I’ve now been finished with chemo and radiation for three years. I have all my beloved hair, with its quirks and waning hue. I walk 2-3 miles most days. I am working like crazy on half a dozen projects. I was speaker at the Cancer Survivor’s yearly picnic.
But a while back, I started having a pain on my left side, and the urine sample my D.O. ordered showed a trace of blood. For most people, this would be no big deal. Or at least not a life-or-death deal. But when he ordered a CT scan, I put the pieces together and, at least for a couple of days, was sure the cancer had returned. My oncologist, you may remember, had said, bluntly, that if it came back, it would take my life.
This is, I’m sure, the story of everyone who’s had a serious cancer. The fear that comes with every seeming anomaly. Within a short time, my dear brother-in-law had researched my symptoms and said he thought I had a kidney stone. That made sense. I began to calm down, and the long days between scan and result were much less frightening.
Scan result: Nothing wrong at all—only a benign kidney cyst, which can cause a trace of bleeding!
But before that, there was one particular night I was sure I was going to die within the next year. I lay there making plans, thinking, who will take care of my Dad, how will this work? I mourned leaving everyone—Jerry, my children and grandchildren. Not to see them again! And my self. I have a long and faithful relationship with myself, have tried to look after her through thick and thin. I will miss her, I think. I mourned the writing projects I’m in the middle of. I wondered if my New & Selected would make its way into the world. I even mourned the incomplete book of essays I’m working on. I really, really sobbed, more deeply than I ever have. I hit a bottom I have never hit before.
You’d think, when I was diagnosed, or during treatment, I would have hit that bottom, but there was always the hope of cure. This time, I knew there would be no hope.
Now, how to say this next part without sounding maudlin, or polyannaish. I felt that there was a profound turning around in my consciousness. First of all, as FDR said, there is nothing to fear but fear. That registered on me. And then, what worse can happen? Nothing. So it seemed I rested, somehow, in that knowledge.
Not to ignore my years of meditation and its influence on the way I saw this.
But I do want to acknowledge the awareness, the regular shifts, the ups and downs, of those of us who’ve had serious disease and know that it could return. Not an obsession, because nothing is greater than being alive and doing the things that make us happy. But an extra awareness, a sense that hovers beside the other senses, that keeps watch.
Not bad. Not bad. This is not a bad thing. It’s a tool to use to remain aware of being alive. I wish I could describe the difference in my awareness. I can’t, other than to say the temporariness of this existence feels like more of a benefit, a spark-like joy, than a burden.
Now back to work. I am so excited about my various projects. The Woods Are On Fire: New & Selected Poems has now been copyedited, and I’ll be seeing the front matter next. I’m going to publish the Wobbly Bicycle cancer posts as a book. More about this later. I’m sweating blood over an essay that I’ll use as a morning talk at my MFA residency in August, that will be published after that. We have the cottage open and will be there late this month, along with various family. Yea for living.
I asked some of Wobbly Bicycle’s most faithful readers what topics they’d like me to dig into. Here’s the first one from the stack, from Adrian Koesters:
“I would love to see a post about how you sustained a long writing life, especially in the face of raising family and all the personal things you went through that have felled or silenced many another writer. I think everybody likes to hear how writers keep going.”
My response: I dunno, it makes me, well, should I say happy to write? I grew up amid a great deal of familial turmoil. I guess I burrowed into my own conch shell of words. Then as the years went on, the reasons for writing began stretching out, beyond me.
I woke up this morning, having half-written this post, dying to get to the computer. I already knew where I needed to add, what I needed to cut. The news came to me in my sleep, apparently.
That feeling. Writing for me is a perpetual itch that wants scratching. Poetry’s harder than prose, more depressing. I never know what’s next. There’s a feeling of always, every minute, falling off a bench. If I fall right, it will be a glorious pratfall. If wrong, I’ll break my arm. When I write, I’m both immortal and worthless. Can’t explain that, really. Or, I’m the one who’s climbed Everest yet wasn’t able to make the last 20 feet. Never on top, but always higher than I expected to be. Wouldn’t I sell my soul to the devil for the right lines, the right stanzas?
I am a plodder. Do you think I would have gotten a Ph.D. if I were a renegade? No. I would have worked on a ranch in Australia, I would have played pool at the corner bar, I would have invented Google. No. I did what they told me. I answered the questions right. I wrote what I was supposed to. So I got a Ph.D. Oh no, that’s not fair to me. I love to learn things. I like the hard things. I like biting into dense, whole-wheat bread. But truth is, I am dogged. I get up every day and go to my computer. It’s my religion.
Seriously. It’s my religion. It is my ritual, my tool for reaching beyond myself. I can’t write well if my ego’s in the way. So in the interest of the far reach, I have to become emptier of my preconceptions about who I am and what the world is like.
When I had cancer, when Jerry was having major back trouble, when there was strife in my family, when my father was having his leg amputated, when we moved him up here, I was writing. All the more reason, to my mind. You could say I like making order of chaos. Maybe. You could say anything.
I don’t know why some people quit writing under difficult circumstances and some people don’t. If there’s absolutely, uncontrollably no time, or if the pain is too severe, or if there’s major depression—those would stop anyone. But otherwise, I keep wanting to see what I have to say. I don’t really know until I write it down. Even then, I’m surprised. Oh, that’s where I was going. I want language. Not just how it is, but how it relates to everything else. It seems that the urge to do that increases for me with the years. Life is precious. (e.g., I had cancer. I could again.) Write like crazy. Write what there is to write, anything that appears.
Also, I write because of insane jealousy. When I read something so good it makes my mouth water, I am already examining how it was done, how I could do it myself. I would break my own arm if it would make the words come out like that.
What would make me not write? I have to say, if no one wanted to read anything I wrote, I would no doubt become discouraged and eventually quit. My religion requires mutuality. We have to break bread together. You have to read. You know what breaks my heart? The student with no talent who longs above all to be a writer. You know what torture is? To hear gorgeous words, to be awestruck by a poem, and to only be able to put down broken granite chunks of words, oneself. I know, because I’ve written a quarry full of granite words. But the others, the ones that, astoundingly, fly, they sustain me.