Solo Tahoe Hike. Bucket List. File Under “Not Dead Yet.”

I’ve always wanted to hike the Lake Tahoe mountain range.  It’s been a dream of mine to hike the Tahoe Rim Trail. According to the link, it’s considered one of the most scenic hikes in the world, and I can see why. Starting from the Tahoe Meadows Trailhead, the valley views are incredible.

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Altitude: 8, 740 feet.

I went alone. I was a little nervous – not about safety, but more about my health. I’ve had a large number of lymph nodes removed due to cancer metastases, and one of the side effects of this (not mentioned in the “happy pink” and “you’re a survivor” positivity ticker tape) is the lifelong risk of permanent arm swelling, cellulitis, risk of cuts, bites, and possibly permanent manual massage and pumping and physical therapy that comes with lymphedema. After my breast cancer surgery, the list of “things to avoid to prevent lymphedema” included: high altitudes, vigorous exercise, pet scratches, dehydration, weight lifting, vigorous and regular movement of the right arm, saunas and hot tubs, and so on. The list was a devastating litany of losses.

The physical therapist told me, “You might want to think of getting rid of your cat. Also, avoid air travel.” More than the cancer, I felt like my life had been taken away. How much more of my body would be carved, how much more to lose? I went home and wept. I hated it all – the cancer, the lost tissue, the loss of activities I loved. Life.

But, as we must do to continue living, I regrouped. Such gratitude to my support group, to include online ladies, a hallelujah chorus of friends, family, writing group, community, my husband and daughter and wonderful colleagues. This pool of support buoyed me, kept me grounded, prompted (and prompts) me to get back out and live.

And so this hike, 6 miles in high thin air, was more than walking. It was a kind of milestone, a kind of fuck you to the limitations of this disease. It’s not the 10 miler I’d hoped, or the full 15-day outback trek I’d dreamed of, but it’s a start. A small victory.

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And afterwards?

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The best, sauciest, crab cakes EVER. With wine and a sweet lake breeze.

Cheers.

 

Bodega Bay, CA

We love the sea.

My husband, daughter and I spent a few days at the coast just getting quiet, reading, drinking coffee, walking and listening. The landscape, it is not especially glamorous or light-filled, but we like it that way. I like the quiet serenity of it.

 

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The subtlety of the colors and layers reminds me to look more deeply.

Not everything has to be bright, or vivid. Not everything needs to move.

And yet it does.

 

 

Rainer Maria Rilke Teaches Me About Cancer

I’m reading a superb biography called “A Ringing Glass: The Life of Rainer Maria Rilke,” by Donald Prater and from it I am gathering material and ideas for how to live with breast cancer.

Sometimes poetry and literature are the best forms of bibliotherapy. Bear with me.

For starters, here’s the second stanza from one of Rilke’s poems from his “Sonnets to Orpheus” (II, 13) series:

Be always dead in Eurydice – climb, with more singing,

climb with praising, back to the pure relation.

Here, in the failing place, in the exhausted realm,

be a ringing glass that shatters as it rings.

Background (scroll down to skip): Rilke wrote this entire sonnet – the entire, magnificent series of sonnets – to Orpheus, the mythical Greek lyre player who has gone to the underworld (Hades) to get his beloved Eurydice back. On Orpheus’ and Eurydice’s wedding day, Eurydice was bit by a snake and died suddenly. Orpheus was heartbroken, and was given the chance to earn her return to  life.  In an agreement with both Hades and Persephone, the god and queen of the Underworld,  Orpheus leads Eurydice back through the dark, arteried maze of death, but must promise not to look back, must promise to trust that Eurydice follows behind him as he makes his way back to Earth. Sadly, he fails. His doubts bedevil him, and just before re-entering the light of terra firma, he turns and looks, but his last vision is of her fading back into darkness. It is a tragedy that tears Orpheus apart with grief.  Orpheus’ lyre remains a constellation in the sky called “Lyra.”

What could this mean?

We, cancer patients and survivors, are in “the exhausted realm.” We’re not dead – of course not – but a part of us has died: our illusion of ongoing health, an old life that has changed, a loss of innocence, a sense of ongoingness. I feel that to heal completely, this grief must be felt, acknowledged, allowed to appear fully in the body and mind, and then let go.

It is this feeling and letting go that is the challenge, no? To trust in it. Thankfully we are not bound to an oath like Orpheus, but faith in a new life, a new outcome, or some future hope comes with the painful price of a broken past. It is a pendulum of dark and light. An offering of night, an opening called “Day.” Rilke, in his wisdom, did not recommend an illumination or mirror; rather his word is a gift of transparency, one to break: “glass.”

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And in breaking, in shattering, he tells me, be the full-throated voice of grief singing.

He ends the poem like this:

 

Be – and know at that time the state of non-being,

the infinite ground of our deepest vibration,

so that you may wholly complete it this one time.

In both the used-up, and the hollow and dumb

 

recourse of all nature, the un-tellable sum,

joyfully count yourself one, and destroy the number.

I feel myself wanting to be in the process of climbing, like Orpheus, back to the “pure relation” of family, daily life without the dark blanket of mortality clouding it. I want to sing praise songs to my doctors, medicine, coffee. I want, like Rilke tells Orpheus, to be “the infinite ground of our deepest vibration” in order to complete the full circuit of grief and healing.

And to count myself, and you, sister or brother survivor, “one” and to wipe out all comparisons, all statistics, all outcomes, percentages, prognoses, doses, stages and grades, milligrams and pounds, cycles, infusions, lab work, blood counts, tumor markers, weights, scans, needles,

o joyous day

and forever destroy the number.

Love out.

“Who can become lost in a narrative,

     if all he can think of is the end?” 

– Mark Doty, “Lament-Heaven”

And so, with cancer comes the question: What is the new narrative of my life?

And others:

How long do I have left?

What is my treatment plan?

Logistics: Do I continue to save? Plan a world trip? Get rid of my old stuff?

Planning, the economic and spiritual foundation of modern American self-efficacy, is the Harley-Cancer-Davidson motorcycle driver that breaks you off, sidecar sidekick, and leaves you in the little rig by the side of the road while he takes off down the two-lane highway of certainty. Putt putt, sputter. Stop.

And here you are, ditched and detached in the Death Valley of all deserts, left to contemplate your options. It’s quiet all right. And there’s no driver for miles. What to do, what to do?

I struggle with this. If we continue the metaphor, with Death Valley and the unmoored, detached passenger, bewildered and shocked at the side of the road, I’m still sitting. Two years later and I’m still sitting, still scratching my head, looking at the map and trying to figure out how to get back home. Do you know what I mean?

It’s kind of tragic. It’s also, at times, patently absurd. And funny. I mean: no hair! And what’s a lopsided gal to do when running? Plenty of room to contemplate.

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Many other survivors and friends have come past, offered advice, suggested lovely and some-odd things, and pointed out alternate routes. But I can’t go back. I can’t go back to the home of the Old Body, the Old Life. The new is here. And I’m still working out how to navigate life, work, the process of living with chronic disease. I want to rush it. I want to “make it work,” learn from it, deal, manage, fix – do all the productivity-oriented activities my previous and old life would have deemed necessary in order to overcome any personal obstacle. And in focusing on the corrections and fixes, I wonder if I’m losing some kind of view.

That is, just being, living, fully taking in the transition. The road. The sidecar mishap-tragedy that, like Emily Dickinson, tells it slant. Because even in this, there is a narrative. There is story, there is process, there is some nugget of love and living that wants to find a way.

Here now, it seems to tell me. Look at your body, the earth, even the rocks at the edges. Sit awhile longer and take it all in.

No more need to rush. For now, no need for fear.

 

Results, Pending

The CT scan showed that the tumor is shrinking. It’s gone down by about 1 cm.

This should be good news, and it is, but the rise of the celebratory music is dampered by the ongoing knowledge of cancer’s continued presence. I am talking about a lack of trust, a lack of belief in the body’s full capabilities. This lack is not pessimism, but rather the realization that this body can and has betrayed me. Faith in a long future is a vertebrae that’s been removed. One slight hunch is now always impacting movement, tilting each tentative step. It’s a little harder to look up.

“Continue the treatment until it shrinks further.” Then surgery, then recovery.

Then wait.

My old life feels like a harbor from which I drift further away each day.

I do not want to sound sad. There is always coffee, or sunlight.

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A friend or a flower.

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A note or a text message, laughter, friendship, good books, food, family, naps. You, they, these things:

  • are all the antidote.
  • are all I need.

And the truth is? We are always pending, are always, like the pendulum,

asway.

 

 

 

You Are a Charged, Lit Bulb: Waiting for the SCAN

It’s coming.

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It’s the CT, PET, or MRI. The acronyms don’t matter as much as the fear, because what if? What if there’s a blip, a lighting up, a growth, a recurrence, an expansion, a concern? And what if there isn’t? What then?

(“Clear,” calls the Emergency Medical Technician before shocking the heart.)

Cancer is an abusive lover. I’ve learned not to celebrate too much when things go well, because the trust in a long-term, healthy future is gone. Even if the scans show nothing, trust in the world has failed. The sure sense in an ongoing future has failed. Planning a year or five years ahead with certainty? Failed. This “lover” – cancer – is always lurking, its revenge always a possibility. It hides its power, it lures you into comfort. It charms you back into living. It leads you back into your body, the ease of each day’s choreographies: movements through the front door, work, friends, gestures here and there, family, food.

Oh hello, hair, hello travel plans — let us begin again. Let us pretend with the ease of the healthy-bodied living that we are ever ongoing, that we will not, in our careful financial records and remodeling plans, ever perish. Tahiti? Paris? A mani-pedi scheduled for Friday. Oh, and the workout.

Scans jolt me out of this trance. There is the word we are all trying so hard to avoid: death. Dying. A finite closure, that the body and mind and this life as we know it will end. Will.

And so, I have a scan today. A CT scan to see if this current treatment of Xeloda and Taxotere are working to shrink this recurrence. If the tumor has shrunk, we continue, proceed with later surgery, and keep cancer at bay for awhile longer. I’ll take it.

If it’s not working, then we don’t know. Clinical trials, hope for the best.

Filaments, fibers, fears.

“Zero at the Bone”*

I am searching for the language to describe the feeling of a future being gone.

The ways in which cancer robs words, robs next week, next month, next year. Robs plan-making, robs a body of potentials.

This is not the time to be positive.

Allow for grief, allow for anger.

Is it thievery? Theft? Or slicing? A person could imagine meat now. A dog running into an old-time butchery, stealing the prize steak. The butcher himself holding the meat cleaver high, white apron bloody, yelling, chasing the dog into the alleyway. Future lost profit.

Not a rug swept away. An entire floor.

Birds here for the season.

The abrupt “off” of a heat-relieving fan.

Such quiet.

In bed, all imaginings ending with “no.” Remaining awake.

When listening to clocks, counting.

Music in the entryway and briefly the scent of perfume—

hollered greetings hill to hill,

strangers.

 

What strangling might mean if a throat was held by air.

Absence.

Remaining awake to think of it

 

*Link to the Emily Dickinson poem from which this title is taken.

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