and a friend to their loved one. Her case worker and strongest supporter during the last year of her life presented me with a print of a dragonfly, a symbol not only of the community where she lived but as symbol of transformation, of rebirth. It was how Angie wanted to be remembered.  She is now in the spirit of the dragonflies. She is liberated and omnipresent and I believe she is still here.  In a way, her illness gave her the medicine to be everywhere and everything, to transform from a homeless crack addict to an inspiration, a visionary, a healer.

I felt some apprehension about attending the service, as it promised to crack open my own barely contained well of grief (which it did). And sometimes it is hard to accept gratitude. I want to cast aside the humble thanks of others and say “its only my job.”  But it’s not “only my job.” It is a blessing and an honor and a calling. I couldn’t save Angie from cancer, nobody could. At times I couldn’t even lessen the pain.  But I walked beside her, I was at the door of her final passage.  I was a part of humanity’s best side, the wide embrace, the soothing words that call forth light in the darkness.  I was part of an easing of her burden, part of her finding wholeness even while she was dying. I was part of a miracle.

We all know about the shadow side of our civilization.  We slaughter, we rape, we decimate, we wreak havoc on the earth. Sometimes, I can’t bear being a human, can’t face being a tiny limb of the global curse. But yesterday, I felt honored to be alive, to be a person, to be a part of a community wider than my own mangled thoughts, my own voice pleading in the darkness.

A single wave is meaningless, yet the collective tide can carve canyons and move mountains.

I am honored to be part of this mysterious force.

a flowering

DSC_0325I wanted her to live, but if she had to die, I wanted her to die like a flower blooms.  The final opening, an expression of brilliance and beauty before the end. I wanted her to experience the greatest joys in life and reflect them inward and outward.  I wanted her to smile. But if there was any flowering in her illness she was a bloom sliced off from her roots, struggling to survive in murky waters, head bowing towards a dusty tabletop that supported a tiny vase. She turned inward, leaves curling, becoming brittle and thin until the silent fall.

I still judge her for allowing this to occur.  A cure was denied but she could have gone to yoga, or Mexico.  She could have sat in the sunshine more.  Right?

Truthfully, I was the one that wanted to flower.  I wanted to take in all that life offers, from the minuscule to the infinite.  I wanted to find joy and laugh and more fully exist in the world.  But I was scared, and instead of facing my own choices or unwinding what bound me in inertia, I aimed to live vicariously through her. Her looming death frightened me, because I felt half-dead too.  If she could show me how to live in the final months of her life, I thought I could find my way..

It didn’t go down like that. She died the way she needed to- surrounded by love, but walking her final steps alone. Now I will live the way I need to.  I’m still not sure what that looks like, but I am dedicated to finding out.  And maybe Mom didn’t teach me how to to go to yoga, or spend more time with my friends, but she showed me that I too can stay true to my path.  I too can walk it alone.

 

a very good housekeeper

You died, and I have struggled.  You spoke with such breeziness in your final weeks of life: Oh, I don’t have to worry about you. But maybe you should have. Maybe then you would have turned your beautiful face to me and said How can I help ease the impossibly painful? And I would have told you.

Yes, complaining about this might be proof that I am in fact the worlds biggest asshole, but it has been hard to get over, Mom. Every time I think I find a shred of peace with this, I stub my toe on it again.

What is “this?” you may ask. I’ll tell you now:

You didn’t talk to me. You kept your emotions stowed away like Christmas presents hidden from a four-year old.  You were sick and you were dying and I knew nothing of what was in your heart.  I’ve had people I barely know clutch my hand with bony, cool fingers, stare straight into my eyes with a watery gaze and tell me how it is for them.  What its like to die.  What they are proud of.  What they regret.  What they hope for their loved ones after they are gone. And you did none of that. You were free with your smiles with everyone on the elevators, in the lobbies, with every cashier, every nursing attendant. You smiled and you smiled and you were polite and gracious and never complained, but you never opened up either.

It is selfish of me to have wanted more from you. It was your journey, your business.  But I felt betrayed because I wanted to give you what you gave me. From the beginning of my life till the end of yours, I would bare my soul to you, all the joy as well as all the pain, and you would listen, take it all in and love me regardless. You were my best friend; I wanted to be yours too.  Yet when you needed me the most, I was not to be trusted. The opportunity to support you in death as I was supported in life was refused, and this seemingly reinforced the longstanding suspicion that I was not worthy to be your daughter.

I know, I know.  But I wasn’t. You were the rarest of creatures: beautiful, unfailingly kind, bright, funny. You daughter should have been someone less average.

It is difficult for me to understand why you closed the door on me at the end.  And it wasn’t just me; I’m not sure that you trusted anyone with your fears and your grief. Perhaps you were too afraid at what you would find in the dark recesses, so you sealed them off and acknowledged only the sunshine. Maybe you did with your heart what you did with your home: locked the basement door, opened the living room blinds, arranged the flowers, fluffed the pillows.  Made everything beautiful and tidy before you left. This makes some sense.  You were always a very good housekeeper.

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