4 years, 25 days ago

20150408_073319 (2)April 2, 2015

Surgery today. Awake early and off and on through the night. city noises. Ivan and his lover directly above us having boisterous sex on a squeaky bed, sometime around 4 AM. I think Ivan may weigh a lot. Or maybe his lover. Or both. They walked around.

The garbage trucks and alley noises were random and abrupt. I felt irritated but in a slow-motion, sad kind of way. Like I felt irritated at the rules about not eating and drinking before surgery. Mindless broad application of rules that violate the body’s needs but protect in certain cases for certain reasons. I react irrationally to these things and insist I will eat right up to the last minute, and drink, and use the less invasive enema options. My family rolls their eyes, argues, but they back off and let me meander in my eccentric expressions of rebellion and self-determination.

While John slept, after my foray into food, the first Hibicleanse shower, the first enema, and the last coffee, I laid as still as I could, listening to his various breathing patterns, wondering about the dreams and workings of his mind and body as he comes along on this journey.

I feel a longing to get up and write. This would wake John up. I tell myself the weight of my words or ideas do not stack up against my love for John or my wish for him to grab some kind of rest out of this hostile environment. I watch the light arrive through the cracks in the vertical blinds. I send a loud shout of welcome to the day. Then it occurs to me that I will be losing a part of myself this afternoon. I begin the work of saying good-bye to my uterus and the companion body parts that will soon be disconnected and pushed out of me.

I thank that collection of cells I’ve called “Uterus” all these years. It was the nest from which my daughters flew. It did glorious work. I assure it that it will be joining the larger collection of cells. I tell it that we are all star dust. We are all just momentary compilations of DNA and it is our destiny to rejoin the Creator. I ask it/them to greet my father, and tell him about the children and the grandchildren that have sprung from his seed and the uterus of my mother. I am sad. I tell them not to be afraid.

I talk to the cancer cells. I scold them, but only in an understanding way. They are errant. They need a fresh start. It doesn’t work to be selfish and take things that are not yours. It doesn’t work to replicate oneself over and over again. I speak with them about their fears of diversity. Their arrogance and false assumption of immortality. Their lack of awareness of the greater world and the intricacies of individuality. I listen to John’s breath change. His gentle snoring. The occasional twitch or jerk of his warm body.

He drifts awake, dazed. I leap up to pee, come back to grab my computer and tell him I need to write, not talk. Then I break the rules and read him a loving text from someone. He reads me one that came on his phone and I snap “no talking.” Clearly a double-standard. But I get some latitude today—I’m going in to have some parts of my body removed, and hear how much of it has been tainted by these wrong-headed cancer cells. How many have snuck out and begun to corrupt other parts of me?

Soon, my daughters will arrive and the clamor of family love will overtake my consciousness and I will begin the push-pull, the dance….I will find my way through how much of my own need versus how much of their needs should shape the day, the conversation, the future… The younger daughter is obliviously cheerful; the elder, able and willing to talk about mortality in the tiniest doses. I’m grateful, but I am weary of trying to sort all this out. Oddly, I’m still willing to try. I feel magnanimous. Larger than myself. This brush with reality has broken me open, some of my self-centered, self-defining aspects have at least temporarily disintegrated. Their fleeting integration has given way to a fluid definition. A more universal identity, shared by all the fragments that make up what we think of as the Universe.

I am afraid to stop writing. I’ve lifted my fingers a couple of times—gone back and edited some. I’ve crawled into the words—they are a soft, warm shelter from the harsh hours ahead. Except for the work I have yet to do, and the pain my demise will cause, I wish I were already dead. Dead is the easy part. Living in this unknowing place, aware of the time-limits, wondering when the buzzer will sound, the referee will blow the whistle, the lights will go out—this is hard. Wondering what matters. If I have months or years left, what will they be like? What should I do with them?

I continue to feel humiliated about having cancer. I guess I thought I was unreachable by cancer—I thought our heart problems would get me. I’ve probably held unconscious beliefs that people who get cancer deserve it. Now that’s ugly to admit, but I suspect it’s true. Like all the other awful “isms” we find in ourselves. Hard to admit. Even harder to eradicate.

The other two dominant struggles/reactions are

1) I haven’t lived a good enough life—I’ve squandered what I was given, I haven’t done enough, I was undisciplined and lazy… and

2) I need to protect my loved ones from the pain of my illness, suffering, and death.

Knowing that my pain exacerbates theirs is like being trapped in an impossible and evil echo-chamber. A sadistic twist thrown into the perfectness of love. I’ve known that the Creator lives in this same place. Pain echoes pain. We carry it. It bounces back and forth. It rips things open. It strips away the extraneous. Like many of God’s ways, it seems like a bad design flaw. If I were the Creator, I’m pretty sure I would do away with many of the “ways of nature” and we’d all live on the shores of Hawaii forever. Well, not really that last part, but geez. It seems like She/He could have thought up something less painful and daunting than mortality, starvation, trauma, cruelty, abuse, loneliness, pollution, cancer, car wrecks, and knapweed.

Okay, I’m lifting out now. I can see the flippant side of me returning. I can stop writing now. Thanks, words. Thanks, God. Thanks, loved ones. Thanks, email, cell phones, air planes, sons-in-laws, and other generally blessed parts of my transitory life…I’ll stop now. I’ll be okay.

 

Coping With the Bad Days

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As I pulled up on my bike to check on repairs underway on our van, God came out the back door in his underwear, bent over from the pain in his belly. He claimed it was the doughnut he’d eaten last night. He seemed confused–frightened about his prostate symptoms. “Got cancer down there. I think it’s spread to my nuts.” He motioned towards his testicles which I could have glimpsed if I tried, given the sparse and baggy nature of his attire. “This is my girlfriend’s house,” he explained. “I didn’t mean to stay here, but the police, and the people evaluating me…I’m not a hoarder. I’m autistic. I bought you some parts, but I can’t deal with it. Maybe next time.”

I could see the mottled top of his bald head where a nasty boil had crusted over. With one hand, he clawed at the air near me, seeking solace, coherence, connection. He wanted a kind of reassurance I could not possibly give. It’s the kind of reassurance I usually beg from him. And he’s stuck with the same dilemma. Such reassurances are hollow. Inane. In the short run, everything will not be okay.

I offered what I could. “God,” I said. “Some days will be better than this.”

He moaned and held his stomach. I gave him a teddy bear I’d found in a dumpster. It was clean and soft, tan, with a pink bow. He examined my gift. “This looks familiar,” he said. “I think I’ve met this bear somewhere before. Can’t recall for certain.” He held it against his pain.

Ordinarily, I might have been ashamed of a dumpster gift, but not with God. Our eyes met. Beyond his prostate and roiling intestines, far from his festering boils, half-truths, and tattered underwear, a firefly flitted across the back of our retinas and exposed the dark for what it is—nothingness waiting for light. A blanket. A good place to hide and lick your wounds. Easily done in.

“Sometimes, the dark should be left alone,” God said.

I knew this. I nodded and turned my bike toward home. God faded. I felt certain he was going to the river where there are always people who need to get across. It’s especially dangerous this time of year.

Brian Doyle–a tribute

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I almost knew Brian Doyle. It was a near miss, and a loss for me. He died in his sleep yesterday, taken out of his earthly body by a brain tumor discovered last fall, only weeks before we would’ve been introduced. I owe Brian Doyle this blog. I mean the whole enchilada, not just this one measly tribute.

Last summer, as you may remember, God suggested we (God and I) co-author some short pieces, and in a slightly addled state, I agreed. I wrote, and then emailed the pieces to sympathetic friends, acknowledging how strange they were. I usually cried at the end of each one–something that made them seem inexplicably authentic to me. But I wasn’t sure what else to do. Then my friend Marianne, in one of those great round-about ways, showed my work to someone who’d heard of Brian Doyle. This person read a couple of these little pieces, named them “parables,” and thought Brian Doyle, who had actually published such things, and might be a good connection for me–someone who might make me feel less alone.

So I kept writing, bought some Brian Doyle books, and found we were, indeed, soul siblings. He obviously had my same co-author, and an advanced, enviable writing style–endearing honesty, long runs of home-made adjectives, off-beat insights, joy, despair, grace, and goofiness. But it was too late. By the time I’d written a few more, Brian was very ill. I watched and listened from a distance, and decided to create this blog in his honor. I don’t think he ever knew, but I bet he does now, as his spirit-drenched molecules dance unhinged and free from his near-sightedness, bad back, and cancer. His last prayer/letter/poem included asking if God might let him come back as an otter. This is one way Brian and I are different. Coming back as an otter is not among my top ten preferences. But that’s okay. The commonality we likely all share is the sense that being human is a great privilege. Life is short, with sprinklings of wonder. But so much goes unanswered. So much potential, squandered.

It reminds me of the last lines of W.S. Merwin’s poem, Words from a Totem Animal:

Send me out into another life

lord because this one is growing faint

I do not think it goes all the way

Brian, you’ll make an awesome otter, if that’s how it goes. Our co-author may have even more spectacular plans for you, now that you’re floating in the Vast Mercy, wrapped in the Sunrise, swaddled in the Ferocious Lap of Love. I think I see you dazzling into points of light. I think I hear you laughing like a mad man. But for now, in our earthboundness, you’ll be greatly missed—even by strangers.

Not Fair

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My brother loaned me his rototiller and I haven’t returned it. He says he’ll come get it if he needs it. I say well, that’s not really fair. He says whoever said life was fair? I mutter something like well, at least I should try to make it more fair. He just smiles.

“Hey, God,” I yell, after my brother drives away. “Whoever said life was fair?”

“Not I,” says God. “I’m not in charge of that idea. In fact, it’s a childish notion I hope you’ll outgrow someday. Who gets more candy? Who sleeps on the top bunk? This is okay when you’re seven. Tiresome behavior for adults.”

It began to rain. It rained on the river and on the cracked, thirsty garden. It rained on the pavement and on a spring wedding somewhere. The wind picked up and blew so hard I gasped for breath. It blew down a tree, it blew waves in the water, it blew away the simplistic demands we make of our shrink-wrapped God. The rain came sideways and the real God shimmered, at ease in the liquid uncertainty we think of as life.

I started a fire. God shook like a dog and joined me. My fate in the hands of rain. My days in the arms of wind. This chills me to the bone. I rub my stiff hands and sip tea.

“Justice is different than fairness,” God says. “You know that eye for an eye thing?”

I nod, wary.

God continues, patient. “That’s the upward limit. No more than an eye for an eye. But less is better. In fact, I favor forgiveness and compassion. Your species is more likely to survive that way.”

“Duh,” I snap at God. “Justice. Mercy. Compassion. Humility. I get it.” I pause and calm myself. “But I don’t think it’s fair you aren’t helping us more.” I smile. God smiles. It’s good we have these little chats.

My twinkly-eyed friend with his infectious laugh will soon be dead from the cancer he’s carried for decades. I can eat a second or third salted caramel while I write this. When I turn on the news, likely I’ll see a child bloated with hunger, floating on a crowded raft. I won’t gag. Maybe I should. God, should I gag?

The rain pounds down and the river’s rising. No answer. No answer at all.

The Kale and I

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You know how with certain friends, topics of conversation get redundant? You blah-blah along, engaging in excessive commiseration until you no longer hear each other? Well, this can be very bad for relationships, but it’s especially dangerous with God. She and I’ve been veering that direction lately, which is not surprising. Things here on earth are alarmingly dire on the surface, and few of us see balanced, loving ways forward with such apparently heartless, dishonest leaders and deep black chasms between us. Awful times for many, and awful times coming for more. I don’t pray on my knees. I talk with God with my fists in the air. I glare, stomp, wheedle, whine, kick, and cry. I threaten to leave the relationship altogether.

Sometimes, I drag God down. She’s more than willing to empathize with me. The face of God becomes a sea of deep emotion. It reminds me of when I had my tonsils out. My mom leaned over the hospital bed, her face tight with worry. “Honey, if I could, you know I’d trade places with you in a heartbeat,” she said, all choked up. Dad put his arm around her, and took her to the hallway. The surgery went fine.

God has said that same thing to me many times. Only when my mom said it, I got braver. When God says it, I get mad. This Life Force—this amazing creative generous wise beauty of an entity, this fucking confusing unfathomable inscrutable friend of mine—I want to rip my heart out—or her heart out—and bury it deep in the still-fertile soil and let things begin again.

Oh.

Wait.

It’s spring. I’ll be planting seeds. I will touch each one. They’ll grow. They’ll bring forth fruit. Surprisingly, the kale wintered over and so did I. For how many more winters, I don’t know, but I see my summer image in shallow waters, only a little worse for wear. And there’s God’s summer image, beside me, in the deep black earth, in the deep black faces, in the deep black gloom–smiling a ridiculous toothy grin, rays of light spewing from her mouth. What a maddening friend. Utterly ridiculous.

A random text from God

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God texted to see if I’d be available for a get-together one Tuesday shortly after I’d finished the chemo. I clenched my jaw as I acknowledged I was free, but pointed out other options in case I could throw him off. He’s crazy, and difficult to talk to sometimes. Slow to speak, unassuming, but simultaneously requiring too much unearned adoration. Seriously. He’s almost condescending. And often he sets up these meetings and then no-shows. He runs out of money and his phone shuts down.

I called his mother later in the week, just to see if anything God said was true. “Yes,” the mother of God said. “He’s honest. Just unfiltered. He’s got a lot on his mind, you know.” She paused and said, “Say, you don’t happen to have any contact information, do you? He’s been out of touch with the family for a while.”

This set me back on my heels. Where was God? Last I knew, he was eating at the homeless shelter, picking up odd jobs and repairing bicycles. He likes to camp along the river if it isn’t too cold. How could I tell his mother this? How could his mother not know?

As Tuesday approached, I grew more and more anxious. I wished I could cancel, but with God, this is difficult. He arrived early, agitated. “Did you call my mother?” he asked, slapping his fist into his hand. He was clearly angry.

“No,” I lied. God knew. We locked eyes for a brief moment. Then he looked out the window at the apricot tree. “Looks like rain,” he said.

“Yes,” I said, sobbing. Why did everything have to be this hard? I’d lost my last apricot tree to aphids, and two sweet cherry trees to moles. I’d lost my uterus to cancer and my idealism to the nightly news. And now, God was angry just because I called his mother.

“Look,” God said, the anger abated. “Just as you are. And just as I AM.”

Then he put his long thin arms around me and bent his wild head down so it touched the top of my partially-regrown hair. “So it is, and so it will be.” His voice was as soft and dense as sleep. I climbed in, and was welcomed into the folds of that voice.

I still find rest in that thick, palpable space. There are so few places that offer any kind of shelter these days. I’m thankful, but sometimes, lately, it’s too crowded and noisy to really relax. And who knows which of these refugees might be carrying a bomb? I’ve been asked to carry one myself, but so far, I’ve refused.

 

 

Monday

2014-08-29_12-50-26_254-2It’s a good thing someone invented the idea of Monday. Monday forces the issue, kicking the workaday week into reality, another heave-ho, away we go. Monday. Named, it is harder to avoid, even when days march along like soldiers in identical fatigues, lock-stepped, shoulder to shoulder, with only sundown and sleep as divisions.

Hello, Monday. Here I sit, awake, wording-up like a good verbal cowgirl, waiting for the frost to melt and the clouds to lift so I can escape myself. I’m certain I’ll strain my back in the process. My thoughts drift to God, who isn’t welcome right now. I redirect my brain to my lists. Better. But not enough.

I open my favorite breakfast beer. God wants a sip. No. Not welcome. You are not bread. You are not wine. You are not beer. You are a whiny bully who won’t stand up to cancer, or evil, or aging, or even, apparently, untimely death. In fact, you pal around with Death. Yesterday wasn’t funny, God. And today promises to be all bent out of shape because of how you invited Death to stroll along the Stillwater and view the fall colors with you and me. I’ll admit, the colors are spectacular this year, and yes, Death gets some artistic credit. Don’t think that makes up for anything. The beauty is almost incidental this morning. All that matters are my lists.

Leave me alone. I have leftovers to eat, floors to mop, gates to build, boards to move, tools to organize, piles of rotten wood to burn, and burn, and burn. A newly fallen cottonwood offers me shelter, and I’m tempted. I could curl like a fox in the snarl of the uprooted base and sleep in the deep dark nest of decomposed leaves and thereby join the circle on my own terms. Oh, I know I’m being dramatic, but I need some space, God. Leave me alone, okay? Please. Just leave me alone. Your chatter and apologies, your jokes and invitations. I can’t deal with you today. Maybe later, you can help me shed some of these uncomfortable clothes, but for now, I need the layers. In my mind, they are keeping me warm.

Along the Stillwater, Late August

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It seemed like a good afternoon to seek enlightenment, so I asked myself where to turn.

“Turn toward that which brings you joy,” Self said. So I went to the river, not for the water, but for the stones. I knew who’d find me there, but I wasn’t trying to hide. God always follows me around when there’s any chance I’m going to be happy.

It was a difficult visit.

I did find joy. And silliness. Orange rocks with flecks of gold–fool’s gold. I’ve always been fond of fool’s gold. It masquerades, unashamed, as a precious metal, all the while aware of its ordinariness, cheerful and shiny in its temporary stone abode. I considered the eons that will go by before the river rolls this stone enough to free these flecks into sparkling sand. I realized my bones would be dust long before, and I sat down and cried.

Enlightenment. Illumination. Detachment. I wanted to fill up my soul for whatever lies ahead. That’s what I was doing and I wanted to do it by myself.

God knew this and came by anyway. And not only did God come by, She brought a friend. I did a double-take. Death had tagged along. I tried to be polite, but Death could tell I didn’t want to visit, and discretely moved a little ways away.

“I know I’m being rude,” I said to God. She was decked out in river regalia, gray eyebrows and wrinkly tan skin. Kindness twinkled in the bright blue eyes that held me in their piercing gaze.

“Yes,” God agreed. “But you know what you know, don’t you?”

All day, I’d been trying not to know what I knew. “You mean?” I said, quaking inside.

“Yes.”

“How soon?”

“Sooner than later. Later than sooner.” God threw her flabby old arms around me. Clearly, God had gotten too much sun as a youngster. “Mortality is a lifestyle, honey. Not a destination. The event isn’t that important.”

“Then what is important?” I said, angrily. I was troubled. Shaken. Sad. Those arms were not attractive. The day had come apart.

“Come on over here,” God said to Death, who was still keeping a respectful distance, watching the water flow by. “We go way back, don’t we, Sonny?”

Death smiled and nodded, dark hair fluid on his shoulders. God turned back to me.

“What’s important is making the acquaintance,” God said. “Ironic, isn’t it? Knowing the dark lightens things up. It’s better to be ready. Aware.” Death nodded again.

“I am,” I said reluctantly. And I tried to be. I said hello to Death. I didn’t look away.

They both left. I sat on the river bank and watched as the sun colored the sky behind the cottonwoods. There were black spiders everywhere. The stones were crawling with them.  They like it along the river. I don’t know why.

Dualities

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God stopped by the other day. He’s gained some weight and acquired a limp, but his mind was as sharp as ever.

We sat on the tailgate of the silver pick-up, swinging our legs, watching the sand hill cranes. I mentioned the possibility that he could help out with things around here. There’s a lot left to do.

He was a good sport and tried to chop some wood, but it was too much for him. He got winded, and rubbed his chest in an alarming way. Honestly, I couldn’t even justify paying him minimum wage. He didn’t seem interested in the salary anyway. He sat back down on a nearby stump, stroked his white goatee, and stared out into space, attentive, like he was hearing something I couldn’t hear.

I got him a snack. He chewed with his mouth open, and examined the contents on the package. “I have a touch of diverticulitis,” he said, smiling. “I shouldn’t eat things with seeds. But sometimes I cheat a little.”

Even with his large belly, his posture was regal. He moved with slow grace, scratching himself thoughtfully. “Bug bites.” He caught my look and added, “They have a purpose.”

I shook my head. “You could’ve done better. You could’ve skipped bugs. And childbirth. Even we lowly humans invented zippers. What’s with that?”

This was old terrain. He glanced me into silence. Typical male. I decided to wait on this topic until he reappears as the large black woman with the soft, yielding lap. She has birthed me with ease, over and over. I trust her explanations more than I trust myself—for good reason. She’s saved my life a couple of times.

God interrupted my reverie. “Got my license to pack,” he said. “Need to buy a loose jacket and one of those fancy ankle straps. Might want to carry two.”

“Great,” I said. “That’s just great. Congratulations. You moving to Montana permanently?”

“Nah,” he said. “But when in Rome…”

II

Well, what do you know? Here’s God again. She’s bent over, tending flower beds on a sleepy side street in the city. A half-block away, I notice a big-boned mother with twin sons. She is struggling down the sidewalk towards God. One of the boys is angry. He bites his blanket and yowls. The big-boned mother wants to slap the red, contorted face of this defiant son, but God and I are watching. It’s harder to slap your child around with an audience. In this suspended moment, we are joined by a lovely blond girl with perfect skin and a clingy peach-colored dress. Her breasts and butt wobble. She is so sensuous even the little boys are entranced. She appears to be walking her dog, but I think, “No. She is some kind of angel and that’s not a real dog.”

I make eye contact with God. God winks, the frame freezes, and suddenly, I am alone.

I am fully, completely, alone. I am so alone my front teeth feel unfamiliar to my tongue. The light around me is metallic and cold. There isn’t much left of my body. This makes me nostalgic. Sad. My eyes, still in my head, fill with salt water. Warm, oceanic water. I want to float, weightless in this water. The big-boned mother has come back for me. I don’t want to go.

By Way of Explanation

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Dear Reader,

Being diagnosed with a rare, aggressive form of cancer is one way the universe grabs your attention. Awareness of mortality infiltrates your senses, your psyche, your relationships and even your definition of who you are. Each moment is both precious and bitter. The morning light is magical and tragic, and the days take on the misery and wonder of what it means to be human, frightened, grateful, ordinary, strong, and utterly helpless.

So far, I’m one of the lucky ones. I’ve crawled out the other side, alive, but certainly not unscathed. The treatments are over, the cancer seems to have exited for now, and all I have to endure is the aftermath: Occasional bodily invasions, chemo-induced neuropathy, chemo-accelerated arthritis and osteoporosis, an aversion to marijuana, slightly barbequed body parts, questionable lymph-node functioning, and these whacked-out, ramped-up visitations from God.

Since my baptism at age 4, I’ve known God was up to something not quite captured in the scriptures, and I’ve given chase (or been pursued) many times. I’ve followed thin strands through thick vegetation, studied, prayed, fasted, stomped my feet, and held myself absolutely still. I’ve seen God’s tail as He skitters away, heard the cry of the Mother Eagle, swam in the turbulent Living Waters, endured Holy Thirst, and been yanked back from untimely deaths by what seemed to be the Hand of God. Early on, and repeatedly, I’ve opened the Christmas gift of Salvation, and worn it with loyal ambivalence—a coat of many colors shimmering with universal grace.

Today, God and I are taking things up a notch. We’re becoming bloggers. I’ve never had such a quirky, demanding co-author, but as you read the posts, I’m sure you’ll glimpse the futility of saying no to the Creator. This is one thing you can bank on: While God endures freewill, God is also the very definition of persistent. God doesn’t give up, and blithely believes we’ll eventually get it. God has more time than we do, hence my capitulation. I’m mortal. God is not.

My heart is pounding at a rate that reveals how scary it is to go public like this. I’m nourished by my first breakfast–homemade bread and a half-bottle of dark beer. I’m fortified by sun, wind, fire, snow, and the caw of a crow outside my window. What more could I ask?

Mostly, my posts will be reports of visitations, but if God doesn’t stop by, I’ll post meditations or whatever else seeps into my soul as I listen, pray, type, and edit.

An arbitrarily designated new year is about to arrive. May courage increase and wisdom deepen, generosity expand and fears contract. May each day include awe, joy, gratitude, and mystery. And here’s my advice: Welcome the stranger, the broken, the orphan, the immigrant, the haughty and the lowly—these are among God’s favorite disguises. It’s wise to be nice.

Peace,

Rita