Walking the One Year Plank

Waiting for the results of my first mammogram post treatment.  Why are the taking so long?  The longest 20 minutes of my life.  Tears streaming quietly over my face, as I remember the last time I was in that room, when the discovered my cancer, the last time that they squeezed my breast into the imaging machine.  How the impossible had become possible, how life could turn without warning or notice, on it’s head, how the ceremony of being mortally wounded began.

Sitting here, in the space of not knowing how the story will evolve and also not knowing how I will hold the story that will evolve.  Hoping for something bigger than the desperate prayer that I will be “okay”, that the scan may be clean.  Hoping for an opening to say YES to whatever appears on the trail for me next, surrendering my judgment of what it may mean.  Can I entertain the possibility that everything I need to heal forward, to evolve, to live out my destiny, is right here, presented to  me – alive in the good or the bad news that the doctor may bring?  And to exercise what they call “the last of the human freedoms”, the freedom to interact with whatever is on my path, in my unique way, to weave it into the healing that I am more deeply committed to than anything else in my life now.

And yet, here I sit, in agony, facing the terror of possibly more medical intervention and the nightmare of cancer recurrence, feeling the sharp pain of my own ego survival instincts, suffering my humanness.

Then the door opens, and the technician returns, with a “release” paper.  All looked normal, she said, almost taken aback by my catatonic expression.  It takes me a few minutes to let it in, to allow it, to feel it enter my being, my body jumping up and hugging her first, unbeknownst to me, then my mind, reading again and again the two words on the paper in the doctor’s handwriting “Looks great!”.  That’s it?  I say.  That’s it, the technician says.

As I leave the hallway, I see another woman, gown on, moving with distraught body posture, between the bathroom and one of the examination rooms.  Is she okay?  Someone today, will sit in the same chair as I sat in last year and hear their worst fear come true, that there is an area that looks suspicious….  Who am I  to be healthy?

I walk outside into the waiting area where my man sits in the companion version of the land with no name, that I have just left behind, the in between, the waiting, being suspended mid-air.  WE ARE OKAY, I say to him, WE ARE ACTUALLY OKAY!  And we hold each other in our moment of glory, lost now, in the relief of this new territory, not quite knowing where to turn next.  I take a picture with my release paper in front of my chest, much like a prisoner with her number, only that my paper sets me free, to cross the threshold of the building that I entered a year ago, and that like bookends has spanned the journey of this past year through the seasons of my treatment.

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Now what?  Only in the weeks to follow, do I realize that there is an aspect of incorporation here, that I was unprepared for.  In many ways I still am in treatment and yes, still on Tamaxofin.  But something is concluded with that first clean scan, and I find myself now in new territory yet again.  Getting a clean bill of health has me question what it means for me to be “normal”.

What is my new normal? Is it still okay to take time for myself, for my healing practices, for qi gong, yoga, medicine walks, writing, voice recordings, support groups and the like?  Even if I am healthy now?   What is health?  In many ways true healing has only just begun.  What is this new life asking of me now?

July 2012

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Mountain Lion Medicine

Personally, I have no idea how I would have made it through cancer treatment if it wasn’t for my relationship with the vision fast ceremony.  Throughout 9 months of various cancer therapies, I went for walks in an open space preserve just 15 minutes from my home.  Here, under old growth oak trees, I would go for what I call ‘medicine walks’ whenever I was able.  Basically, these walks are like ‘mini walk-abouts’, time out on the land, to look into the mirror of nature, reflecting back one’s inner truth, finding oneself, one’s voice and unique way.  I used them to explore some difficult questions about treatment decisions, to let go and ‘bury’ old patterns that stood in the way of my healing or simply to listen to the fast flowing river of what was moving inside me at any given time.  It struck me how readily available the spirit world was to me during that time, as if my body and mind were just ripe to take the depth and the grief onto the land, knowing that it would hold whatever I could not.

My first walk of this kind on my cancer journey was on the day before my surgery.  Just after marking my threshold, I came upon a woman runner, waving her hands up high in the air, gesturing ‘no, no’, telling me to turn back.  It turns out she had seen a big mountain lion right on the trail.  Well, wouldn’t you know it, deeply ingrained in my psyche from some scary almost encounters with them, I had a deeply rooted fear of mountain lions.  There I was, at the crossroads, do I give into the fear and abolish my walk?  Not an option!  As the other park visitors, who were alerted by the same woman, all headed back down toward the safety of their cars, I headed up the trail, now armed with a stick in each of my hands.

It seemed admittedly ironic that just a few minutes before I was worried to die an untimely death because of breast cancer.  And here I was now, my knees shaking, my pounding heart intently listening for every leaf rustle, clutching fiercely to what felt like terribly insufficient defense weapons while inching up the trail,  afraid I wouldn’t survive this very day, this very walk – what a change in perspective!

At the top of the park, crossing a patch of dark forest, I came to realize that there was truly no way for me to get off the trail.  Death was on my path.  One day, near or far, it would find me.  Masked as a predator, a disease, or an accident it would claim me.  Right then, when I allowed the unthinkable, instead of trying to protect myself from it, or find a way out of it, warm relief washed over my body.  I didn’t have to do anything or become anyone else.  “All” I had to do was surrender, surrender my fear and giving up any illusion of control that I thought I may have had over my life.  It was as simple as it was profound.  If I could die to my fear, I didn’t have to die from it.  I was ready.  Tossing away my sticks I came back down the mountain singing – and ready for the surgery that was awaiting me the very next day.

Don’t get me wrong.  Cancer is a hard disease and given the choice I’d never sign up for it.  And yet it gave me the gift of transforming the parts of my life that had been out of alignment for a long, long time.  Sometimes, I jokingly say:  ‘cancer has saved my life’ and there is truth to that.  What I have lost is the illusion of control over my life, of taking my body or my mind or any other part of my being for granted.  What I have lost is the illusion of impermanence.  What I was given instead is the understanding that the only thing that will remain long after I’m gone is the healing that I have brought home during my life.  Grounded in the practice of my living and my dying, I am now blessed to live this precious life forward with no guarantees, and on the edge of my seat.

I still walk up and down the park trails and I have yet to see the lion.  Nonetheless, I know it’s there, maybe minding his or her own business, maybe staring at me from the dark thicket along the winding path.   Most days I’m glad that he or she is here, helping me remember, and helping me continue to surrender.

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July, 2011

Today

Today

The road ahead is wide and open.

Wild flowers are dancing with the wind across the meadow.

Tiny birds sing beauty’s song, blessings all beings,

Seen and unseen, heard and unheard.

Today I choose to be alive.

Tomorrow never comes.

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Edgewood Open Space Preserve, Summer of 2011