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Hoi An to Phnom Phenh to Elsewhere

        “Thanh says he’ll give you a ride.”
        We are standing there, I have packed my overflow into the fake suede handbag they have given me, grasp it as the duffel bag and tyvek from the local shopping center weigh me down. We are smiling, Thanh in particular, while I demure. It’s only a few blocks. They’ve done enough.
        Thanh has already switched to outdoor flip-flops. I accept the ride. Reaching for the pink helmet borrowed many times before, my small audience jokes with me not to wear it. With another smile, I insist. It’s only flimsy plastic like a child’s toy firefighter cap, but it’s available.
        They put it back on the shelf. Thanh kicks the kickstand up, silently wheels his motorbike from the others and coasts it to the street. Two women hesitate on the patio. I turn, walk through the gate, touch his shoulder as I swing myself up behind him. We won’t return this time. Thanh turns the key in the ignition.
        We pick up speed on the street, late afternoon sun. Memories keep flying from the dirt and plastering themselves on my face. With another brilliant smile he looks back to make sure I am still there. Six minutes. Uncertainty dissolves, happiness. Fear. He stops at the curb.
        My life is unloaded with me, in half a second. I struggle to say a few words, trying to express my gratitude. Doing poorly. He waves with the hand where the thumb is amputated. I turn and check in at the ticket counter. Drop my two largest bags. Given an hour to wait, I walk down an alley and order a plate of com ga for the last time. A regional specialty. Sitting on the red plastic furniture, I marvel in the dusk.
        That night I will hardly sleep on the top bunk of a sleeper bus, stumble to the ocean the next morning. There I will meet a woman speaking English, try to brush her off with another smile. Only a few thousand dong left. I am intent on finding coffee, eating the fruit and crackers in my bag.
        She is not selling anything. We’ll walk the stretch of the beach, then return. I will meet her daughter. They will take me back to their concrete house, serve me coffee and fresh bread. They will spend all day with me, hosting me, cooking for me, sharing their life. That night we will take a snapshot of three smiling faces along the boardwalk, five minutes before running to catch the second overnight bus.
        I will sleep on the top bunk again. Intermittent curves of the road and horn blaring lullabies. I will sleep more the second night. In the morning, I will gather my luggage and rush to a small shop, exchanging the final voucher for a daytime ticket. They will check my passport this time.
        The roar of Saigon’s dense mass will gradually break apart. In a bus filled with blond-haired hippies, grubby backpackers and more polished short-term thrill seekers, along with a few locals who cannot be assigned any particular nationality.
        In dust we will approach the border; the driver will usher us through for a five-dollar tip, guards will carefully record our iris pattern, fingerprints, temperature scan, archiving them on national computers. Then back on the bus, uncertainty piling up, we’ll roll onto a ferry where women sell drinks and pickled fish. One of them is fishing.
        You will go on like this, but I have only days remaining.
        A visit to the capitol, a tropical garden, a single morning at Tuol Sleng or Choeung Ek, chance meeting with the a school girl who runs away from home undeterred by my words or poor example. Catching a tuk tuk, a minibus back from the coast, a bicycle to tour stone temples, one airplane and then another.
        Finally I will be sitting on the floor of the airport, groggy from lack of sleep, still trying to find my way back. Immigration will have welcomed me, but everything else has changed. Except that my beloved will remain somewhere else, as always, drinking bottled Italian water, having no intentions of joining me here. We may or may not believe him.
        Then, in the future, I will be sitting at my desk typing all this. There will be a snapshot of three smiling faces against a pitch-black backdrop. No one will see the boardwalk, the sand at our feet, the chaos of motorbike horns floating around us.
        I will be memorizing formulas, anatomical placement, energy depleted as I attempt to step into my future. I will be starting again.
        When I doubt myself, I will look back at these days and be convinced: something is possible. I won’t know, exactly, all the details.

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One Inch Rule

        I have a large dark mole on my upper inner thigh. A mole that in order to be seen requires sliding between my legs like an auto mechanic disappearing under a car to change the oil. I don’t remember noticing the mole until around nine or ten when I used to enjoy using it as an eye for a drawn on hidden face that only I could see. As I got older the importance of my mole developed along with my maturity.
        The first instance where I became increasingly conscious of it was around when I entered high school. At this time I had just begun to trade oversized t shirts and overalls for mini skirts and ladylike dresses. One morning my mother prompted by a particularly inappropriate fashion choice decided to take my dresscode into her own hands by encircling my leg with permanent marker exactly one inch lower than the mole and stated that any article of clothing shorter than that circumference of my leg was unacceptable. After a while she would just snap at me during dressing time “Remember the one inch rule mija!”, and so grudgingly I would change. “Street walker” was a term she liked to use. The middle finger was my synonym of choice.
        My mother and I struggled constantly throughout my teenage years. She was a beautiful white lady who thought that fucking a latino and having his singular offspring somehow made her latin as well. It didn’t help her “cultural” bragging that her father was just the tiniest portion Puerto Rican. Of course, you couldn’t tell from her naturally red hair and assortment of freckles that she had any south-of-the-border blood coursing through her veins. In fact, the majority of the world would deem her a “ginger”.
        Around age fifteen I had begun to feel the pressures of physical insecurity, an ailment that plagues the teenage female population. While I never developed a long term problem there were periods in 10th and 11th grade where I would go for random stretches of days without eating and then quit and go in the opposite direction and consume a weeks worth of food in a matter of days. I used to think this was how the beautiful girls behaved. And what teenage girl doesn’t want to be beautiful?
        I am even more ashamed to admit that these unhealthy patterns were directly dependent on my teenage love life. During single periods or at the start of a new relationship I would put myself in lockdown or I would feel guilty about not being attractive for whoever the man of the hour was. But as a relationship progressed stresses over my appearance would float away in a river of teenage saliva.
        For an unexplainable reason whenever a young gentleman friend happened to notice my mole and commented on it (usually boy things like “woah thats hot”), I would feel a thunderous pride bellow in my chest and an indescribable emotional connection to the few who noticed. I was honored to have a distinctive mark that could serve as a secret between two people since most of the world had no idea it was there. And it was beautiful. The instances when that mole was out in the open were some of the most languorous and tender events of my adolescent life. I loved that it existed, and I loved that someone else could love and recognize it as a mark of beauty and not just a blunder of hidden ginger genetics.
        The times when I have felt so intrinsically lost that mole has always been an anchor reminding me who I am, reminding me that no matter my worst days there will always be something beautiful about my life. If I am a map than that mole is the X that marks home.
        I was at a crossroads between wanting to be womanly and being ashamed to wear my fathers scarf around my neck because I was clearly no longer a little girl and didn’t want to disappoint the essence of him that lingered on the fabric. I felt that his ghost hung around my neck and that with every un-kosher action I made was slowly strangling me. I could picture him burying his face in his heavenly hands as I drank champagne from a rooftop with my hooligan friends. Some part of me during all this didn’t want to grow up. But it was inevitable and having my mole made me feel like an adult; like Marilyn Monroe was on my thigh and was subsequently a part of me too.
        Feeling grown up gave me the confidence to say fuck off to social standards of beauty and also helped nurse my defiance; in order to prove my adultness I would leave anonymous cigarette butts on the windowsill of my most disliked teacher; the one who always told me not to smoke on school property. Of course I realize now that these personal protests were childish and did nothing to prove my maturity. Being an adult is not something you had to try and prove.
        My mole became more than a symbol for my sexuality (which is what I thought being grown up was all about), it lead me to love the marks and blemishes of others that constitute unconventional beauty. I now no longer measure beauty not by the thickness of the wrist or the plumpness of the lips, but rather by the story behind a scar or crookedness of a smile. My mole has a story that can’t be known from it’s appearance. I now know to recognize beauty in the stories hidden behind every distinctive mark.

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What Lay Below

        In Hollywood there was water every day. In Hollywood everyone had a pool, at least everyone we knew did. The only thing that stood between me and the water was a parent’s permission. We had only been in Hollywood a few months but I was already convinced this was how I wanted to spend the rest of my life. Every morning I woke to sunshine and warmth. A bathing suit would get me through an entire day. I fell asleep at night watching light ripples reflect off the water and into my poolside bedroom.
        I held the old Pacific Bell phone receiver with two hands and tipped it slightly away from my ear to control the volume.
        “Where have you been? The Colonel wants to meet you and he’s only here for the day!” My mother didn’t have time to explain; an urgent tone in her voice told me so.
        “I’m at my friend Sheri’s house,” I offered.
        “Girlfriend,” Sheri whispered and smiled.
        Sheri had been my “girlfriend” for almost an hour after stating it as fact. A conclusion she had come to after tickling me under the covers in a way that age nine hadn’t prepared me for.
        “Come home right now,” was all my mother said.
        I hung up and headed for the front door, “I have to go, I have to meet the Colonel, you know….Colonel Sanders, Kentucky Fried Chicken!” This was an early case of name dropping on my part. I knew very little about girls and almost nothing about Sheri. Meeting the Colonel from T.V. was surely going to be a big deal in this strange new world. Below the covers with Sheri would have to remain the unknown for now; the Colonel wanted to meet me.
        I was nine and knew about water; the Colonel was 85 and knew about chicken. I was to meet him in Malibu where years later I spent entire weekends in the surf from morning to night.
        By the summer of 1975, I had spent most of my summers in this fashion. Prior to the San Fernando Valley, I lived in bathing suits in Berkeley and the foothills surrounding Lake Temescal. Before that, seemingly endless days on the shores of Nags Head and the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Always at the water and in the water. In the Atlantic, I carefully planned my attacks to coincide with the ocean’s retreats. I knew with rhythmic accuracy the exact point at which the tides would turn and I would have to flee the incoming waves, dramatically flailing my arms and screaming as though it was likely I wouldn’t escape alive. It was water in motion that led me to believe the water and I were doing battle, always something to outsmart or outlive. In water I was safe. Safe in water, I was confident. In water I was in control, or so it seemed to me.
        Lake Temescal was a short drive from our home in the Berkeley Hills, a fifteen minute car ride at most. We only went on weekends, often without notice.
        “Find your brother and sister and get your bathing suits on, we’re going to the lake,” my mother would say after I caught her secretly wrapping sandwiches in wax paper.
        In the water I knew my job; I was to keep my mother entertained.
        “Mom! Mommy…Watch!” To give her something worth watching was a responsibility I took very seriously. I worked endlessly on new routines of running and jumping. As soon as I had her attention I dove beneath the surface and stayed there for hours.
        “Well, he’s gone for good” I could hear her say to the lifeguard in my mind, and just then I would crash through the surface to her surprise. Other times I would gaze straight down into the lake. Everything below my waist blurry and dark, bottomless and unknown. My thoughts drifted, and I was always surprised to hear my mother call out “Seany! Come back this way and swim where I can see you.”
        I hadn’t even realized I was off course, how could she?
        On this particular Hollywood morning my world was perfect. My father had come over to visit with his new girlfriend. My mother’s new boyfriend was also over with his four year old son Erin. I was content to dash back and forth between the pool and the breakfast nook where my parents sat and chatted. My mind drifted back and forth between these two stable places in my otherwise unstable world. Mere feet from the back door where both my parents sat, I could hear them laughing. I walked around the pool netting leaves in anticipation of when the swimming would begin, when I could show my parents how I had mastered the water, could be counted on, was a good swimmer. My world in the previous months had dissolved into confusion and uncertainty; I had been slowly drifting and sinking. On this day it seemed I was safe. On this day I was being watched over.
        Unsuccessful at fishing a toy off the bottom of the pool, I jumped in and retrieved it by hand. Little Erin was not to go in the water without an adult present, and I was not an adult. Toy in hand, Erin followed me in through the back door as I headed to the shower to rinse off the chlorine. After rinsing off, I strolled back through the kitchen past my parents on the way to the pool. I pushed through the back door and onto the warm pavement. The backyard was just as I had left it. The pool was glossy and still, only a warm breeze through the walnut trees and the quiet laughing coming from the kitchen behind me.
        After scanning my perfect world, my eyes came to rest on Erin’s motionless body lying face down at the bottom of the pool. His arms and legs outstretched and frozen in time. I let out a bloodcurdling scream and dove.
        I cannot get to Erin fast enough, I am moving in slow motion. I grab hold of his torso and swim, pulling him upward. In slow motion, now we are face to face, his eyes and mouth open and bulging with water, terrified, motionless, gone.
        hen black.
        Three days later Erin comes out of a coma. There’s no brain damage and he doesn’t remember anything about the day he drowned.
        My mother died years later from lung cancer.
        “Your mothers’ lungs are filling up with fluid, the cancer is drowning her,” I was told by the hospice nurse.
        As she slowly drifted away I saw all her memories go with her.
        I picture her watching me from the shore. Her eyes are distant now. “Seany, swim back where I can see you.”
        A month after the drowning, I was pedaling home from Sheri’s house as fast as I could. I had seen the Colonel on television but still couldn’t understand what he wanted to see me about. Perhaps he would bring clarity to my world that had become so confusing. He might explain that my parents would remain friends but would never live together as my mother and father again. He might explain why I was being given a Little Hero award when I didn’t feel like a hero at all. Maybe he would explain what resuscitation was and how Erin had been made to breathe again after I had pulled him from the bottom, his mouth and lungs bloated with water. I don’t think even the Colonel knew that in less than a month, on a weekend trip to the San Jacinto Mountains, my mother would purchase a home and move us away from Hollywood and water and Erin forever. I would never again know the feeling of being watched over with unconditional love. Years later I look at the picture of the Colonel and me. There are no clues as to what’s ahead for me. No explanation of why the Colonel and I are smiling.

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The Bear Paw

        It’s so hot, you can hardly stand in the shade without breaking a sweat. I escape to the big house a little before two, when the sun is casting the shortest shadows and my skin has absorbed the heat like bread in an oven. Steve is out haying, even though the neighbors call him crazy to in this weather, but I need a rest. All the windows in the dining room are open, but the breeze can’t quite reach around the sides of the house to find its way in.
        I’m looking out into the yard, across the overgrown garden and clothesline that has formed a V since one of the posts fell down. The collection of empty vases and flower pots lining the windowsill adds to the loneliness felt upon walking through the door. Only spiders live here now. In the opposite direction, a picture window offers a view of the hay fields, far-off neighbors, and farther still, the forested mountains that rise and fall along the horizon. Hummingbirds, three or four at a time, flock to a feeder hanging above the deck. They hover overhead, darting like tiny airplanes under the eaves. From the porch chairs you can see a few green acres, only a small fraction of the entire property.
        It’s almost too hot to eat, but the kitchen counter is littered with fresh fruit and coffee cake and a peach is calling my name. I take big bites and let the juice cascade down my chin, because it’s the kind of day when you do that just to have an excuse to splash your face with cold water afterwards.
        Jan is at the top of the stairs vacuuming up dust and mice skeletons. Her mother’s possessions that are left –mostly books– are scattered and boxed and stacked around the room since no one has decided what to do with them yet. Everyone is sentimental about books. They are markers of curiosity and obsession, of yearning or frustration. Canine Psychology. The Best Guide to Meditation. A plethora of health and fitness magazines age in the corner. Joanne’s death was abrupt, unforeseen; in its wake it left confusion, heartache, and myriad books.
        I’m sitting downstairs in the corner chair, snug in the angle created by two walls. Kodi the watchdog is perpetually smiling as he naps beneath my legs. My feet are propped up on an ancient suitcase. Across from me atop a stout bookshelf is a pair of grimy military binoculars and a row of desert succulents. The barn that Steve and Jan built a few years ago is visible through the window. Beyond it, five horses saunter through the pasture, seeking shade. Misty is the gray mare that I rode bareback yesterday. I could feel her sturdy muscles rippling beneath me as she walked.
        Joanne’s farmland on the Idaho-Washington border is a place where time exists only as the circular pattern of the sun and the amount of rain only determines how long the crops will need to dry. Neighborly greetings last no less than ten minutes and stories are divulged over and over again in sly, lilting voices with the same glint in the teller’s eye.
        This is the place of early bedtimes and early mornings, of dust billowing behind pickups, of homemade brownies, thin and buttery. Here are the tiny frogs leaping towards protection in the windrows of hay as you rake the fields in lazy circles. If you need to take refuge from the red ants, there is a creek whose muddy bed is lined with broken pottery. Inside the house, Cesaria Evora croons or The Three Pickers twang out from the stereo. Dog hair forms a silky carpet on the floor and sunbeams filter through the pervasive dust. Joanne is gone, but I still feel her here.

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Way-Back

        Behind our backyard we had another, wilder yard.  Maybe one-twelfth of an acre, it was separated from the short-cropped lawn of our backyard and the neighbor’s miniature apple orchard by two high fences.  Another side was given over to a tall and sprawling raspberry bramble, gloriously productive in neglect, and the mouth of the way-back yard, or just the “way-back,” was open to a dirt-road alley.  In those summers between when I learned to walk and when I learned push a mower, the way-back was a thigh-high jungle of golden grass, bent over in flower, dressed up by  constellations of pink thistleheads.  Any step into the grass might result in a scrape from a spiny thistle-stem, and a release of the milky stuff inside.  What strange stuff, I thought, ran through the veins of plants.  I learned to eat raspberries there, which requires no skill when plucking greedily from a supermarket package, but rewards the young forager with a tummy-ache if he doesn’t learn to slow his hand, and slip loose only the berries that are ready to fall.  I got bee stings back there, and mosquito bites, and skinned knees and shoes full of stones and socks full of burrs-I’m not complaining, I’m bragging here.
        Catching grasshoppers was the real attraction of the wayback.  It provided the real lessons.  I learned to crouch in wait, following a big brown hopper in silence as he flitted from grass stem to grass stem, to pick my moment and pounce with both hands cupped.  I remember the powerful legs kicking my soft palm, the head popping again and again against the opposite hand.  I remember the mad fluttering of wings, and it being so hard to keep my paws closed against the mad will to life beating against them.  There is no possible way I spent as many hours back there as I recall.  There were visits to friend’s houses, lots and lots of t.v., and tee-ball.  Those memories have darkened, the hunt has grown brighter.  I learned back then that grasshoppers (and lady beetles, moths, centipedes) don’t survive well in glass jars, furnished as they may be with a leaf and a stick. They struggle fiercely against the sides.  Their legs fall off.  They spill their blood.
        My son comes out fine in this story.  It seems important to mention that first.  I would not tell this story otherwise.  He was born in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle, Washington, at forty-two weeks.  My wife, the star of our family, labored for forty-eight hours before assenting to a c-section.  It was abruptly apparent why he hadn’t come out the usual way.
        “Oh my god!” exclaimed the air-head doctor as she got her first look at my boy, “Oh my GOD!”  (If you ever want to get my dander up, exclaim “Oh my god!” while you’re delivering one of my children.  Be sure not to make it clear what you’re exclaiming about.  Then repeat.)  “Oh my god, that is a BIG baby!”
        “Somebody call the Seahawks,” said the nurse.
        Henry weighed twelve pounds and one ounce.  When the doctor finally secured him from my wife’s body I saw he was the color of a pomegranate, with a thick head of hair and massive, meaty arms and legs flailing against the lights of the new world.  He screamed and punched and kicked, his nostrils flared.
        “What he does look like?” asked my anesthetized wife from the gurney.
        “He’s perfect,” I said.  “And hairy.”
        The nurses had him on a table under a hot light.  Before I could even touch him they whisked him out of sight.
        “He’s having trouble breathing,” they said.
        They took Henry to a restricted room in the center of the delivery unit.  From behind a window we watched Henry’s arms and legs struggle against the air being blown down into his face by a glass tube.  This extra fresh air would make sure he got enough oxygen to… what?  To live?  To not get brain damage?  I didn’t think to ask.
        “Enough,” they said.  Enough is good, I thought.
        I’d never wanted to touch anyone so badly in all my life.  Every monkey instinct told me to storm into that room, snatch up my boy and clutch him to myself, then deliver him to my wife, tearful and brave, and say “Here, he belongs in your arms.”  My fear of doing wrong, of accidently further wounding my poor man, stepped in where my common sense had fled me.
        It was decided that Henry would be sent to a better-equipped hospital in downtown Seattle, but my wife, who had lost blood during the surgery, would remain at the branch hospital in Ballard.  Two E.M.T.’s, dressed to do cleanup at Fukushima, placed Henry in a clear plastic box, with dials and tubes bolted to the sides, then loaded him into an ambulance and left.  I held the grips of my wife’s wheelchair with white knuckles as I looked down into her eyes.  We lived the worst moment of our lives, together.  Then I had to go.
        I went into the bathroom before I left the hospital.  I screamed in there, and cried, and then I washed my hands and face.  You have to calm down, I told myself.  You have to drive to the hospital and not die.  I closed my eyes, and I thought of the way-back.  I could say that I often returned to the way-back in times of strife, but I’m embarrassed to admit how little strife I’d encountered in my first twenty-eight years.  I imagined Henry back there, in the weeds, up to his own scraped knees in brown grass, his fat fingers stained with grasshopper juice.  It’s going to happen, I thought.  I pictured him eating raspberries, sunburnt arms, marked by thistles and raspberry thorns.  One day it will happen for him.
        I followed a young nurse through heavy double doors at the downtown hospital.  She made me wash my hands to the elbows, then lead me into the Newborn Intensive Care Unit and farther, to Henry’s bed.  His skin had mellowed to a gummy pink, his fat little body parts remained in constant motion as he lay on his back under the air machine, quietly fussing with his eyes closed.  His nostrils flared when he breathed, the telltale sign, I learned, of respiratory infection.  In addition to the glass tube blowing fresh air into his face, his arm was wrapped up in gauze and splinted from elbow to wrist, packaged to house a baby I.V., pumping antibiotics.  “Hellboy,” I thought.  “He has a Hellboy arm.”
        I was afraid to hold him that first night.  I wanted to leave him under his oxygen machine.  For all I knew it was a lifeline.  “Don’t rub his shoulder like that,” the nurse told me.  “You’re scaring him.”
        People often complain that life is unfair.  I’d always found this complaint ridiculous.  Of course life is unfair, I thought.  Maybe we should leave the complaining to the folks who, on any given day, are starving to death.  I’d had ten months to think about what it meant to become a father, and I had felt that I’d considered the question, but now I knew that I didn’t know a damned thing.  I’d been a father for a few hours, and now it seemed I might cease to be one in a few more hours, or days, or minutes.  Being a father meant exchanging the lead role in The Story of Me, for a supporting role in The Story of Henry.  But what happens if that story ends before I do?  There were babies in that unit who were born months premature.  They lived in plastic boxes, and spent their days alone, their parents long since having returned to work.  Life wasn’t unfair, life was monstrous.
        I stood next to him, watched him, for an hour, so afraid for his future, unsure what to do.  When I started to fall asleep standing up the nurse made me go away, to a little hotel room down the hall.  I can never thank Bill Gates enough: his dough built the room.  I slept there those nights.
        In the room I found a copy of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and the next morning at five I was back in Henry’s room, reading to him the adventures of foolish Ichabod Crane.  I found that I could hold him in my left arm, the air blower being less essential than I’d assumed, and hold a book in my right hand.  Finally feeling him close to me, I discovered that though he was big for a newborn, he was smaller and lighter than any baby I’d ever held.  He looked up at me with his crinkled old-man face, his big eyes, and gurgled his spit in a way that I took to indicate happiness, or at least peacefulness.  In that way I read to him.  When the nurse kicked me out that night we were most of the way through Call of the Wild.  We finished it the next morning, then a kind older nurse fixed up the room so that no one could see in, and Henry and I napped together (which was technically against the rules).
        “It’s so nice to have a real baby in here for a change,” she said.  This is luck, I realized.  Henry’s nostrils barely flared anymore, thanks to his Hellboy arm and the antibiotics.  Someone brought me breast milk every day, pumped by his momma, for me to feed him. After three days -halfway through Little House on the Prairie- Henry was moved out of the N.I.C.U. and into his first apartment.  It was a family-room in the hospital where my wife, rejoining us finally, and I stayed with our increasingly healthy (though borderline collicky) baby for seven more days, until the course of drugs was complete and we could all go home together.
        Henry is two years old now. He’s progressed from an infant to a miniature, grunting cave-boy, to a chattering, surefooted hiker.  Everyday we walk home from the school where I study biology and calculus, and he practices making friends and sharing toys in the daycare.  Though we live in the city, we come to an acre of second-growth forest along Thornton Creek on our way home.  I take him out of his stroller and we wander down the trail, often doubling back, often taking side-roads under the red cedars.  He tells me stories there.  He is the hero in these tales.
        “Dad, oh no!” he says, “I see a lion over there.”  A lion?  “We got to catch him.”  We track the lion, pausing to munch on the baby-blue currants, sweet and mealy, pausing to observe the cross spiders, to disturb gently their webs so we can watch them scamper from the center out to leafy cover at the margins, pausing so much that we never do catch the lion.

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Still, She Had To Do the Surgery

        The PET scan was clean, with no sign of cancer, the MRI said there was “no evidence of disease,” and both the oncologists and the surgeon were pleasantly amazed when there was “no significant mass.” The four-by-four inch mass was gone! …And still, the surgeon and oncologists agreed, she had to remove the breast- so the patient went for a second opinion, a third, and a fourth.
        The second surgeon, another oncologist, and another radiologist all looked at the same medical data, and in chorus agreed that she had to remove the breast. Still, it didn’t make sense to the patient that they would want to remove the breast when all the tests said she didn’t have cancer.  She asked what to expect if she didn’t have the mastectomy. They estimated she’d die in less than a year.
        She wondered about her prospects of meeting a man if her breast was missing.  She’d have reconstruction of course, but with Inflammatory Breast Cancer it’s a long wait.  To cope she went out on a limb and made a plan – a crazy, goofy, unorthodox kind of plan. She was going to have a gathering.
        The gathering was based on a dream she’d had about a month after her cancer diagnosis. When she told the dream to others they all but invited themselves into the dream, and into the party. In the dream a great hall was filled with women, all wearing long white flowing dresses; they were all calm and serene, most were walking a labyrinth. In this great hall the women were drinking tea from round, white tea cups and eating round, white cookies. Each of these women had cut out a circle of fabric where their right breast was, and the breast was bared (a sign of respect, as a soldier salutes an officer)- remember, it was a dream.  This is how she’d thought to call the gathering “A Tribute to the Breast.”
        When she woke from this dream, the cancer patient felt completely at peace.  She was convinced that she’d survive the surgery. She was so peaceful and happy she actually felt giddy.  Her mind began to wonder about different breast-themed foods she could serve at this gathering.
        The hostess thought of serving the white, round cookies from her dream but larger, and frosted with all skin colors, each decorated with a Lifesaver candy in the center, and a brown M&M inside. Then she thought of making Rice Crispy treats in half-circle mounds, topped with peach-colored Gummy Life Savers and inside, Red Hot candies.
        Each time she told the dream, others were quick to offer what they would serve: a scoop of potato salad with a cherry tomato on top, half of a peeled cantaloupe with a pointed strawberry, large meatballs with broiled cherry tomato slices draped on top…. The funny thing was, the survivor hadn’t suggested that anyone think of what they’d serve at this gathering.  The ideas were many; the party seemed to have taken on a life of its own. Friends protested and insisted they would NOT cut holes in their dresses – but she hadn’t suggested anyone cut holes in their dress.
        Because the party was already happening in the minds of many, she decided to make the party a variation on the dream.  She and her friends made crazy invitations for the “Tribute to the Breast” Party, inviting her “Breast Friends” and “Bosom Buddies” to the tribute and bake-off. The patient asked friends to write a tribute, expressing how her having cancer had somehow helped them in their lives. The tributes came in, each so touching and kind, thoughtful and generous. If she knew her cancer had helped them in their lives, she felt losing her breast would be worth it, well, bearable anyway.  In her fantasies, the ritual would appease the Gods and they would bless her with “no significant anguish” over the ordeal.  Although it didn’t exactly happen that way, it did help some.
        The tributes were beautiful beyond belief, and the thing that surprised her most where the great variety of breast-themed-foods that appeared at the buffet. The guests’ creativity overwhelmed her. What touched her most was that each guest had thought of their own dish, because one doesn’t just stop at the grocery store on your way to a party to pick-up a platter of breast-themed-foods.  No.  Each person created their own vision, drove to their own store to buy their own ingredients, prepared them in their own kitchens, and each was a unique gift in itself. It was a feast like no other, and still it makes her cry just remembering the thoughtfulness that went into each platter.
        All the creative cooks were awarded “booby prizes,” the breast food was eaten, and tributes were read. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. People were at their finest that night, because when you write from the heart and you bake from the heart, everything turns out beautifully!  Person after person stopped to say how moved they were by the whole affair. Others called later and some mentioned it months and years after when they ran into her on the street. The dream, it seemed, was a gift for everyone.

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