1 - Prologue
Clear Cut: One Woman's Journey of Life in the Body
My body starts heaving. Exhaustion encases everything I do, even washing the kids' cereal bowls. It feels as though layers of thick gauze have wrapped themselves around the faces of my three children. A hardened grayness taking over the spaces between everything. Sealing the tissue between my ribs. Filling in the distance between the kitchen window and the soccer ball in the backyard.* * *
One doctor thinks I am still caught in the fist of the mononucleosis I contracted in college; another tells me that giving birth to three children is enough to swell anyone's glands and break open these rivers of mucous. Infection after infection keeps me from my kids' tennis matches and class trips to Canyonlands in Utah. The fatigue gathers in my chest, leaving my arms heavy and my fingers numb. Daily headaches send me back to bed after breakfast. The words "chronic illness" move into my house, wandering the rooms, trying to steal parts of my body.
My thin, bare feet slide down the hall to wake up the children for school.
I have no idea what is happening.
My four brothers and I grow up in Perrysburg, a small town on the Maumee River just outside of Toledo, Ohio. Surrounded by cornfields, Perrysburg rests on swampland that was filled with snakes, wolves, wildcats, biting flies, and mosquitoes until farmers drained it and turned it into rich farmland. This small town spreads itself in coils along the Maumee. The river sucks off my sandals and pulls me in circles as I float on an old tire over its dark amber surface. The town has train tracks, small grocery stores, alleys, old dried quarries, and a rusted cannon commemorating the battle at Fort Meigs in 1813. On each suburban block stand green-trimmed houses that match my party shoes, the backyards guarded by huge Dutch Elms. We enjoy weekend rib barbeques with the Smiths and the Balls and the Giffords with their kids, Sallie and Margaret and Libby, Chuck, and Whitney. On hot, humid nights, the smell of dead reeds rises from the river.
As a child I feel strangely disembodied. I become obsessed with the natural world and thoughts of the sea. Time seems to have huge gaps like the spaces between my fingers when I raise my hands to my face. I learn the names of trees—the ash, the mulberry, the buckeye—and they become my trees, as I attempt to make the neighborhood my own.
On Saturdays, I wear my zip-up red sweatshirt and tightrope-walk the railroad track along Front Street. I travel the distance of my imagination, taking my mind to white beaches in the Caribbean, to parrot fish with eyes the size of marbles. My legs are as thin as milkweeds. Mr. Dupree, my third-grade science teacher, lets me complete my final project outside barefoot, because he knows I love the earth.
Through the years, my body is something I carry with me. I fall to illness easily: ear infections, colds, flu, strep throat. Yet, every summer at our cabin, I find my toes on Cricket Island in the North Channel of Ontario. I fall in love with the birch trees and the slender canoes. After a cold swim to the point of Dawson, my body unfolds on the warmed flat rocks of the Canadian Shield. From my pinewood bed, the knotholes in the uninsulated cabin walls are portals into a landscape lined with spruce, pine, and oak—a channel deep enough for big, oared ships, a wooden swimming raft waiting for me to jump. I know I am lucky to sit at a table and eat fresh blueberry muffins, to sleep under a thick wool blanket and watch the sun rise out of the collar of Stobie Creek. Here my body finds itself.
* * *
The day I see Roger, he is wearing torn blue jeans with a handmade, black-and-gray wool satchel slung over his chest. This man is my future, I say to myself. We pledge to heal each other of every wound.
Above my college door hangs a piece of cardboard that notes in black magic marker the wisdom of Apollo—"Know thyself"—just like the one above Carl Jung's door. I graduate with a degree in psychology and find a future as a psychotherapist. I am not afraid of the broken parts of other people. I explore dreams and the mysterious art of interpretation as a way of guiding others into their own interiors.
Roger and I drive in search of a new home, a place free enough for our eighty-pound Komondor dog, Tai, and a home in which to raise children. We stake our claim in Boulder, Colorado, cinched against the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Eleven months after our wedding—on Monday, December 27th, 1978—I give birth to my son Taylor. Somehow I know my entire twenty-five years of life has been pitched for this. Taylor tacks toward the tide of my voice; his tiny hand folds into mine. Twenty months later, Cameron is born. Six years later, comes Brooke.
* * *
We take the children to Disney World for vacation. As I lie at night in the hotel where thousands of other parents have slept I feel so exhausted it's as if a cinder block is sitting on my chest. I know something is wrong.
Three weeks later, I find I have cancer. From this moment, everything changes. I start to forego parts of my body and my children take baths with a one-breasted mother. I lose my dignity and my appetite. I shake so hard at night that I escape to the bathroom and fall asleep curled on my left side on the white wool carpet. Brooke starts to make angels out of Kleenex, folding two triangles into wings, and plays hospital with her sick dolls. My body becomes the stranger at the door, someone I have to take care of and feed, but who is not me. My body starts to live outside of me.
I endure chemotherapy, and try to continue to see clients, to focus on the sorrow of others. I greet everyone at the door with the extra pep required to make cancer into my teacher. My work is a relief from the monotony of chugging vitamins and fresh vegetable juices. I rely on kindness. Before she dies, my friend Treya tells me that chemo is a soul killer. An average day is when a baked potato with sour cream staves off the nausea; a bad day is when my feet feel like someone poured hot liquid mercury over them; a good day is when I have the energy to brush Cameron's hair.
A year and a half after finding the lump, I leave for Assisi, Italy. I want to follow in the footsteps of St. Francis. My toes cling to his rope sandals. I want to know how to walk with scars.
I meet Italians who love to sit in the piazzas and tell stories about their mothers' cooking. I am trying to practice living, to rely on a body to recover what it is losing. But I lose faith in small things. On a day outing to Gubbio, the battery in my watch dies and I have no idea where to get a new one.
On the journey from Assisi to Florence, vertigo flings me to the floor of the train. My right ear tortures me with a loud ringing. I see the mouths of the passengers above me and they seem like cartoons. I can't hear a word. The train windows grow larger and the landscape beyond flips over so that the tops of trees seem to fall into my mouth.
I am diagnosed with Ménière's disease, a condition that joins me with my mother and grandmother, who both suffered the symptoms of hearing loss and ear-ringing for years, although neither experienced such violent vertigo. The attacks come when I least expect them: at the movies, in the car driving home from Taylor's class play, while I am in my closet hanging up my dress.
Our family life reorganizes around Sick Mommy—one has an attack and can't move her head, not even an inch; who vomits for nine solid hours. I become Unpredictable Mommy, who can't remember if she sent the check for soccer league. I become Sad Mommy, who cries when she can't find her blue ballet-style shoes. I become Absent Mommy: Taylor makes the winning three-point shot without me. I fall asleep without being present to sense relaxation come over me. Roger cups his sensitive hands on the back of my skull to help let the light in. Neither one of us knows what to do.
* * *
Two years later, the surgeon drills a half-dollar-sized hole in my skull behind my ear to thread a tiny valve into my inner ear. For eight weeks, I sleep sitting upright so the valve won't dislodge. I cheat and slide down the pillows stacked like giant marshmallows. Eventually, my bedroom stops revolving or turning upside down and I can drive the children to the Spring Fair. Eventually, I can lean over and tie my tennis shoes without being afraid of falling over.
But it does not end. Three years after this, I start having drop attacks. The floor slams into me so fast it feels as though a bullet has blasted into my head. Terrified, I crawl on my hands and knees to the kitchen. This time, they inject toxic drugs into my inner ear and I lose my balance on the right side. I lose my hearing on the right side. I lose my temper on the right side. Everything—the hall, the sink, the legs of my desk—goes sideways. I have to learn to walk again.
A year later, friends help me climb Huayna Picchu, the mountain facing Machu Picchu, and I fall in love with Peru's textures and shapes, rivers and mountains, and its people. I am able to raft the Grand Canyon. I am able to swim in the North Channel and canoe at night.
I return to school and get an MFA in poetry. I stay up late and study the language of Blake, Dickinson, and Emerson. These poets mess up the bed with their tossing and turning. Everyone's voice is thoroughly loud and brilliantly clear.
Brooke, now sixteen, and Cameron, twenty-two, both have a deep sensitivity to the HIV epidemic in Africa. My friend Charles, who is a doctor, and his wife Torkin invite us to come to Uganda to work in a refugee camp and visit orphanages. I begin to study the face of suffering. How is it possible for so many of these women to still have some light in their eyes while telling me how the rebel army stole their sons right out of their arms? This is when I learn that taking suffering personally is an act of violence. Toward myself. This is when I stop thinking of my cancer, as if I own this thing. Like my purse or my dress.
I have the privilege to travel big distances: Morocco, Tasmania, Malta, Elba, Peru, and Africa again. I want to walk the landscapes of a life and see how loss is measured. I yearn to meet people exactly where they are: on the cold earth in a hut in the Andes, on the dry red soil of an African house made of old tin scraps. I take dozens of pairs of eyeglasses. I want to give them parts of their body back. The old village shaman can now read his cherished text on plant medicine, which his father gave him.
* * *
Boulder starts feeling like a place to have mammograms. I get my six-month checkup with my oncologist, receive acupuncture. Vigilance becomes my death eater.
Seventeen years after my first biopsy, the doctor calls to tell me the white calcifications on my mammogram are starting to look like a constellation. Another biopsy. The left side. The doctor nets one. That's all we need, he says. Another body part goes. My left breast.
This time I stay with the rest of my body, coach it through the fear of anesthesia. Just like the crab apple tree by the front door, I seem to know what it is to have a harvest, then drop all my leaves. The dead have passed through me and I am still alive. This time they catch the cancer before it infiltrates. This time I know how to touch my own chest.
Roger moves to California and our hearts sink. Our marriage formed when we were so young; our differences become an abyss of unhappiness. I break from grief. I replay thousands of hours of conversation: in the studio, in the hot tub, at the basketball game, late at night in bed. I hear the way his voice rises at the end of each sentence, waiting for me to join. Thirty years of space and word uncoupling.
This time in my recovery bed I try to say goodbye to a body I grew up with. To a man I made love with. To three children I raised and who are now gone from home. I put myself to bed at night.
How do I come toward myself? What does it mean to eat alone at the head of the old farmhouse table we bought in Santa Fe? A friend asks if this is like eating with ghosts. I tell her I think ghosts are living in the space between where my breasts were. The empty chairs and beds.
A year later there are more medical tests. There are my father's bad genes and my bad genes. Another body part needs to go. My ovaries.
This time I say goodbye alone.
* * *
In the quiet of my home I start to mark the lost and found. I look in the deep and dark places inside and outside my body. Below the cavity of my absent breasts are thousands of other breast-less women. In the hole of flesh on my right thigh where a bad mole was rooted out I find my friend Cindy's husband, who died of melanoma. I find my grandmother in my right ear, my father in my leg, Dr. Smith's hand in my own palm. I start to tag parts, whether mine or those of others. I use little yellow stickies and start to ask questions. How does hair speak, exactly? Is each strand a letter that when combed together makes a story? Do absent breasts speak to chest walls? Does my inner ear talk to my brain to keep me upright? Does my father's cancerous leg still have a place in the world? Does the human heart time its beat to loss?
I lay out my right breast, hair, hand, left breast, my father's leg and my leg, my vagina, my right ear, heart and ovaries. I bow to each of them and begin. I pledge to make them feel beautiful.
I pledge to them I will be true.
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