lessons on life and death from a wood mouse

My clothes smell like campfire. As my marshmallow falls from my stick into the fire for the third time, I realize something is different. Someone is different. Me. I’ve spent the last week at a Callanish Healing Retreat for people who have dealt with and are dealing with cancer. For a week, eight of us huddled together in a circle and told stories, shared questions, compared experiences. Around us, the Callanish team gathered, supporting, providing comfort, facilitating, accompanying, listening. They were six life-altering, world-changing days overflowing with love, comfort, memories and hope. There are many stories I’d like to write, so today I’ll start with one near and dear to my heart, a story about life and death I learned from Consuela, a gray wood mouse with a white belly.

I met Consuela the morning after the hardest day. On the hardest day, I was angry and frustrated and sad and misunderstood. On the hardest day, we talked of death and dying, and my heart felt shrunken with fear. On the hardest day, my toes curled into the ground and I willed myself to believe “not me, not me, not me” as we were asked to write about how we might like to die. On the hardest day, others asked questions about dying, and they were answered, and I wished I couldn’t hear and imagined myself at yoga instead, even though a wisp of my spirit was curious about the answers. On the hardest day, the other young woman participating and I staked out a private lunchtime picnic where no one could find us, and we dangled our legs over the creek and spoke of not-dying. On the hardest day, she and I held tightly to life, we refused to glimpse over the edge to death, we were shaken as death was placed on our paths. On the hardest day, I felt terribly shaken, afraid and tender. On the hardest day, I felt the joy slipping away as it did when I was pumped full of chemotherapy. On the hardest day, I watched the sparkle dim as it did with each oncology appointment. On the hardest day, I sensed the disconnect between me and my body and the world widening, as it did each time I couldn’t explain my cancer to my loved ones. On the hardest day, death was staring at me in the face and I was running spooked, refusing to make eye contact, angry to be sharing the day together.

It was the next morning I met Consuela, and the next morning that she wiggled her way into my heart to teach me about death.

She was shivering, huddled on the dew-covered deck. People gathered around her, staring. My heart thudded when I saw her. I covered her with a towel, and then coddled her in my hands. She was cold, her tiny feet unsteady and her body shivering. She sucked at my finger, her eyes were closed, her little nose nudging at the creases in my hand. She barely moved. I wondered if she was a tiny baby, and how she escaped from her mama’s nest. I wondered if she was an adult, afraid and in shock. I decided she was my baby, my warm little body to nurse back to health, my small rodent friend to play with in the forest.

I settled her in for a nap as we began a musical session together, and I wondered if she enjoyed the sounds we each shared that morning. Did she like our singing, our oboe playing, our spoken word? Could she feel the love vibes and the friendship and the hopefulness? I imagined she could, as she rejuvenated in a bed of hand towels and tissue in the corner of the room. Consuela seemed perkier as we closed our music-sharing and headed to lunch. She pooped, she sucked water from damp corner of towel, she sniffed and opened her eyes. And then again, her sprite curiosity began to dampen, her soft gray body began to droop. Her lack of skin elasticity was a sure sign of her severe dehydration. I whispered to her that she needed to sip water, but I knew she was fading before my eyes. We decided that after lunch, we’d make her a hospice bed outside, near where we found her, so she could die in the wooded forests she called home.

Consuela must have heard us speaking deaths’ name and become angry, as I had on the hardest day when death was thrown in my path. She jumped up to say hello, scampered around, sniffed my fingers. What a transformation! We imagined the little bed we were building would only serve as a launching point, somewhere for our little mouse to rest briefly before she scampered off to tell her story to the other mice, a story of human encounter that would certainly become legend among the forest animals. We gathered together, many of us near the deck where we had found her that morning. I arranged a bed of leaves gated with dandelions and that backed into the creek-brush.

I knelt down with Consuela near the bushes and J The Wise, who is at the helm of Callanish, knelt down with us and we prepared to say goodbye. I blew Consuela a kiss and scratched the back of her neck. As we settled her into her leaf-bed, something in Consuela shifted. J The Wise asked what was happening, and those gathered around us murmured. Little Consuela’s foot began to tremble. I was flooded with memories of other small animals I’d cared for in their final days and hours, and I knew immediately. Consuela had begun the dying process. J scrambled closer into the bushes with me, and our hands encircled what was now most certainly a hospice bed. Consuela began to seize and I gasped, startled, at the violent movements of her tiny body. “It’s OK, it’s OK,”J The Wise said quietly, with her hand on top of mine as she asked, “Do you want to stay?” I knew we couldn’t leave little Consuela alone in her leaf-hospice bed, for not twenty-four hours before, we had talked so much of not dying alone, of being comfortable near death, of seeing nature and of feeling love during the dying process. And here we were, huddled with Consuela, and J The Wise was there, her head in the bushes with me, and G and A gathered close. There was much support and lots of togetherness, as our little wood mouse moved through the dying process. And so we waited. I stroked Consuela’s silky soft mouse-back and marveled at her big ears and delicate toenails. I wondered if we should turn her onto her belly from her side, but J The Wise, always a nurse, reminded us to leave this tiny seizing body on its’ side. We told her we loved her, and held her tiny paw.

We waited. Consuela’s seizing waned, and as it did, she began taking long breaths that filled her tiny body. Her little white belly expanded with each one, rising and falling with longer and longer gaps in between each breath. Sunlight filtered through the creek-brush, and the green leaves sheltering Consuela shimmered in the afternoon light. We were transfixed. We waited. The creek continued to rush by, its soundtrack soothing. We sent her meta. We told her we loved her. Her eyes burned awake still, and slowly and at once, they seemed to take on a reddish hue. She breathed again, a long, slow breath that lifted each of her ribs. And then she was still. Our little mouse friend had left us, gone on to the next world, and only her body was left behind in the mouse hospice bed. I covered her little body with a big leaf, tucking her in as her kind, bright spirit left her. She was gone. We stood. Everyone was still there, waiting, all of us sad our little friend had died.

I guess it was time to dance with death, after all.

We left her little body in the bushes, listening to the creek and letting the sun warm her fur for the last time. Come afternoon, we gathered purple and peach tissue paper, we tied a bouquet of yellow flowers, we cut yellow felt into hearts and gathered silky jewel toned ribbon. Next to the creek, I dug a shallow grave with a rock and lined it with the delicate purple paper. We settled Consuela’s little body in a large green leaf, and wrapped her in peach tissue paper. We tied it with a bow, and topped her papery casket with the tiny bouquet and soft yellow felt hearts. There was a eulogy. We loved her, and she was a good mouse, and a tremendous teacher, and a kind spirit. Her little body ready, we settled her in the ground next to the creek and slowly filled the grave with moist dirt and river stones. Piling the river stones high and in a circular pattern to mark her short but extraordinary journey from the woods into my hands and into our hearts and finally with us into death, we said goodbye. It was a goodbye weighty with gratitude, a serendipitous moment in which all the knowledge on death I had so feverishly resisted the day before coursed through my body, through these relationships, through our knowing. We were with death, with Consuela. And yet, funerals are for the living, as someone pointed to the day before as we all spoke death. So the funeral was for us, we were the ones left behind. Did the animal kingdom have a farewell ceremony, as well? Did they wonder where she was? Were they sending out search parties headed by mice with night-vision goggles? I wonder if they found her grave, if they gathered near the creek, maybe late at night under moonlight and remembered their brave mouse friend, like we did. Consuela’s funeral was for those of us human-friends of hers left behind, wishing we could ask her, “What does death look like? What’s over there?”

To call Consuela a friend would be true, but calling her a friend would barely begin to suggest how deeply she touched our hearts, how humbly she taught us lessons of life and death. Consuela the wood mouse was one of the greatest teachers that has ever graced my life. Great teachers know how to pace lessons for each spirit, they sense when learning can happen and tread gently and tenderly around the learning heart. Consuela was the greatest kind of teacher, the kind we all aspire to be. She waited for us on the porch, and snuggled with me throughout the morning as she worked her way into my heart, cupped against my body. I wonder how she ended up there, if she knew I’d find her, if she felt secure in my hands and if she was afraid of the unknown. Consuela rested in a cardboard box in the shade, waiting, while we ate lunch, and peeked out from my hands, sniffing and curious, as we built her hospice bed. And when we were as ready as she was, she gathered us into her presence and began the dying process, not a second too early, nor a second too late. She showed us dying can be done gracefully, with dignity, peacefully, outside. She took our hands and led us gently into this lesson on death and dying.

Only twelve hours before I met Consuela, I refused the invitation to think death, I bristled at the call to wonder about my own beliefs about dying. Consuela gently showed me that death lives inside all of us, in our bodies and spirits, in our friendships and hopes. Death is always there, living in our bellies, rooted through our feet into the earth. Death ties us together, braids our bodies into the earth, links our knowing into a much larger networked, living universe. We live dying, we will all die, we will all know death as Consuela did last Wednesday morning, and I hope we can know death with as much grace and love and dignity as Consuela did. And you know what? As J The Wise quietly said when I first trembled in horror at the beginning of Consuela’s dying process, “It’s OK.” It is OK. Dying is OK.

Consuela’s entrance into my life was profound, even as momentary and fleeting as our friendship was. Her presence was more than simple presence, it was the universe, taking care and the earth holding all her beings gently and in concert with each other.

Thank you, sweet Consuela, for sharing your soul with us in life, for teaching us about death, for letting us learn from and with you. You will not be forgotten.

Pictures to follow.

A Letter to my Left Breast

Dear left breast,

Thank you. Thank you for holding the cancer inside of you. Thank you for taking one for the team. You saved my life, left breast. You worked your ass off to keep those cancer cells contained, and you did it, and you let me know there was all kinds of pandemonium happening as soon as you could, so we could get this life show on the road without too much traffic.

I love you, left breast. You’re one of the good ones. You’ve been there, leading the way, for so long now. I’m sorry we will part ways. You’ve been so good at matching yourself to my right breast, even though you’ve got two spine curves and some uneven hips to balance out, and I know that made the whole matchy-matchy boob prospect a challenge. But it was a challenge you faced and achieved. There are not too many left breasts in the world who can perfectly match right breasts on the same body at the same point in life, and I’ve prided myself on you, one half of my matchy-matchy boob set, for two decades, now. Sure, it’s purely aesthetic triumph, but triumph none the less.

I guess I don’t have to tell you about triumph, though. You know, because for the last decade or so- or how long was it, really?- you’ve been playing goalie of my body, making sure the cancer-team didn’t kick any of those cancer cells into my lymph nodes or blood stream. You’ll probably never know the awesomeness that your goalie-ship was, because now you’re going another step further, and you’re going away forever. That effing sucks. I know it’s the worst when you hear people tell me that it will be almost the same without you since there will be a silicone implant in your place, or that I’ll still be the same person without you. Of course I won’t be the same person without you, and nor will I be a better person. I’ll be a different person. I know it won’t be the same, or even anything close to the same. After all, a silicone implant can’t grow cells, can’t play goalie, can’t feel anything, can’t go matchy-matchy with the right side, can’t loll to the side, can’t be the total rockstar that you are. Even if that silicone implant stays forever- right now, it’s a stop-gap measure so that I’m not uneven until we make some more decisions and live a little more life- it’s an it. It’ll never be the same as you.

When you go to the other side, dear left breast, you should look for the other breasts that were slashed from our friends bodies, and you guys can galavant together. They’re gonna be waiting in the area for breasts who died too soon, breasts who spent their lifetime playing cancer goalie, just like you. I think the area for breasts who died too soon has lots of sunshine, lots of beach, and lots of salty water to float in. You will love it. And you so deserve it.

You have made me a girl, left breast. You held so many things I hoped for inside of you, tiny little futures and buds of possibility. You are so unique. Even the plastic surgeon said so, when she noted how impossible it would be to match an implant that looked just like you, or even build a breast like you. You’re too unique, too special, too one-in-a-million to be replicated, rebuilt, replaced. You’ll only be remembered.

Signing off for now, left breast.

Xoxoxox,

The rest of your body

moments

Sammy called me this morning, frantic. The car was missing. Last night, I parked it on the corner. This morning, it was gone. He needed to go to work. How had our one-year old Prius vanished? We had four phone calls in a five minute period. All four were haphazard, fragmented, incomplete. I straddled my bike on the corner of Broadway and Ash, and dialed the impound lot. Sammy called back. I disconnected the impound lot. No car, frantic Sammy on the line. I was the one who used the car last. Where was it?

You know that kind of moment? Frantic, scared, incredulous, the moment when you need the world to stop so you can right everything immediately before you lost your brand new car right when you have a seventeen page to-do list? Cancer is like that, but the moment doesn’t right itself. Instead the world spins in slow-motion while you stand there and get dizzingly sick from chemo, and you are trying to hear but you are too tired, and you are straddling your bike  but you can’t hold on because your hands are swollen as f*ck and tender and blistering, and there is someone offering you three different flavors of a re-hydration drink but you can’t quite reach them, and your pounding heart is seventeen hundred times louder than the very busy intersection. The moment lasts six months.

Then, after being in this moment for six months, you can clip your helmet back on and start peddling, and at least get to the next intersection, where the crossing guard is Dr. Yoga-Surgeon. It will probably be the worst intersection because it is the intersection at which you will volunteer your arm to a nurse who will wiggle a needle into your vein even though you detest needles, and you will wake up hours later after Dr. Yoga-Surgeon amputates a body part that is intimately a part of how you understand your entire way of being in the world. Dr. Yoga-Surgeon will leave that body part in a specimen jar in a drawer at the cancer agency and it will never feel pleasure, it will never go topless in the sunshine, it will never overflow out of a push-up bra, it will never be whistled at by an inappropriate someone, it will never feed a baby, it will never bounce around in a built-in-bra tank top, it will never shimmy in between your shoulders (ok it never did that anyway, but now it really won’t). It will never do those things ever again because it will be in a specimen jar in formaldehyde at the cancer agency and the top of the jar will probably gather dust as it sits in its spot on a shelf with all the other cancerous, amputated breasts who’s owners traveled this particular and harrowing path.

This intersection will be worse, but before you even get there you find yourself weaving through a gauntlet someone called a street. It is a gauntlet. Broken glass pops your tires. You weave through cars and you carry in your backpack a prescription for a medication that will cause false menopause and block all estrogen in your body, all folded up with your list of dissertation references that somehow still has a thousand errors. The medicine will make your bones weak and your belly flabby. You haven’t fallen off your bike in years, but you skin your knees and your chin and your left elbow when you fall off again and again and again and again. Even though all the knobby points of your body are bloodied from the number of times they have scraped asphalt, there’s some really warped cheerleaders silently screaming about positivity, and you could care less because you think they must be dead cheerleaders come back from the worst Halloween you can remember. Their costumes are terrible. The phone rings, and you ride one-handed while listening to your doctors’ secretary explain something that makes no sense. You wonder about gender and why you never realized how much you loved your breasts. You pause on the curb to download medical articles so you can explain to your doctors’ secretary, so she can explain to your doctor, why she makes no sense. The clasp on your helmet clatters to the ground and that’s the loudest sound you hear even though there are trucks blowing carcinogens into a cloud right in front of you. You begin emailing with your cancer-buddy about the media-archive-storytelling-young-cancer-project you need to do more than you need to breathe, and in rapid-fire style you hammer out a goal broader than the sky itself. What kind of activism would it take, you wonder, to throw the trucks that make clouds of carcinogens off the edge of the world? The amputation intersection is a mirage in the distance, and you cannot tell how close or how far the amputation intersection is from where you straddle your bike, you only know that like you desperately need to start your media-archive-storytelling-young-cancer-project, you  desperately need Dr. Yoga-Surgeon’s secretary to change the number of days until the mirage is closer.  It would be ironic, asking her to move the mirage, if you had time to think about what a mirage is. But meaning is lost, vocabulary woefully insufficient, language has never seemed more destitute. The feminists/poststructuralists/queer theorists/critical decolonial thought producers had better get to making up some words with slashes and dashes and lots of letters in between, new words, words we’ve never heard of, sounds that have yet to roll around in our mouths, but probably we will also have to make up a whole new alphabet for this one. Language fails. Metaphor fails. Mirage fails. This is these days between chemo and surgery. The only respite is yoga. The bike isn’t allowed inside the yoga studio, but Dr. Yoga-Surgeon is there, and so you know it’s not a dream.

In case you were wondering, the car was moved, towed to the other side of the street. Thank you, tow-truck, for not towing to the impound lot. I left it too close to the driveway. That worked out a little better than cancer.

 

disillusioned

I feel disillusioned. There is a way in which cancer grabs any last shred of not knowing, any leftover innocence and throws it to the wind, never to be found again. I really doubt I’ll ever feel the kind of innocence I didn’t even know I had about life from the pre-cancer times. I don’t think about the future as a wide, expansive space of possibility anymore.

It seems more like a life or death game, where you need to sprint from shelter across a field to another shelter, with snipers shooting at the empty field. You don’t know, in this game, if there is another field you will need to run across after you make it to the shelter, or how many fields there are after that, or how long they might be, or if your comrades will be shot at and wounded or killed while you cross the field together. You regroup with the others at each shelter, holding each other carefully and checking for wounds. We patch up the scrapes and sleep for a while before we build enough energy to peek out again, peer across at the next field, and wonder if the next forest that will provide shelter will be the forest that is actually the healthy world again, if it will mean we are done sprinting, done dodging bullets, done wiping wounds. Sometimes people are catapulted from the shelter into the middle of the field, sometimes they are made to languish in the shelter, not knowing when they will need to sprint across the field they are staring at, amassing information as they wait and watch others cross, anxiety mounting. There is no way to know. And so we cling tightly to each other and hold hands and whisper encouragement and duck our heads and start sprinting. It’s terrifyingly comforting to have each other, the only people who know what it’s like to sprint across that field, and to hold so tightly to each other and know we won’t all get across to safety in one piece.

The disillusionment isn’t only cancer. It’s also the academic job market. It’s wondering if I should duck out now, or keep slogging through, hoping to beat the odds. I knew these odds existed when I entered graduate school, and I’ve done *everything right* as they say, publishing and conferencing and teaching a little and finishing the diss. Still, a great many of us know brilliant young scholars with a Ph.D. and without a tenure track job. I just now find myself in a double-bind of unknowing.

All this unknowing, this deep sense of disillusionment, this feeling that the world is not as I thought it was, but actually, much crueler than I ever imagined makes me want to speed things up. It makes me want to bandage everyone in a hurry and get through the sniper fields. It makes me want nothing in moderation, and it makes me want everything in excess. It makes me wonder if we will every again catch our breath long enough to wonder at the nighttime sky. It makes me want to speed up and slow down, fit more into the afternoon, stay up all night long. It makes me wonder if this is the new normal, operating at high intensity, heightened awareness and anxiety, speed so fast it might be a blur. Will I have time to think about whether the academic job market will be kind to me? I do not know.

And so I haven’t posted, lately, feeling this way. Wondering. I’ve wondered what to post. I’ve started many a draft. You’ve checked in and wondered what’s up, where the writing that sometimes just gushes out of me is, if everything is all right. I just don’t know what to write. I can’t decide. I don’t know what to think, or which way is up. It’s confusing. It’s disillusioning.

zombie babies

In my fridge, there are boxes and bags filled with syringes, glass capsules of powdery hormones and saline solution, alcohol rubs and these tiny little medicine mixers called Q-caps where I concoct medical solutions from different viles before injecting myself in the belly. It’s literally a science experiment, and I’m the mad scientist shaking, injecting, pinching fat, tapping bubbles out of the syringes.

You see, chemotherapy often results in decreased fertility or sterility in young women. There’s basically a black hole of research when it comes to very young women and breast cancer, particularly in terms of fertility and chemotherapy, likely because most women with breast cancer are over 45, and most of those are over 55, and so of course, most of the research dollars go to that bulk group. Most folks are not frantic about baby-making, because they’ve already made babies by the time its time to use modern medicine to kill all dividing cells in the body. Cells that make eggs are cells that divide. Cells that chemotherapy kills.

And so here we are. Sammy and I were just waiting to think about what city we’d raise our bilingual, bicultural, rockstar babies in. We were waiting ’til my medical chart would read “Dr. Chelsey” for the birth of the newborns. We had a vision, of these bilingual babies and the home we would decorate with bright colors and the pups that would roam the land around us and the professor and composer/musician jobs that would fill our bank accounts with enough money. And we were so close. Close enough to smell the soup simmering on the stove and close enough to hear the symphonies and concertos filling our home with sound and close enough to think about which publishers might turn my diss into a book and close enough to imagine the next projects in our research and musical careers.

That was life B.C.. Life Before Cancer. Then, now, there is life A.C., After Cancer.

In this life, we freeze embryos. We are part of a special program where fertility preservation is seriously subsidized— all you need to do to get affordable, nearly free IVF is get cancer.

Some people think I shouldn’t be so public about this. That getting ultrasounds of my now-swollen ovaries every 48 hours, and that injecting my belly fat with three different needles every night is private business. But you know what?

This cancer is not private business. Cancer is about plastic and toxins and the stunning realization that the careless way we treat our environment, the world, others, profit, capitalism is manifesting in my body in ways that I cannot control, manifesting in such ways that it could eat its way through those dreams, cutting away the time I needed to publish more books, to paint living room walls bright blue and vibrant red, and to cuddle in front of the fire with tea and popcorn and lovers and best friends. So it often seems like an old and tired argument, but here it seems apt. The most private, what happens inside our breasts, breasts who’s image is torn between the pornographic, the sexy, the motherly, is absolutely political, public, and practically bursting to be discussed, to be chewed over, to be written about thoughtfully, carefully, complexly. Cancer is most definitely a public issue, a political issue, and especially when it comes to breast cancer in very young women like me. Its wildly hot, insanely unjust, and urgently in need of radical, responsive attention. It’s an over-boiling zone, where environmental justice, feminist theory, cultural studies, globalization and toxins, biology and fertility are in red-hot collision, producing sparks and flames and smoke.

So yes, I think its absolutely appropriate to write about this journey through heartache, where the dreams shatter and the babies become not babies, but frozen embryos. Neither dead nor alive. Which makes them ZOMBIES. That’s right. The doctor told me today it looks like we’ll end up with about fifteen embryos from eggs in my oh-so-swollen ovaries. And those embryos will be frozen in time. Neither dead nor alive. How odd it is, to think we’ve come to a place in the world where we can stimulate ovaries to over-production, harvest them from a woman’s body like apples from a fall tree, and fertilize them with the sperm from her man lover, and then hold them indefinitely, suspended in time and in ice, until there is a uterus, probably not mine, that they can call home for long enough to grow and become human, alive, long enough for them to grow eyes and ears and hair and a pair of lungs. Inside someone who is not me.

Not me, because I will most likely be on tamoxifen for 5-10 years. 10 years! We know young women with estrogen positive breast cancer do better when they stay on tamoxifen, which inhibits estrogen production, for ten years, instead of the standard five. Some young women go off this drug to get pregnant, and there are very mixed reviews about this practice. On can find studies arguing its better to get pregnant and that pregnancy decreases the rate of local and distant recurrence in young women, and one can find studies arguing the local and distance recurrence rate skyrockets with pregnancy. Recurrence is a really big deal, because its mostly the second time women get breast cancer, in the form of a recurrence, that they die. Once breast cancer spreads beyond the breast and lymph nodes to the bones, liver, lungs, or brain, where breast cancer cells like to set up shop, there is no cure.

So, I hope someday our zombie babies, the frozen embryos to be made from my swollen ovaries, will take up residence in the uterus of someone I love. It’s really so much to ask, for someone to give up nine months of their lives, hold a baby in their bellies, and then hand us the baby upon birth. We are fortunate that maybe a sister or two, and maybe a friend might be able to donate their warm and healthy wombs. But who knows if that will work out, with visa laws and flight-bound-embryos… that said, we’ve been through enough visa and border trials that if anyone can make a zombie baby into a real baby across borders and with visas, its us.

I know lots of people struggle with fertility: that is evidenced in the swanky service-for-pay offices the fertility doctor inhabits, and that it’s not easy for anyone to have swollen embryos. Many people have reminded me of this, and yet this, I think, is distinctly different. It’s not the ups and downs of living from a human body, the necessary but frustrating tribulations of human imperfection. It’s cancer, it’s deadly, it’s caused by human malfunction, human abuse, and environmental trauma. So I feel some solidarity with the women crowding into the fertility office, hoping to make a baby and throwing all those carefully socked away funds at their baby-dreams. And also, I feel nothing like them, I feel entirely out of place.

Lots of folks deal with devastating illnesses, infertility, disabilities, challenges. I don’t think its worth comparing. I know it’s entirely unhelpful to think about who has it “worse,” and what “better” is for different bodies. What I know certainly, though is this. I am insanely, imperfectly, horribly jealous of everyone without cancer. That feeling is ugly, especially in the face of “cancer is a gift” and that feeling is rough on the ears, especially when folks need me to affirm I will be OK. Jealousy is harsher than sadness, anger, and spite, and it speaks to the kind of relationality that allows us to think about who we are, we were, what we might become. Jealousy makes painfully clear that we are all implicated here, knotted together in a web of toxic, plastic capitalism. Jealousy is the feeling of capitalism.

I have no idea if I’ll be OK. And what is OK, after all? Is OK just alive? Is OK a PhD? Is OK fear of recurrence? Is OK avoiding terror of cancer in the other breast with a bilateral mastectomy even though the medical community assures me it won’t improve my survival? Is OK a baby in someone elses’ belly? Is OK a house with colorful walls? Is OK breast cancer in my bones and a prognosis? What percent is OK? Is OK having a few breast cancer buddies who get it? Is OK when my BFF comes to visit and I wish she’d never leave? What prognosis is OK? How is OK a percent chance at five-year survival?

So for now, zombie babies. We’re making them. I won’t be pregnant in the spring, I’ll be on chemotherapy. It’s weird as fuck. I won’t be pregnant in the spring, I’ll be on chemotherapy. And I have no idea what OK is. I won’t be pregnant in the spring, I’ll be on chemotherapy. It’s weird as fuck. I won’t be pregnant in the spring, I’ll be on chemotherapy. And I have no idea what OK is. I won’t be pregnant in the spring, I’ll be on chemotherapy. It’s weird as fuck. I won’t be pregnant in the spring, I’ll be on chemotherapy. And I have no idea what OK is. I won’t be pregnant in the spring, I’ll be on chemotherapy. It’s weird as fuck. I won’t be pregnant in the spring, I’ll be on chemotherapy. And I have no idea what OK is.

on telling

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about telling.

Telling people I have cancer.
Saying those words, letting them fall onto others’ ears and into others’ inboxes. How weird it is to say, “I have breast cancer,” how strange those words sound as they roll around in my mouth.

There’s really no way to soften it. No way to tell it easier, to tell slowly, to only tell a little. At some point, you kind of just have to say “i have cancer,” and let what will happen.

Mostly people are insanely nice, so kind, so full of love and worry and concern. You guys offer to take me to lunch and to do whatever I need (though I don’t know what that is right now), and you give me your sleeping pills and say you’ll teach me how to smoke weed (I’ve never been very good at it or liked it very much) and you bring over ice cream and text like crazy and tell me we’ll get through this, and that we’ll just deal with what we have to deal with. The we is really good.

It’s still anxiety producing, though, telling. It breaks the surface chatter, silences the laughter about nothingness, produces black humor about cancer and death.

There’s not much to be done. The only thing I want to be done is for a fairy or a witch or a genie to appear and to make it go away, to wave a magic wand and be shaken awake from this nightmare. (certainly, soon enough there will be actual things I need, actual support people near by can provide, like after my surgery and during chemo). The nightmare feels like being stuck in the dark swimming pool waters of a big pool after the covers have been pulled. Truth be told, I don’t know what that feels like, but I imagine it feels like this. As a child, I used to be so afraid of getting stuck under there. Probably, that was just the fear instilled by endless coaches warning us not to play under the tarps, where it is dark and black and easy to get confused about which way is up, and hard to break the seal between water and tarp, and let air in.

Telling is like admitting someone got stuck under the tarp, we weren’t careful enough when we pulled it over the pool at nights end and there’s a feeling of horror and dread, knowing that someone (could have) gotten under the tarp, stuck there, overnight. That’s how I think it is for the people I tell. I’m the one under the tarp, the one no one wants to be, the one who didn’t kick fast enough or scream loud enough when the tarp was pulled.

I’ve told most people now. College friends. AMIGOS friends. PhD friends. “Home” friends. I only had to tell my Mom, and she told the rest of the family.

Now, those other people. The ones you run into at the grocery store or yoga, who ask, “how are you?” These everyday conversations do not have the capacity to handle “I have cancer.” There’s not enough room. What would you say, to someone who said that to you as you dropped something off at the postal office? Nothing, you can’t. There’s no room. Since there’s no room for “I have cancer,” I have to tell some other version of my reality. Everything else feels like a lie, but mostly, “I’m great, thanks!” feels like a big, giant, charade.

Then there’s the people who I see all the time, and who are in my lives for various reasons. Fellow young academics who wonder why I’m dropping out of the conference panel we were putting together, when I normally organize these things. Others who would never wonder, never imagine something so horrific, like professional contacts and the girl who paints my toenails and the hundreds of AMIGOS youth I’ve mentored over the years. Then there’s the people who will soon know, but who I’d rather not tell- academics at UBC, other students who I see around, yoga teachers who’s classes I frequent, the people in my building. They’ll all know at some point. Cancer is news, cancer is news that spreads. And soon enough, it will be wildly public. My bald head will be a public signifier. But until then, telling is such an odd way to be in relationship to other people, to the world, to myself.