“I am not a spiritually gifted person, but my years of practice and study gave me an understanding of the task ahead.”
In October 1995 I went for a sigmoidoscopy. I had been putting the test off because I knew it would be a distasteful experience, but as a healthy, vigorous person, I did not for a moment anticipate that there would be a serious problem. I expected to be told I had some minor, easily corrected condition.
I remember the doctor, a tall, African American man, talking to me when the test was over. “When the growth is that big, we’re ninety percent certain it’s cancer. I’m calling your doctor right now. We want you in the hospital for major surgery in a week.”
So began a year in which every element of my life flew into the air and was blown around in dizzying swoops and dips. Lifted suddenly out of my usual routine and habits of mind, I was thankful that I could still turn to the lessons of the Buddhist practice I had been doing for almost twenty years.
In meditation, I had learned to sit still while emotions raged in me, while my body clamored for relief, while my mind tortured me in myriad ways. I had learned to be there for it all, recognizing in each moment, no matter how painful, imperfect or frustrating, the ever-changing texture of what is. I am not a spiritually gifted person, but my years of practice and study had given me an understanding of the task ahead.
So when I received the diagnosis of cancer, I understood, Yes, what is required of me now is that I be fully present to each new experience as it comes, and that I engage with it as completely as I can. I don’t mean that I said this to myself, nothing so conscious as that. I mean that my whole being turned, and looked, and moved toward the experience.
Driving home from the hospital where the test had been performed, I was just beginning to take in what had happened. In a crisis we have many choices of how to react. We can reject the experience hysterically; we can rage against the injustice of it; we can go into deep denial and pretend it’s not happening; we can move into the future, imagining a horrific outcome; we can retreat into obsessive worry, or sink into depression, and there are other possibilities. But after all those years of sitting still and trying to pay attention, and perhaps because I am a rather positive and sunny person, I had none of those options. It seemed there was nothing to do but to be present in the moment.
This did not protect me from the usual thoughts and feelings, particularly in the initial shock. I remember a friend telling of hearing her own cancer diagnosis. “I thought I was on the mezzanine,” she said, “and suddenly I was in the basement.” It’s like that.
Coming from the test, with the doctor’s voice echoing in my head, I walked up the back steps to my house. “Well, I’m fifty-nine years old,” I thought, “I’ve published four books, I’ve experienced marriage and many intensely engaging love affairs, I’ve done honest political work, I’ve traveled, I’ve lived my life as fully as I could. If this is the end, that will be all right.”
Then I walked in the door and told my partner the news, and the next moment I was crouching next to the davenport where she sat, sobbing in her arms, as both of us felt the enormity of this, the terrible sadness of the coming ordeal, the terror that my life might end. Buddhist practice does not prevent anything; it does not shield us from anything. What it does is soften and open us to meet everything that comes to us.
Because I am a writer, books always accompany me on any journey. This time, while I sought out the words of spiritual teachers and found them helpful, a book of poems by the German poet Rainier Maria Rilke fell into my hands, and it was his words, written within the Christian tradition, that particularly echoed and gave resonance to my experience.
I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.
I give myself to it.
I was helped by the Buddha’s First Noble Truth, that we suffer. I understood that simply to inhabit a human body is to experience discomfort, dis-ease, dissatisfaction, pain both physical and mental. Suffering, I knew, was not an aberration from some mythic state of constant happiness, like a beer ad or a shampoo commercial, with the wind perpetually ruffling our hair. Suffering was simply a condition of life.
So when the cancer was diagnosed I did not imagine that there was something wrong or terribly unfair in my having this disease. I went to see my acupuncturist, who is a dear old friend, and we had a talk. “It’s not really surprising,” she said. “Our environment is full of toxins, cancer is an epidemic. Why wouldn’t you have it?” This attitude made my task easier.
Of course, one inevitably thinks about causes. Our air, our food, our water are laced with poisons, and nobody is doing very much about these, certainly not the so-called regulatory agencies set up to protect us. We’ve all read the reports of carcinogens in our gasoline and how pesticide use has soared in the last five years. In some parts of California, our soil and water are being seriously polluted by the illegal manufacture of methamphetamines! How could this not affect my vulnerable/permeable human body?
Another possible cause is lifestyle. Did I consume too many hot dogs and French fries as an adolescent? Then there’s heredity, is it my family’s fault? And how about all that suppressed rage or grief or other negative emotions just churning in me with no way to get out except to create a disease? This explanation I rejected, not just because it did not ring true for me, and I do grant that for some people it may be helpful, but because it seemed to ask me to take on a false burden of responsibility that ignored both the larger landscape of causality and my need to be in the moment dealing with the crisis.
Of course I thought about all these possible causes. Then I remembered the classic Buddhist story of the man shot by an arrow. He’s lying on the ground, seriously wounded. One person comes to help. She examines the arrow and speculates on who may have made it and who might have shot it. She looks at the point of entry in the man’s chest and calibrates the angle of approach and the possible speed with which the arrow traveled. All the while the man is dying. The other person who’s come to help notices the victim’s suffering and says, “No, no, what is needed is not this inquiry but to extract the arrow and treat the wound!”
While this story is a metaphor for Buddhist practice generally, it emphasized for me the need to stick to the demands of the moment. Yes, the network of causation does need to be addressed, and particularly the steady poisoning of our environment, but a patient preparing for major surgery and a long siege of chemotherapy has other priorities. I had other priorities.
I found myself, in the days before the surgery, talking to Kwan Yin. Kwan Yin is the Chinese female embodiment of compassion, the most venerated goddess in all of Asia. She was a being I had encountered many years ago in a museum in Kansas City where there is a famed statue of her, and she had fascinated me ever since. Goddesses compel me as female emanations of transcendent capacities and forces. Whether they exist actually in the world, independent of our minds and hearts, I sometimes believe to be true and sometimes doubt.
Kwan Yin was particularly present to me at this time. On my way that summer to the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in China, I had made a pilgrimage to visit Kwan Yin. I spent six days on an island in the South China Sea called Putuo Shan, a place dedicated wholly to Kwan Yin, or Guan Shih Yin as the Chinese call her. It is said that she resides there still, and I had a strong experience of her presence.
Now a month later I was in Oakland, wandering in the Mountain View Cemetery, a beautiful graveyard shaded by venerable trees, and as I walked I spoke to Kwan Yin. I told her my situation, and then I said, “Help me.” I was facing the unknown. I had never even stayed overnight in a hospital, and in a few days I was to go in for a major operation in which they would open up my belly and take out part of my intestine and see whether the cancer had spread elsewhere in my body.
“Help me,” I said, and tried to visualize a beautiful Chinese lady in flowing robes. I had seen many representations of Kwan Yin; I could imagine her hovering in the tree branches, looking down tenderly at me.
Who was I talking to?
Space and silence opened around me.
No comforting goddess appeared.
Who was I talking to?
I didn’t know, yet there was a sense that my voice, my plea, my question, reached somewhere and was received. Perhaps it reached deep inside me, past preoccupations of self, and touched the silent place that exists before struggle and fear.
I sat on the grass, under a spreading tree, beneath a sky of perfect blue in which one cloud lazily sailed. I felt the livingness of everything around me, and felt my sharing in it. I felt my separation from it too, my imprisonment in this body that would soon be subjected to grotesquely intrusive maneuvers.
“Help me,” I said again, and felt how utterly alone I was, like a tiny figure silhouetted against a vast horizon. Yet there was an answer, a resonance as deep in me as the core of the huge tree under which I sat. I left the cemetery that day feeling as if I had dropped into that place of resonance, and I found myself willing to experience what I must.
You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Flare up like flame
and make big shadows.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
In the hospital after the surgery I had an experience, sometimes excruciating, sometimes exhilarating, of community. Community, or sangha, is one of the important dimensions of Buddhist engagement, and I felt its expansion and its depth in those difficult days. I received the care of my feminist, political, theological, lesbian, neighborhood and other friends, who came showing me the very purest part of themselves, whose motive was simply love. But there were other dimensions of community.
Because, like forty-three million other Americans, I had no health insurance, I went for my surgery and subsequent care at Highland Hospital, the county facility located in East Oakland, one of the more disadvantaged sections of the city. Most of the patients are poor people; the hospital is overburdened and understaffed. There are no frills, very little space, no pleasant esthetic touches to soften the impact.
In this setting, after the surgery, high on morphine, I had no defenses. I was utterly vulnerable to the stimuli around me. The TV set on the wall above the beds erupted in loud violent cartoons, equipment clanged, and voices intruded. It was as if my skin had been peeled away.
But even in this chaotic setting, the community, my friends, the nurses and orderlies, my sister and brother patients, moved in healing, comforting ways.
The evening after my surgery, visiting hours brought quite a number of people to see my roommate, an African American woman. On my side of the curtain that separated us, three of my friends had crowded in, hoping to cheer me. The TV set blared and in the hallway doors banged and people talked loudly. I huddled in the bed, thinking to myself, “I cannot bear this,” for the morphine made me feel besieged, unable to protect myself or to find a psychic place in which to rest.
A friend from the Graduate Theological Union, Kathryn Poethig, sitting quietly beside my bed, must have sensed my distress, for she took my hand and began to hum the opening notes of “Amazing Grace.” Her voice was a quiet slow stream under all the din.
Suddenly the TV set snapped off. There was silence on the other side of the curtain. Then several rich, deep female voices joined my friend’s, and the gentlest, tenderest version of that venerable hymn rolled out to fill the room. “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound …”
Kathryn and I gazed in amazement at each other. My other two friends stared at the curtain. The song went on, a rich blending, a heartfelt, holy rendering of this beautiful old hymn. I felt as if I were being rocked and held in nurturing arms.
When the last note sounded, Kathryn went to peer around the curtain. “That was so beautiful,” she told the invisible singers, “We loved it.”
In my scratchy, post-surgery voice (impeded by the tube that ran down my throat to my stomach), I croaked out, “Could you do one more?”
They did, a precise, original rendition of “He Leadeth Me,” a hymn I used to sing as a child in my Methodist Church in Ohio. I knew it well.
When the song finished, the atmosphere in the room had been transformed. We existed now in a deep, comforting silence, and all the offending noises from the hallway seemed outside our bubble of stillness. I lay back smiling, relaxed for the first time since the surgery.
A beaming face looked around the curtain. “Hope you’ll feel better soon,” she said, and then I heard these women say a quiet goodnight to my roommate and walk out of the room. My own visitors sat in stillness.
(The next day my roommate, whose name was Charlene George, told me that the voices were those of her sisters, a singing group called the Webb Sisters. These three women have opened at the Monterey Jazz Festival to a standing ovation, and sing in African-American churches and religious gatherings regularly.)
Yes, always there was some ray of kindness or beauty available to me, if I could be there for it.
I want to unfold.
Let no place in me hold itself closed,
for where I am closed, I am false.
There were other books besides Rilke that accompanied me in the hospital. I eagerly read Audre Lorde’s A Burst of Light, the account by this African-American warrior-poet of her final battle with lung cancer. Through long afternoons I lived within the covers of Paula by Isabel Allende, in which the Chilean novelist describes the slow dying of her young daughter, who lay in a coma for many months. The Diary of a Zen Nun by Nan Shin held me with its luminous language, evoking in turn the thrill of horseback riding, the suffering of breast cancer surgery and treatment, the beauty of nature, and the rigors of Zen training.
Friends visiting me would peer at this short stack of supposed gloom and ask, “Don’t these books depress you?” On the contrary, I needed the accounts of people who had gone ahead of me into this vast landscape of pain and disorientation. For I had been told that the pathology report showed Stage Three colon cancer, and that it was likely there were cancer cells still in my abdomen. The doctors were strongly recommending an extended course of chemotherapy. I was beginning to understand that the surgery was only one step in a long process, one which I might not survive.
I hated the idea of allowing poison to be injected into my veins. I was eating a macrobiotic diet, drinking Chinese cancer-preventing herbs and taking supplements recommended by an acupuncturist. Many people would say that I was sufficiently protected by this regime, but I wanted to know more about the chemotherapy. My friend Sandra Butler went to Plane Tree, a medical research center for consumers in San Francisco, and returned with reports of thirty trials of chemotherapy for colon cancer. As I recuperated from the surgery, Sandy and I read the many pages of medicalese. The statistics carried great weight. In the groups of patients studied, the recurrence rate without treatment was 50 percent; with treatment the recurrence rate dropped to 25 percent. Those numbers I found compelling.
The doctors had told me that colon cancer most often metastasizes to the liver, where it is difficult to detect until it has reached an acute stage. I imagined discovering, in a year, that I had liver cancer, and thinking, what if chemotherapy could have prevented this? It was not a scenario I wished to experience. I decided to accept the chemotherapy.
My first treatment was administered by oncology nurse Bill Shanks. Bill is a brown-skinned, gray-haired, nattily-dressed man whose smile lights up the room. I soon discovered that he was just my age, and hailed from Ohio like me. But it was his hands that were most reassuring: broad, warm hands whose fingers moved deftly as he inserted the needle, with the skill learned in years of this work and an innate gentleness that cannot be learned. Even so, I felt a sinking in my heart as the clear liquid moved from the vial through the needle into the vein on the back of my hand. It was the beginning, setting me upon this course from which I could not turn back.
In the following month I was hospitalized twice by my reactions to the initial strong dose of chemotherapy. Apparently I was more sensitive than other patients to these drugs. Then began the months in which I went to the hospital once a week to let Bill inject poison in my veins, and the rest of the week lived with the effects of that poisoning, and through herbs and acupuncture, meditation and other efforts, worked to support my immune system to withstand the assault of the chemotherapy.
But there were other projects during this extraordinary year. I continued to teach my writing classes: by sleeping for several hours before each class, I was able to manage. And I wrote a book.
I had proposed the book to the publisher and signed the contract before I became ill. Now the months were passing, October, November, December, January. I had recovered from the surgery, but the chemotherapy was beginning to make me ill. Finally, on January thirty-first I had a talk with myself. “Sandy,” I said, “tomorrow morning I want you to go in your study, sit down at your desk, and write the first sentence of this book. And then I want you to continue.”
The next morning, obediently, I did as I was told. And then for the next several months, no matter how I felt, I went into my study each morning and took up where I had left off the day before. The writing became a healing for me. Sitting at my desk, I was not a cancer patient, a sick person, a disempowered and gravely threatened person. I left that behind and entered the task fully. I became the action, and in this I was empowered.
That was a great teaching: that no matter how sick we may be, there is always a dimension of us that is intact and healthy. Whether through creative work, through sensitive contact with others, through spiritual practice, through appreciation of music or art, we can at moments access that other reality. Perhaps it is the place I touched when I called upon Kwan Yin in the graveyard.
In the pages of the Shambhala Sun recently, I found Joan Halifax’s attempt to describe this phenomenon, from the perspective of a caregiver. “We are called to look deeper than suffering to the place where freedom from suffering exists,” she wrote. And she speaks of “the unmoving truth within our own lives.”
The writing of the book took me there. On the other hand, while I did not write about my cancer, all I was experiencing and learning during that arduous time informed what I was putting on the page. The hours at the hospital opened me to efforts and challenges I had never known before. The days at home with my friends who came to cook and clean and cheer me up softened me into receiving, into letting go and enjoying what I could. The difficult time with my partner, in which the relationship deteriorated into distance and pain, etched cruel lessons on my heart and let me know how difficult forgiveness is. Those days were a deep and rich passage.
As the weeks of chemotherapy wore on, I became more and more ill. Weakness took me, until I could barely stand upright and I had to take several naps a day. My sense of taste deserted me, leaving only one flavor, that of sawdust laced with chemicals. I lost weight steadily. Eventually I could not eat solid food and was existing on fruit smoothies. My eyes hurt so much I could barely read; my skin cracked and bled; I had sores in my mouth.
Twenty weeks of chemo. Twenty-five weeks. I had twenty-three more to go, for I was to do forty-eight weeks in all. How appalling!
“Listen to your body,” said my acupuncturist-friend. Now this was something I knew how to do, for my meditation teacher, Ruth Denison, had emphasized the First Foundation of Mindfulness, the body. Guided by her remembered instructions, having had much practice over the years, I turned to focus on my physical sensations. I sat down and listened.
My body did not hesitate to give me the message: “This is too much poison for me. The chemicals have done their job and now they’re killing me.”
I was plunged into a painful confusion, for Dr. Cutting, head of the oncology department at Highland Hospital, had insisted that the forty-eight week set of treatments was necessary. It was simply what people did for colon cancer, with no adjustments or alterations even contemplated.
The implication was that to survive you had to stay the course. But then I thought of Ruth Denison’s urging us “not to injure life,” and I knew that each successive dose of chemicals going into my veins would be stealing my vital energy and perhaps hastening my death. I suffered through several excruciating days of indecision. This not-knowing was worse than anything I had experienced before. But finally, as sick as I was, I could reach to my strength. I realized I had to stop the chemotherapy.
Now came the challenge of confronting Dr. Cutting. A short, truculent sixty-year-old, he did not take kindly to insubordination. I knew he would try to bully me into obedience, scare me with statistics, berate and intimidate me to make me continue the treatments. So I carefully prepared. I wrote out all my reasons for quitting chemotherapy, and I asked Sandra Butler to go with me, for I knew she was experienced in talking to doctors.
On the appointed day we went in to the oncology clinic at Highland, where I was scheduled to receive my next dose. I told Dr. Cutting that I had decided not to take any more treatments. I remember him leaning back against the counter, his eyes behind his glasses bulging in surprise. Then he pondered a moment, nodded, and spoke.
His words astonished me. “Well, if it’s too much for you,” he said, “then it’s right to stop.” And he went on to talk about how little the doctors know. “This forty-eight week duration is really quite arbitrary,” he explained. “No one has done trials to determine if fewer treatments would work as well. We just don’t know.”
Apparently, my determination to follow my own perceptions and intuition gave him permission to drop his usual authoritarian manner and talk to me not like a patient but like another intelligent human being. I left his office feeling supported in my decision.
Gradually, over the ensuing weeks and months, my body began to recover from the assault of the poisons. I worked at getting well, building strength, hoping my damaged tissues would repair themselves.
A year and a half after quitting the chemotherapy, I find that some of its effects still remain with me. I have almost no sense of smell, and my ability to taste has been seriously diminished. I assume these changes are permanent, and I miss my former keen capacity to enjoy odors and tastes.
There is a deeper change. My identification with my body is seriously compromised. I have known its malfunction, its weakness; I have come close to losing this body to death. I had had experience in meditation of the impermanence of my physical self, its existence as flux, as a dance of energy. But now I sometimes perceive myself in quite ordinary social situations not as a solid entity but as a sheet of light passing through, or as unfocused vibration hovering in the scene.
In the fall of 1996, and again in 1997, I underwent a colonoscopy and other tests to determine whether I was free of cancer. Both times the results were negative. The news came, to use an image of Rilke’s, like spring rain falling on parched earth. But I have not left the ordeal and its effects behind. Having cancer is the door into a whole world, one populated by millions of patients, doctors, nurses, social workers, therapists, alternative practitioners, druggists and others. Some dimensions of it are depressing or frightening; other parts bring daily life into sharp focus.
The cancer support group I attended all last year had a special meeting recently. We gathered to honor our members who had died, five of them. I had been brought into this unusual group by Rick Fields, the Buddhist author/editor. Located in a church basement near the University of California in Berkeley, the support group includes professors and therapists and a second Buddhist, Rick Kohn, an academic whose specialty is Tibet.
Here was a place where explanations were not necessary, where I could talk about a proposed treatment and hear, from people who had experienced it, what it felt like to receive it. Doctors always minimize the effects of any procedure or drug; my friends in the support group gave me the truth about how I might feel. And we laughed a lot. Sometimes when things get too bad, they get funny. We would fall out over the non-choices offered to cancer patients: “Well, you can do this horrific treatment or you can do this other even more grotesque one. Of course neither of them may work. Now which would you prefer?” We giggled about the “side” effects of treatments and made bitter jokes about the sometimes appalling attitudes of doctors and other caregivers. The most egregious insults and instances of medical incompetence sent us into guffaws. Being among these people was wonderfully restorative.
For our memorial I brought a candle, and there was a meditation bell provided by Rick Fields. Our leader, a nurse and social worker, wrote the names of the deceased on pieces of paper and placed them around the candle. We reminisced about each woman (they all happened to be female). We brought them alive in the room: Rella there on the couch, chuckling as she told us about fainting in the parking lot from low blood pressure; Joyce hooked up to an oxygen tank, her feet on the lap of her husband; Henrika, small and wiry as an aged child and always intense, telling in a thick Russian accent about the walk she had managed to take that day despite the pain in her legs.
Then a woman new to the group talked. She had just been diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer, and the doctors had given her six months to live. “Strange,” she said, “I’ve never felt better in my life; I have tremendous energy; and then I have to remind myself that I’m dying.”
At lunch afterwards, Rick Fields and Rick Kohn and I talked a little about receiving and giving back in the group. Our Buddhist training has given us a slightly different perspective from others, for we had long been asked to contemplate our own disintegration, to allow for the passing away of everything we know and hold dear, to accept this impermanence as a natural part of living, even when we were most healthy. In a sense we are more at home with ideas of disintegration and death than others, and this perspective can be helpful in the group.
Giving back: since 1995 there have been many opportunities to do that. Cancer, after all, is an epidemic in the United States. Very soon someone near to you will have it, or perhaps it will be you. The Charlotte Maxwell Clinic for Low-Income Women with Cancer in Oakland had been a place I went every Saturday afternoon. There I received free massages, acupuncture and acupressure, and guided meditation which allowed me to express my sorrow at the changes in my body.
The Charlotte Maxwell Clinic had helped me tremendously to withstand the ordeal of treatment. Now in the fall of Ô97, when they asked me to teach several writing workshops at a retreat for cancer patients, I readily accepted. Fifty cancer patients were bussed or drove to the hills of northern California for this three-day gathering. Among them were a large proportion of women of color, African-American, Hispanic, Asian. Many of these women and the low-income white women would never have been able, on their own, to get out of the city to the relative luxury of gracious old residences and a large dining hall with excellent food. It was a great luxury to be there, away from family responsibilities and jobs.
Many of the women were gravely ill, bald from chemo, walking slowly supported by canes or walkers. As I talked with these women I realized a major effect of my year in the whirlwind. I know now what it feels like to move slowly, with great effort, while others stride easily past; to look at a plate of food and have my stomach begin to rise up into my throat; to exist in a vague, energyless state, feeling vulnerable to the physical world, weighed down, inadequate. Because of this knowledge I was comfortable with the women’s illness and debility, able to see through the symptoms into the person who is always there, intact, as I was even at the worst moments.
Before cancer, I had been frightened by illness, had pulled away to protect myself. Now I understood there was nothing to protect, and I found myself capable of being attentively present with each woman there.
What I heard them saying was that as women with cancer we have lots of reasons to hide our feelings, even from ourselves. Sometimes we have to numb out in order to get through a particularly harrowing treatment. We pretend for our children or our partners or friends that we feel better than we really do, in order not to worry them or cause them to turn away from us. We’re cheerful and “normal” with our boss and coworkers, just to make it through the day. Sometimes we find that we’ve wrapped up our feelings and hidden them so deep that we don’t even know they exist anymore. Writing can be a way to get to those hidden feelings, to bring them out into the light and express them. It was this opportunity I wanted to offer to the women in my workshop at the Charlotte Maxwell retreat.
We sat in a small lounge on couches and comfy chairs, and the women checked me out. I remembered dancer Anna Halprin’s saying that the classes she most likes to teach are for people with life-threatening diseases: “Because there’s no bullshit. Everyone just gets right down to what they’re feeling.” I asked each woman to write a letter to her beleaguered body, to acknowledge the changes in it, with compassion, and allow herself to feel her reaction to the alterations.
As the women wrote, I looked around the room. Here was an East Indian woman with the short crewcut of someone coming back from chemo baldness, a young white woman looking energetic and healthy, a snowy-haired old woman reclining on a couch, an African American woman whom I knew was an organizer as well as recipient of services. Others. Everyone bent to her task.
When I asked them to read their letters aloud, I could feel them pull back. Their faces told me that the words they had put on paper would be difficult to reveal to others. Finally one woman read her short letter, her head down: “…the loving, touching men are gone.” She struggled to maintain composure as she went on, “The women and children are still here. They love us for who we are, and just the way we are.” Tears coursed down her face as she looked up at us in astonishment. “I didn’t think I would cry!” she exclaimed.
For an instant I faltered. Had I made a mistake? Had I plunged these women into gratuitous suffering, for the sake of an exercise? It was a heart-stopping moment.
Then the African American woman spoke from across the room. “It’s good to let it out. Go ahead and cry.” And she added, “I keep a journal. Every day I do this, and it helps me go on.” Heads nodded.
Every woman in the room read then, some expressing grief at their losses, some detailing their determined coping with the effects of disease and treatment. Each letter began “Dear Body,”
“…I see that your salivary glands are not moistening the right side of your mouth since the radiation. Here, keep this water with you always…”
“…Yes, you’re 70 years old now. It’s not just the numbers but what happened four and a half years ago when your cells kept dividing and you had surgery for breast and ovarian cancer. You recovered very well and didn’t even cry until your hair fell out! Oh how vain we are!”
“…I do not like this body anymore…I used to feel sexy, attractive… Now I feel no one is looking at me…My body image, well what can I say? You have been chopped up so.”
“…In my teens you and I spent hours on mountains, under water, in gymnasiums, on tennis courts, in the woods. You followed through with me and my sometimes careless movements, but never broke. A strain or two but we never needed crutches or casts or slings. We had great fun together in pools, lakes and forests. I was so sure that we were indestructible. What happened?”
“…You are absorbing so much and I am grateful for all you have been able to take on. The flexibility you have shown me is beyond what I could have imagined you could do now that I look back on this journey….More and more I am listening to you and enjoying our newfound relationship…”
More tears were shed as the women read their letters. I realized that this expression, heavy as it felt in its rawness and honesty, came as a relief to everyone there, that it cleansed and lightened.
I had been asked by the organizer of the retreat whether the material produced in my workshop might appear in an article in the newsletter. I was uncertain, wanting to protect the privacy of these women. She convinced me to propose this to them. When I did so, they thought about the prospect and then almost everyone in the room agreed to let her words be published, and some specified that they wanted their names used. I think they understood, more quickly than I, how useful these expressions might be to other women enduring the trauma of serious illness. Suffering, after all, is universal. Just as I had sought out the words of Audre Lorde and Isabel Allende and Nan Shin, these women knew the importance of communicating the truth of our experience.
My own truth? Well, more than two years have passed since I went for that fateful test. My love relationship is gone. I am learning to be alone in the world, to take full responsibility for myself. I have moved twice. In my new place I feel I have entered a new life. At age sixty-one I have a heightened sense of the shortness of the time ahead of me, and that unburdens me of much baggage from the past. There are some books I want to write, some places on the globe I want to visit. I hope to stay as healthy as I am for many years to come. But if next month I discover that my cancer has returned, then I will live that reality as fully as I can.
There was a Zen master whom I loved, who herself died of cancer. Maurine Stuart headed the Cambridge Buddhist Association. She had been a concert pianist, she had raised children, and she was a strong Zen teacher. “Whatever comes, good or bad,” she told me, “don’t make a move to avoid it.” These words hold me steady; when I want to run off into worry or fantasy or denial, they pull me back into the very center of my living, where each day brings a new set of challenges, and joy often falls like spring rain upon me.
© Quotations are from Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy.