It is a foul and blustery day. It's only one o'clock in the afternoon, but the sun might as well be down-- it is clearly twilight. The rain is incessant, coming in waves, pounding on the roof, then letting up, only to return twenty minutes later as a torrent that overflows the gutters, tests the roof seams (they fail in places), looking for ways in around doorways, window frames, the chimney. The old house does its best, but I've had to learn the strategic positions to place old towels so they can absorb this "gift" from the sky.
The creek is running high and fast, though not so high as December '07. During rain breaks I walk the property and marvel at the changes the season brings. The gurgle of the heavy creek feels solid and alive. The splooshes and whorls of current make noises like a large animal kicking out from below the dark surface. I imagine it contains an ancient sturgeon or two, surfing the turbulent and muddy roils, reveling in the cold storm of winter, feeling alive again after the slow warm meander of summer.
The ground is spongy, unstable. I wonder where the nutria have escaped to, where they go when their creekside burrows are fully submerged. The pigs call out their greetings to me from behind the barn, telling me about everything they have unearthed today, complaining, commenting, exulting.
Finally my ears are so cold that my molars ache, and it is time for a retreat into the house, and out of the rain.
The tree we put up on Sunday glows warm and self satisfied. She is shocked, I think, to have landed in the living room. But she is pleased with herself, wondering if she will ever be able to explain this new experience, this shocking turn of events, this "transportation", to the companions she left behind. We took her out of the lower field, near where the driveway enters the property from the road.
She and some of her sisters were unfortunately sited, and they have observed my critical appraisal of them for some months. Planted by previous owners, these few indeterminate little firs are directly underneath power lines that lean in over that front part of the property. The real shame of their placement is that they were planted immediately north of a couple of lovely old crab apple trees, which means that a few more years of growth by the firs will crowd and shade out the crabbies' only direct sunlight. Unfortunately, the firs must go.
So yes, I have been eyeballing these three, and thinking that at least one of them might do as our christmas tree this year. A little scraggly perhaps, and quite thin on the backside, but then again we usually put the tree up against a wall anyway, yes? And better a turn through the house than straight to the burn pile has been my thinking.
Last Sunday afternoon, in between rain squalls, Bob and the kids and I put on our boots and found the handsaw and went down to the lower field to choose. There was some controversy. One of the tree sisters was deemed a little short and may be left for next year, but then Luke became very upset with the aesthetic limitations of our choices. In the end, we made a choice, and I cut her down and then Bob carried her up the driveway to the house.
So here she is now. Elegant dowager. As young as she may be compared to the big firs, the crab apples, and the old cedars who remain edging her former field down by the road, she appears to have gained a certain maturity on arrival. Her lights shining out against the gray dimness from the windows, the first phase of ornaments are carefully arranged on her branches. She does not yet know about the glory of glass ball ornaments, which I imagine she will find thrilling, excited to see the delicacy of her fine needles reflected back at her. Her skirted branches spread a little further than I'd imagined they would, but give me the sense that when we set her down here she looked around, approved of her new status and settled, spreading into this new phase of life.
The calico cat has taken to sleeping beneath her, and I suspect that the cat has noticed as I have, that the tree is breathing out a fine wet pure air, bringing in the freshness from outdoors. It is not a smell of pine or fir, it is not a smell at all: it is simply clean, a release of oxygen and moisture as this tree breathes us out her last. The cat has noticed this too, knows that this is a treasure to be near.
I imagine that even with her youth, her inexperience, and her surprise to be the center of attention and suddenly thrust into this indoor world of noise, this little tree is not unaware of how it will play out for her. I even imagine that she is not sad about her future. I imagine that she is grateful for this diversion through the house. I know that all those trees have had an idea what my eyeballing in the field was about anyway. I imagine that every moment is to be accepted, enjoyed.
I sit by the wood stove, enjoying the way the heat penetrates my achy joints. I knit away at the Christmas gifts I should have already boxed and mailed. I enjoy the noise of the rain on the roof, the drift of sweet air from the tree, this quiet time to myself in my favorite place on earth while all my children are at school.
It seems like I always begin to write a blog entry to tell some news, and then get off onto some other scenic detour. I don't mean for the "news" to be like some big gotch-ya at the end of a post, but I suppose it often feels like that. Let's see if you can take all the writing that preceded this, hear the news, and then go back and figure out how to integrate the news with the writing. Ready? Go.
Last week I went in to get a full set of scans: CT scan, bone density, echo-cardiogram. The final word? I'll quote from the CT scan report: "No evidence of recurrent or metastatic disease in the chest, abdomen or pelvis." This is great news. This is amazing news. This is the kind of news that we have all been waiting for since this whole trip started. Right?
So why am I not jumping up and down, why was this not the title of the the post? Should have titled the post "AMAZING NEWS!!!" "Why the hell is she writing about rain and cutting down Christmas trees, and sounding all melancholy? Oh my god, is there something else she hasn't told us? Where is the other shoe... I am waiting for it to drop."
That's the thing. There is no other shoe. There is nothing but this good news (well, there is a bit of an issue with the echo-cardiogram, but that's not really a big deal, just a "keep an eye on"). I'll write it out again: there is nothing but good news, this is great news. So why am I not ecstatic, sending word immediately to everyone I know? Why am I not planning a party?
My mother shared the CT scan news with family members last Friday during a round robin of group emailing to figure out a future family gathering. I got mad at her for sharing the news in such a group way, even though it was just with family and close friends. I can see why that might seem ridiculous to most people, getting mad at someone for sharing such good news, especially when I have been so open and so public about my experience with this disease. Part of my anger came from not having had a chance to absorb the news yet myself. And part of my anger was also from the frustration of feeling like the news of the clean scan was being presented without the context of my experience of it, and from my fear that people hearing the "good news" would not understand both how monumental it is and yet how unimportant it is at the same time.
My stepmother is fond of reminding me that this cancer journey is a marathon. So I'll use the metaphor here too. When you run a marathon, do you celebrate the pass of the first mile marker, or the second? The last year has been a waking to my understanding that yes, this is a marathon, a race that will only end when I do. The good news about my ability to beat back the cancer with medicine and attitude and sheer will becomes the bad news that the finish line is further and further away.
Like most everyone who shares this story, including you my audience, I used to think that I could be "finished" with this disease. This is what most people are allowed to do now with early stage breast cancer, doctors allow themselves to speak of "cures" and they are right, statistically correct to do so. With my metastatic, stage 4 cancer I still live in the linguistic, psychological, and medical limbo of "incurable." No matter how clean the scans are. There is no check box for me that says "done with cancer."
The fact is, I know that this is NOT the last CT scan I will ever have, and that I will have them again and again in the years I expect to come. I also know that I will continue to take various meds, keep seeing my doctors, live a good life, whether the cancer ever reappears or not. I will do this and the finish line will stretch further and further away from me. There will never be a celebration for "beating cancer."
Maybe this is why I intuitively inisted from early on that cancer can't be my opponent, my discomfort with visualizing it as a "fight against cancer." The problem for me is that I am going to have to learn how to "live with cancer," because cancer is my companion, the reason for this marathon, and... if I am going to celebrate anything, then it will be in celebrating how long and how well I am running side by side or ahead of cancer.
And believe me, I want to celebrate.
And so I do celebrate. Quite a lot, though in ways that are likely more quiet and persistant than you would imagine. Go back and read the first part of this post, see if you can hear the resonance in there. Maybe it sounded melancholy your first time through. See if you can hear it in my voice here. I am proud to be alive.
I am alive to the world.
I AM struggling at times: through the dissatisfaction of having to figure out how to live with this new body, with the side effects from drugs that give me the best chance of a long life, with recovering physically and mentally and financially from how these last two years have played out.
But despite struggle, because of struggle, I can... be. I don't mind the mistakes I make, or that others make. I can forgive, I can accept, I can get angry, I can get over it, I can begin again, and I can sidestep drama like a kung-fu queen. I can love. I can notice, I can write, I can look my death in the eye. I can be, I can love, and I can laugh. I am alive to the world.
I can ask for my own party and then demand that my friends make speeches. I can sit and be happy to hear the rain. I can accept that there is no one answer, no one "right way," and that there is sometimes, or often, no answer at all to the question "why?"
As a 41 year old mother of three, I can go to the mall and ask Santa for MY turn, and never once tell him that it is my secret way of to keep running in my marathon with cancer. I want to whisper in his ear, but don't, don't want to burden a real man the poignancy I know I will impart. No need for Santa to be crying at the mall. I am content to let him imagine all the banal things he and elves might conjure seeing this young dowager perched on his lap. I am content to keep my counsel, no need to correct assumptions.
But I will take the time to whisper it here: "Thank you Santa for giving me the gift of this year. If I am asking for anything, it is for the chance to see you again next year and hassle you with my kids once more. You stay healthy, and I'll stay healthy, and I'll check in with you next December."
I am content, I appreciate, and I am all the time trying to expand my sense of that, of the goodness that just is in the world.
Tis the Season my loves.
The Christmas tree that was just a "little tree in the field" a week ago-- it really does give off a fresh breath of air in my living room. I can smell it. I breathe deep.