“it’s your broken heart, your broken sternum.”

Today began with a big, giant needle stuck into my belly fat, inserting tiny pellets of hormone blocker that will release over the next few weeks. A needle so big that the doctor who administers it reminds me to close my eyes each time, so I don’t see the needle.

And so I went to yoga. My safe place. My warm place. The place where my body knows just what to do, where everything is familiar, where everything is always the same and that is so comforting. My sternum though, began to tantrum. In small bursts that took my breath away, the pain radiated through my chest bones, bringing me to my knees. We got through the standing series and then my body joined my protesting sternum. My tummy ached. I actually got up and walked out because I thought I was going to throw up. I looked in the mirror and saw the colour drain from my face, my freckles popping out of my pale cheeks like someone splashed paint across my face. But there was no barfing, so I hauled myself back into the hot room. The teacher knew something was up.

When you’re an experienced practitioner, and things aren’t going how you want them to go, it’s more mental than physical almost always. And its OK to sit out of postures. 

I knew she was talking to me. And sit out I did. My belly. My sternum. The tears behind my eyes. What. The. Fuck.

It’s your broken heart….. Your broken sternum. 

As soon as she said it, I knew she was right. As soon as she said it, my body relaxed. No wonder. My broken heart, my broken sternum. No one knows why my sternum radiates pain. Test after scan after test after scan, and we come up with nothing. And just like that, the yoga teacher tells me what’s wrong. It’s your broken heart, your broken sternum. The tears came then, from behind my eyes and from inside my broken heart.

My heart is broken because they have to shoot me up with anti-hormones, and it hurts, and it stops my period, and I miss my period.

My heart is broken because I miss my period, and I miss my period because it meant I was healthy, it meant all was well, it meant I was functioning. It meant I could get pregnant, if I wanted to.

My heart is broken because my babies are in someone else’s body, because the cancer stole my ability to give them the very first thing they needed from their mama: a place to grow big enough to withstand the harshness of the world.

My heart is broken because I sit and listen to my friends tell their cancer stories, and I love them so much that I am overcome with the desire to make it all go away, to wrap my arms around them until it is OK, even though I know it is useless to tell them it’s all going to be alright, even though I know it’s more meaningful to just listen and be together, I still so badly wish I had a magic wand.

My heart is broken for what could have been, for the carefree way I related to my health, pre-cancer.

My heart is broken because my babies are in someone else’s belly, and I miss them more deeply than I could have ever known I could miss someone I’ve never met.

A million reasons, my heart is broken. I am OK, though. One can be OK with a broken heart. A shattered heart, even. And love is like glue, and I’ve got lots of that. One can settle into a broken heart, see the light reflected through the shards, know the world this way, be wise from inside a broken heart. My heart is broken, and my sternum aches, reminding me, again and again, how broken it feels, how badly the centre of me has been burned, how much I need to attend to that trauma, how urgent it is to heal. My heart is broken, and it is reminding me, to peer at the world from this place, from this vantage point, from where I stand. For it’s all I’ve got.

Sometimes doctor’s don’t have the answer. Sometimes yoga teachers do. Sometimes our hearts knew all along. It’s your broken heart…. your broken sternum.” 

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To you, she who was just diagnosed.

To you, she who was just diagnosed.

First of all, I am angry. I am livid you are joining me here. I am pissed off people are telling you to be positive and hopeful. I am astounded they continue to tell you you will be OK, when really, we don’t know if you’re going to be OK and mostly, what you need is for them to acknowledge you’re in the most unstable, unknown, unpredictable, absolutely terrifying land ever.

Second of all, I love you. Sure, we haven’t spoken in years. Maybe we never even really talked much back when we shared the same space. Maybe we were besties. Maybe our lockers were near each other. Maybe we knew someone in common. I don’t care. Somehow we knew each other. Somehow, you reached out. Somehow, we connected. And I know it wasn’t easy, to reach out, to connect, to ask for help and support and love. For that impulse you had, that tiny glimmer of knowledge you had that maybe your harrowing cancer news would be a teeny tiny bit less harrowing if you reached out, for that enormous risk you took in contacting me, I am eternally thankful.  I believe this earth holds a wisdom deep inside, and I think that you accessed our earths’ wisdom when you reached out, and I am glad you did. Glad isn’t even the word. I am heartened. I am hopeful. I cannot imagine you not having connected. We need each other. We do. Badly.

I’ve learned nothing from breast cancer, but from my cancer friends, I have learned we have to stick together. Together with a young adult here and there, I made it through treatment and I’m trying to make it through the aftermath. We lost our hair together, we cried about our fertility together, we lamented being the only young ones, together. Then there were the friends who I met who could relate, because they were diagnosed before me. There was one in particular, and she was steady. She was still vulnerable and she was still pissed off but she was real, she was present and she was able to show me what could be. It was different than getting it because you were losing your hair at the same time. And it was comforting. I hope I can be like that friend who was diagnosed before me, to you who was just diagnosed. I hope I can acknowledge and never diminish the wild fear, the never ending tears, the incredible misunderstanding.

So you, she who was just diagnosed. Barely 48 hours ago, you were diagnosed.

When you messaged me on Facebook, time stopped. Goosebumps rose. Tears filled my eyes, and my blood pulsed with anger. My heart broke in a million pieces. I had an incredible urge to hold you tighter than tight, to never let you go, to keep you safe and warm inside my arms.  All I could do was call.

Your voice was heavy with fear. In each question, each comment, each admission, I heard myself. I heard my own quavering voice, asking about radiation, mastectomy, hair loss, telling family. Each time another part of the story unfolded, I remembered the familiar creases in the fabric, the familiar not knowing, the familiar grasping at anything, something, anything that made sense.

I’m so glad you messaged me.

To you who was just diagnosed, I wanted to tell you. Advocate for yourself. Preserve your fertility. Ask a million questions. Stop googling. Stop google-scholar-ing. Take the ativan they offer. Stop researching. Trust your oncologist. Call the people you know, the ones who you aren’t sure about, but who maybe had something like this. You need a tribe. Don’t be ashamed to text like mad. Call all the time. Stop googling. Hydrate. Stop researching. Hydrate. Trust your oncologist. Ask questions. Reach out to any person who looks youngish. They are your tribe. We are your tribe.

I am so sorry.

People will say crazy things. They will bring you green powders and tell you to be positive. Fuck them.

People will come out of the woodwork. They will bring you dinners and movies. Love them.

Tell whoever you want. Don’t tell the rest.

Hide under the covers. Ignore phone calls. Only eat ice cream. Watch re-runs of the worst TV shows from your childhood.

Wear cowgirl boots, if they make you feel powerful.

Tell. Don’t tell. Tell part. Don’t tell the rest. You get to decide.

Find the colours the are comforting, and build them into your life. For me, it was aqua and warm, knit blankets.

Get a naturopath, if you like. Listen to their advice, sometimes.

Watch a lot of movies. Distract yourself. Distract, distract, distract.

Color. Draw. Make friendships bracelets.

Go to yoga. Lay out of all the postures, because, chemo. Go anyway.

Crawl under the blankets and cry. Demand your doctors tell you something about their lives before you show them your tits.

It’s a decision for you, and only you, the mastectomy or lumpectomy. Trust yourself. Its a decision, only for you.

Reach out. Keep reaching out. You already did it. It’s so important. It’s so hard. Keep doing it.

It’s not positive. It’s not pink. It’s not happy. It’s cancer. You don’t have to be any of those things. Promise. Fuck them.

So to you, she who was just diagnosed. Call me. I’m here. I want to shake you and tell you, I’m here. You’re taking all the space up in my heart and I can’t stop thinking of you, so please call, and please text. Don’t not contact because you think its too much. It’s too much to have breast cancer when you’re this old. It’s too much to be the only young one. It’s too much to consider mastectomy. It’s too much when every single person tells you to be positive and it’s too much when everyone tell you you’ll be fine. It’s too much to wait for more information. It’s all so fucking much, and it’s not too much to call or text. Promise.

To who, she who was just diagnosed. I’m here. All ways, and always.

Love you.

Me.

the language we speak

There is something so profoundly powerful about being in a room four other young adults who have had cancer and two women who really get it, and listening. It’s not just us, listening, either. It feels like all the other young adults who have ever sat in that circle, under those skylights, around beautifully prepared food are listening, too. Listening to the rain pounding on the skylights. Listening to the silence, to the quiet on everyone’s lips, to the way we sit together and wait until someone decides to speak. Tonight I went to the young adult group. I hadn’t been in a few months, because I’ve been teaching. But what a relief it was to go tonight.

We shared stories and sorrows and the way cancer is met by utter mis/understanding by… well, by the world. As there always are, there were tears and tissues and times when I think all of us had to sit on our hands to keep ourselves from reaching out and gathering the other in our arms and holding them and whispering in their ears “It’s all going to be ok.”  The thing is, this is a crowd that is way too in touch with what happens when it isn’t OK, way too aware that its not always OK, way too weary of believing in OK when its so consistently not OK, because cancer isn’t OK and how are you supposed trust there is even an OK during, or after cancer? It’s so interesting because I can know and believe and want things to be OK so profoundly for each of those other young adults. At the same time, I can be so completely unable to know that I will be OK, and also so completely aware that someone telling me it will be OK is so entirely useless. Those words fall on my ears like oil poured into a glass of water. They don’t stick. They simple cannot get inside of me, those words. And maybe that’s why the group is so incredible. No one says “its going to be OK.” They just listen. And then we listen back.

I thought I would write about all the things that we laughed about after all the tears had been shed, about the way we all know the stand-out characters that make the Cancer Agency feel like you’ve tumbled down Alice’s hole into a warped Wonderland, and about how we all avoid hand sanitizer because it reeks of the alcohol swabs that were used to clean our ports pre-chemo. But I won’t. Those stories are ours. They are little treasures we can share, treasures that we don’t have to give away. They are common touchstones, ways to identify camraderie in a world in which we feel otherwise so lost, so alone, so without others. I want to hide those stories, hoard them, protect them, save them. I want a whole jar of them to keep to myself and admire, a whole jar full of silly experiences and weird encounters that are common in this tribe. A whole jar of stories that remind me I am not alone, a whole jar of stories that remind me I’m not the only one, a whole jar of stories that remind me there are lots of others who can grasp these feelings, those worries, this knowing.

When I was a young, my childhood bestie and I had our own secret language. We thought it was amazing, and it really kind of was. Rong-e-bong-e-cong-cong-a a-nong-dong Cong-hong-e-long-song-e-yong. But what was really special about it was that it identified us to each other, it gave us a way to make our very own world, it was a special passport to our own little make-believe world that we ong-spoke into reality, into something all our own.

The stories I want to stuff in my jar and tuck away for safe keeping, the anecdotes and smells and experiences of all those weird characters, the way we all know about that one really weird porter on the fifth floor- it is our language. It is our way of connecting, of showing each other we understand, of being not alone, of knitting reality together from the broken shards of what feels impossible, of world-making in this absurd Cancerland. It is a language, just like Ong was. It is a language, and it is ours. It is such a relief to speak this language, and have it recognized. It is such a relief to hear this language, and identify. It is just a relief that we can share this writing into being, together.

Judith, of course, wrote something about this. And it is brilliant. I find such comfort in her words, just as I find such comfort in the discursive practices of tonights’ young adult group, in our language of being, making, and social existence, in hearing others call, in answering that call, in the social definition of being together as young adults with/out cancer, in the recognition of my existence in each of them, and their existence, in me.

And by Judith, I mean JB folks. Judith Butler.

Language sustains the body not by bringing it into being or feeding it in a literal way; rather. it is by being interpellated with the terms of language that a certain social existence of the body first becomes possible. To understand this, one must imagine an impossible scene, that of a body that has not yet been given social definition, a body that is, strictly speaking, not accessible to us, that nevertheless becomes accessible on the occasion of an address, a call, an interpellation that does not “discover” this body, but constitutes it fundamentally…….. Thus, to be addressed is not merely to be recognized for what one already is, but to have the very term conferred by which the recognition of existence becomes possible…” (Butler, 1997, p.5)

Butler, J. 1997. Excitable speech: A politics of the performative. New York, Routeledge.

Mine Alone

I wish we could sit together, and have a cup of tea, and talk about breast cancer. And feminism, and race, and diaspora, and narrative, and academia, and the world. I think we could talk about all of those things, through the lens of breast cancer. After all, she wrote The Cancer Journals- the first (as far as I know) chronicle of breast cancer that critically interrogates the personal, political, embodied experience of cancer, in a way that only Audre Lorde can. Her work has mattered to me for a long time, since a prof assigned Sister Outsider in a freshman level course I took at Pitzer College, yet her Cancer Journals has struck a chord inside me unlike her other work. I have read and re-read passages, I have asked what treatments she did and thought of copying her, I have spent hours considering my surgery decisions in relation to her beautiful, political, writing about how breast reconstruction is a symptom of greater, uglier social ill surrounding the female body as an object of attraction, about how we need to be able to recognize each other, about how breast reconstruction let’s everyone live in la-la-no-cancer-land. In the context of cancer (but also always in the context of lesbian/black/feminist/mother/poet), she wrote: My silence had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you. But for every real word spoken, for every attempt I had ever made to speak those truths for which I am still seeking, I had made contact with other women while we examined the words to fit a world in which we all believed, bridging our differences. I wonder what she would have made of the world of blogging, of the proliferation of cancer blogs and dedicated cancer twitter chats and facebook announcements. Gosh, we need her. I am angry at breast cancer for taking her. And I am angry that decades ago- decades ago!- before I was even halfway through elementary school,  she called for a cancer revolution, she called for bodies to be dumped on the steps of what matters, she called for organizing— and you know what? It hasn’t happened. Because here I am, twenty two years after her death, and I had breast cancer, and her words still ring true. Not much has changed.

Tonight, I watched a film about part of her life– Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years. We sat together in the Vancity Theatre. I was buzzing, because earlier today we met with our fertility team and surrogate, and it looks like everything is going to move forward with crazy-baby-making involving our embryo in someone else’s body. It was the first time I saw lots of UBC folks since my diss defense, and there were many “Oh, you look so well!” “Oh, your hair is so long and looks so good!” and “So your health is OK, now, right?” comments. I do look well, my hair is (relatively) long, and since I used to have cancer, well, anything looks good in comparison, right? There’s such a fixation, I’m always reminded in these contexts, on my being healthy. There is no space for me to say I’m not healthy. And of course, I am healthy, and that’s awesome. However, I feel always compelled to blurt out, “But with breast cancer, no one can ever know. There’s no way to monitor.” It just feels so pervasively like, you must be ok and if you’re not I can’t hear about it/don’t want to know. Especially this month, in the wildly inappropriate pink celebration, I have to refuse the “but you’re OK now, right?” Because, and if only because, who ever knows? And also, not everyone is OK, and that is especially the case in the more aggressive breast cancers that affect younger people. But mostly, what if I stopped being OK? It’s as though there’s no room for me to qualify my health, and not even the tiniest nod to the insane amount of damage wrecked on my body, mind, and soul. I suppose I’m so bothered because it leaves me no choice to respond but with, “Yes, I’m OK.” Instead, why won’t they just ask how I am? Why can’t they let me answer? I wouldn’t spill my guts to most of these folks anyway, but then they could actually witness my statement that I’m OK (or that I’m not), instead of defining my experience for me and making me wish I could disappear into the ground. This is like human interaction 101: Empathy. Even Brene Brown said so. 

I loved the movie. I was entranced. I was hopeful- listening to this inspiring feminist. I love the way Audre Lorde speaks, the slowness of her words, the carefulness in her speech, the way she uses her eyes to really get right at the heart strings, to produce feeling and wonder and hope in only a few words. What a gift that her words are recorded anywhere. I was in absolute wonder. She is awesome. But then they started down the cancer route. It was like a splinter underneath my fingernail, wiggling around in there. First the doctor on camera said she had survived longer (her breast cancer was metastatic) because she was “special.” Ok look, she was special. But so is everyone else, and I bet she’d be the first to argue that, and then maybe she’d argue for just health care practices (she went to Berlin to access alternative health care). I loved every second she was on screen, but these kinds of moments left a metallic taste in my mouth, the feeling that it just wasn’t represented as carefully as it could have been, the feeling that her cancer words were bruised and misunderstood.

Maybe I’m over-reacting. Maybe I am over-reacting because I over-react with any kind big-screen cancer representation. Maybe it’s still to raw. Maybe not. Maybe I’ll always react. But all I wanted to do was book it, as soon as that screening came to a close, and talk with my cancer-buddies, who I desperately wished I had dragged with me to the screening. And as I drove home, I realized that the kind of profound misunderstanding I felt after the film, as more questions of “But you’re OK, now, right?” peppered the small talk is mine alone. And so in solitude, I drove across the bridge, and it was silent, and it felt right, and the air felt heavy with my thoughts and my anger at cancer having stolen Audre from the world, and my rage that nothing has changed, and my sadness that I can’t have a cup of tea with her.

And then I found myself in Sammy’s arms, and he reminded me that today is a day to celebrate. After all, before I went to the film we talked hospitals and birth weights and ferry rides and midwives with our surrogate over lattes after we all signed endless paperwork at the fertility clinic. It felt good, and we all were giggling with excitement, and I can’t believe it’s actually happening. And it’s pretty freakin’ awesome to figure out how to do something you wanted really bad, especially when you thought it had become impossible. Today, we made real gains on scaling up the side of an im/possible cliff. For months, all I could think of was the cancer killing me. Really. I was certain the cancer would kill me. But my certainty has given way to something else, and now I’m only certain we can have what I thought was impossible. Im/possible. What a hopeful slash.

And so we did. Cookies and tea. About the best kind of celebrating as far as I am concerned. Cheers, we said, because we passed the phsych screening test to proceed with surrogacy. Cheers, because we think we’ve found the right woman to carry our baby. Cheers, because the doctor was hopeful and helpful. Cheers, because we can still fight for what we want, even if its not how we envisioned it, because we want it bad enough to be creative and silly and stubborn in our pursuit. Cheers, even though there is darkness, even though there is sadness. Cheers, because the darkness’ twin is light, and cheers, because they always exist together, balancing and sometimes, producing a grounded hope. Grounded hope.

Mine alone is the feeling of knowing that Audre Lorde film from a white/cancer/feminist perspective. That’s both terrifying- mine, alone?- and liberating- how many multi-faceted, creative, surprising interpretations were there? What would happen if we could all listen to each other reflect on the lifework of this ground-shaking feminist/lesbian/poet/black woman? I wish we could sit with tea, I wish I could listen to her. But instead I have her writing, her texts, her poetry. And you bet I’ll be reading again, soon. And mine alone will be the feeling in the bottom of my stomach, when I feel her stories, when I know the cancer stories from the inside out, when I hear them reflected by my cancer buddies, when I hear my own cancer stories echoing hers, when I wonder why nothing feels like it’s changed, except that now breast cancer is dripping in pink ribbons. Mine, alone. A power to claim, that is, indeed. It is most certainly a way of knowing that is critical, and it is mine.

If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive. – Audre Lorde

the beginning of the cancerversaries

On August 28, 2013, I had an ultrasound. The tech was so unimpressed with the lump that photo (1)she wouldn’t even invite the radiologist in. She did, though go out and speak to him, at which point I snapped this picture. For the next many weeks, I obsessed over this photo. I compared it to photos of cancer, of fibroadenoma, of benign lump in young women with the help of Dr. Google and her cousin, Dr. Google Scholar. I sent it to people who I deemed to have excellent googling skills-you know who you are- and we compared notes.

A few days ago, it was August 28, 2014. The day that marked the one year anniversary of the beginning of this massive mess, the one year point from when this picture took up residence in my phone and in that place in my brain in charge of anxious googling. photo (2)This time, though, it was different. On the 2014 occasion of August 28th, there were no ultrasounds. There was a phone call about a post-doc, and an art-night with a palette full of acrylics. Sammy made boat paintings, I started working again on the famed breast casts, though I left the “nice” one untouched. What a difference 365 days makes, and yet, what not a difference.

Still, images of breasts that bear only a passing relation to what you see underneath a sweater dominate the visuals. Images, and imaginings, of what is inside have morphed from the technological rendition of cells beneath my skin to the artistic rendition that so many have molded together in memory of what once was. Neither the lump in the ultra sound nor the left breast memorialized in the breast cast remain in the world. They are but mere traces.

On the left breast, I glued words from pathology reports, from medical notes, from surgery directions. On the right, I glued lines from random pages of my dissertation, but you bet I chose which lines. And then came the heart. Pumping blood, veins pulsing, over top, even though, in spite of the medical jargon, the hospital terror, the doctors’ reign. It’s not done yet, and neither is this season of cancerverseries. The calendar is filled with cancerversaries between now and the end of the year: the first biopsy, the first lumpectomy, the waiting, the diagnosis, the fertility, the first chemo….

And I, smart woman that I am, timed it so well. In case I should ever forget about cancer, we’re on the cusp of Pinktober, the breast cancer month, and the decorations are already being hung. They won’t let me forget! People are asking about the CIBC Run For The Cure, I am rolling my eyes about the number of breast cancer flags bordering the Cambie Street Bridge, and the bank employees have all donned little pink ribbons next to their name-tags. More on that, soon. For now, I should make some coffee and hunker down with my job letter, and the color-coded excel document of jobs and post-docs and opportunities and to-do lists. Maybe the academic job market will let me forget.

loving kindness, my tenderhearts: before and after

Before I had cancer, I never said things like “loving kindness” and “tender-hearted,” unless, maybe, I was talking about orphaned bottle feeding kittens. I mean I fancy myself a good facilitator, one who opens spaces for young people to participate in social justice initiatives and media programs in risky, empowering, hopeful, terrifying, bold ways— but mostly, I fancy myself the facilitator. I like to be part of- ok, in charge of- moving and shaking initiatives, feminist power-house communities, youth organizers, creative media-makers.  So I might have told my youth to be gentle with each other, to tread carefully around the stories they shared with each other about social justice, to witness each others’ stories and the group process— but I wasn’t really one to get all up in the witness-y/tread gently/tender-hearted discourse around my own experiences of the world. I mean hey, I go to yoga, I eat good food, I bottle feed kittens and write about gender, media, and civic engagement. Isn’t that enough tender-gentle-things? Warm fuzzies all around, too, as long as I’m in charge. Of course, I’d give my speil about my experiences in order to model how I wanted youth to tell their stories with vulnerability, but I kind of thought grown-ups stopped doing that. Like once you out-grew the youth category, the group hugs and silly ice-breakers faded into the distance and were replaced with high-backed chairs and yellow notepads and people working in offices (oh, the horror!).

Enter cancer, at which point I ceased to be in charge of, like, everything, and then I met all these people who kept saying “loving kindness” and “tender this heart and tender that soul” and the like, until eventually I sort of started thinking (not saying, but maybe whispering and definitely writing) those things too. Even though I pretty much felt like I was dying last February, someone pointed me in the direction of Callanish and I went to a young adult cancer group there, and it was tender, and it was loving and it was kind and it was real. And in July, I went to a retreat, and it was also tender, and kind, and loving, and real, and careful, and magical. And today, I worked with the artist there on my breast casts, and it was tender, and kind, and loving, and real. See, I’m writing about loving kindness and tender moments, even if I’d rather hop on a roller coaster and whirl right through them in a blur so colourful and so fast no one would really be sure what was happening, not even me, but soon enough, we’d be on the other side, breathing hard and waving our hands to gesture at that one time, when I had a touch of breast cancer.

But since my fairy godmother apparently forgot to leave me a magic wand to grant myself these kinds of wishes, I’m left instead with an organization that cares, an artist who does work with girls in Nepal on the side and who stocks her art therapy studio with glitter and feathers and acrylics, two breast casts that my dear friends CJ and A made for me when we had the infamous “Goodbye Left Breast Gathering,” and a body that no longer fits into these two breast casts.

I literally no longer fit.

My breast is not that shape anymore. It can’t move and bend and squish into a pre-determined form the way a natural breast can, much less the form that was made from my old breast. Sounds kind of like my life trajectory, doesn’t it? Like pants you discover are too short five minutes before you need to leave for work when you’ve already picked out your top and your shoes and your earrings and they only match the now-too-short-pants. It’s a rushed, shocked, kind of not-fitting, but also the kind that can’t be given too much attention because there is too much else happening, too many other moments exploding and opportunities blinking and desires flashing, and also, you still have to find some other pants to wear because you can’t well go to work in your undies, even if they are sparkly and lacey, and you do have to go to work, because you need to pay the rent and your students need to learn about globalization and you want to go on a fancy vacation, which requires some ahead-of-time work, of course.

You know when it really hits me, this not-fitting, the absurdity of this fake-breast shoved under my pec muscle, albeit shoved skillfully by Dr. Yoga-Surgeon, an artist in her own right?  When I chop garlic. Weird, right? You see, I’m right-handed. So I smash the garlic cloves, with my right hand on the butt of the knife, and my left hand pressing down sideways on the sharp part, and the garlic peel curling off the clove underneath the side of the knife, and the smell erupting from underneath the knife and the kind of sticky garlic residue leaking onto my left hand. To do all that, I kind of lean into my left pec, and my hips press into the counter, and I’m sort of on my tippy-toes. And the breast imposter, what does it have to say about smashing garlic? It sears. It aches. It screams, “this is not how it is supposed to be.” The muscle is angry to be separated from my ribs, and yanks the whole boob-expander up my chest each time I crush a garlic clove, in what would be the weirdest “I can move my boobs on command” party trick ever.

So here I found myself, with the Art Therapist Who Presides Over Feathers and Sand and Acrylics, and the breast casts that seem frozen in a moment in time that is so wildly distant, a moment in time I so achingly want to inhabit. I painted the first one, the one we made as a practice, white. I know, I know. White. It’s the same color as the breast cast. Would you even know I painted it? Who cares if you know? It’s for me, anyway. And I added some silver and some blue, and more white. Inside, outside, white. Touch of silver. Maybe there was a touch of cancer underneath. I’m pretty sure the Art Therapist Who Presides Over Feathers and Sand and Acrylics doesn’t care if they’re white or plain or ugly or offensive, so why should you? I want to cut up the words from all the medical files, and stuff them inside of the breast as it was, plaster them on the breast pathologized and ruined, the breast that kept the cancer inside, and I want to splatter paint it with the pints of blood they drew from my poor veins, I want to trace the violence they enacted on my body on the faint lines of paper mache that tell the story of CJ and A, molding the breasts casts while everyone I love in Vancouver looked on.

It’s a tender evening. It’s a night we cooked together because we couldn’t bear to be far apart, and we smashed garlic for the arrabiata sauce, and we poured wine and bottle fed kittens and snuggled on the pink shaggy carpet in our living room. There is no roller coaster for me to hop on and make curlycues with instead of making my careful way through the cancer evidence, the breast casts and the fake boob, the scars and the friendships, the nausea and the memories. So maybe there is such a thing as loving kindness. They say there is. Maybe it’s like cuddling on the shag carpet and bottle feeding kittens and watching movies. Maybe grownups can still have group hugs and blue elaphants to sleep Maybe it’s like feeling tender and open and taking a bath and reading a novel (gasp!) instead of hacking away at the job letter. Maybe it’s just letting things be how they are. Maybe it’s just playing the ukelele with Sammy until the moonlight streams through the window.

Maybe.

we need each other: tiliches, cheese graters, lumpectomies

The hospital jerked around my lumpectomy surgery a thousand times, and they made me feel like a tiliche. A tiliche is, in Spanish, a little rag, one that can be jerked around and that flops in the wind. When I hear the word tiliche, I imagine a red rag tied to a stick, a red rag being whipped around in the wind without any control. First it was next week, then last week, then this week. Thursday then Wednesday then today, back to Wednesday. Tiliche indeed.

You see, I have a benign lump (so they say) in the healthy breast. We’ve known it was there for a while now. On mammogram, ultrasound, and biopsy, it shows as benign. You know what else showed as benign on mammogram, ultrasound, and biopsy? My cancerous breast lump. So I don’t exactly have a whole lot of faith in the medical establishments’ ability to diagnose breast cancer. That’s why I’m having a lumpectomy, tomorrow, to take this lump out and make sure it’s benign. I’m a tiliche in the wind and I don’t have much trust that they know how to find a breast cancer lump in my body.

Each time the wind whips in a new direction, I have to scramble. Carefully laid plans with the best wire-insertion buddies (a totally inhumane procedure in which they insert a wire into the lump so the surgeon can find it) and people to pick me up and snacks for after are blown astray. They have to be reassembled, because if you don’t bring someone to pick you up in the middle of the day on some random weekday that keeps changing, they’ll cancel your surgery and then reschedule it probably seventeen more times. So at each cancellation, you have to figure out who can bring you, who can sit with you, who can pick you up.

This is one of the worst parts of cancer, one of the parts that rips the dignity associated with being able to take care of oneself right out of your hands, one that dangles your independence just out of reach and laughs when you realize you’ll never quite trust your easy independence as you did before. And so I was worried.

One friend- the best local friend- could do the original date but not the changed date, and then not the changed the second time date even though it was back to the original because it was at the last second. Another friend was missing that and needing to do this. Each time you have to ask, it feels a little more like a cheese grater running across your elbows, and you know you are a little bit more and more like that red tiliche flapping in the wind, hoping someone will catch you and ground you but not really sure anyone will. So we got it all set up for the second date, with Sammy dropping me off then heading to work, another buddy hanging around, and my mentor picking me up. And then the date changed with less than twenty four hours to the new surgery date: tomorrow.

Tiliche. Again. That day X doesn’t have a car, Y has a meeting, Z can try and move stuff around…. everyone wants to help, but the metaphorical cheese grater is still rubbing along my elbows, and only mine. And truly, I hate asking. It’s exhausting. It’s annoying. It’s not me. It’s risky, because people can and sometimes have to say no. I’m the only one who’s deck of playing cards doesn’t include no, the only one, who, when asked “Can we reschedule your surgery for tomorrow, be here at 6:30 am?” can only really answer, “Yes, doctor. I’ll be there,” though I’m thinking “But I have no idea how.”

But it worked. Sam is dropping me off. A cancer buddy is dropping by to crack bad jokes while we wait. A friend who called to say hi today asked if it would be helpful for her to swing by and see me while I wait in the morning. I said yes. And yoga J is picking me up. It takes a freaking village to have cancer, and it requires an ever-expanding village, because people in the village get tired. The person at the center of the village gets tired, too, but the cancer treadmill doesn’t stop, it just slows when “has cancer” morphs into “had cancer.”

So I’m grateful for the village, the one that is always expanding with new twitter buddies and friends to share wigs with, and the one I’ve had since before cancer, and all of them that make sure everything works out, even when asking for help feels like elbows on a cheese grater, even when needing to depend on someone feels like a tiliche in the whipping wind. Next time I know someone who has cancer, I’m going to make sure to check in with them about pick-ups and appointment buddies. Oh wait, I know tons of people with cancer. I’m going to text them just as soon as the pain meds wear off and I’m allowed to drive again.

Tiliches, cheese graters, community. We need each other. Tonight, I am grateful.