This is the image I can’t get out of my mind: a black cloud in clear water, feathery at the edges but impenetrable in the center. Silent. Moving outward inexorably, like a storm cloud in slow motion, so slowly that it seems frozen and unmoving. And the horror doesn’t stop: when it’s dispersed and the water is clear again it is only an illusion of cleanliness: every spot is saturated with poison, too small to see, embedded everywhere. It lodges in our lungs, our livers, our fat. Hides in the unlit crevices inside your body, hidden so deeply and buried so well that not even your white blood cells can find them. Part of you. You are what percent poison? They could test your hair, maybe, and tell you. Send a hollow needle like the probing tongue of a wasp into your breast or thigh, come out with a core sample. They will graph you, layer by layer – what was once living and unified flesh now components marked on a grid.
Once you get a glint of distrust, a little splinter of doubt lodged in your heart, it leads to a slippery slope: obsessive self examination, constant and fruitless. Is that a twinge? An ache? A lump? Constriction or inflammation? Every second holds innumerable terrors. What greater enemy could you have than the treachery lurking inside you? Marrow: a honeycombed lair full of lurking guerillas, sharpening their swords, preparing an ambush. Your lymphatic system: a soviet factory nightmare full of obsolete and rusting parts, aggressively slacking workers, gross bureaucratic ineptitude, a sea of decay and oversights. Your heart. How can it drag itself on, day after day, hammering in fear? It’s getting slow, you can feel it, sore maybe, skipping a step here and there, staggering like a faithful old dog who has gone a mile too far. Old Yeller has nothing on your circulatory system in terms of pathos.
I postponed the surgery so that if it was cancer my parents wouldn’t have to face that at Christmas. My doctor agreed to the delay, though she hesitated. Speed was essential. It could be aggressive; waiting could be fatal. But instead of being set aside it just hung like a grey washed out specter over the entire season. Behind all our words. In the hollows. Between things. Weighing down the cards, the wrapping paper, the Christmas tree, the presents.
Our ornaments wrapped in careful boxes.
The pajamas were a gift from my parents. I loved them instantly. Absurdly cheerful bright pink flannel with green, goggle-eyed frogs. Children’s pajamas, but just the thing for a winter surgery and then the long cold wait for the biopsy reports. I knew they were meant to lift my spirits, to tell me I’d come through the surgery, wake up, life would go on. I’d need something to wear, in this certain afterwards, something that wouldn’t rub against the incision. And without needing words they told me that I was still their little girl, protected.
They watched me open my presents, hopefully. It seemed to me suddenly that they had become so much more fragile, paper thin, worn out from a long life of watching out for their daughters. From so many years of me in hospitals. They did their best.
How many more butterflies? This is a line of reasoning which will rapidly drive you crazy. How many more gardens will I plant, how many more times will I wait impatiently for the strawberries to ripen before biting into the first warm sweet one, fresh from the vine? Thirty, maybe forty at a generous guess. Less, probably. You never know. And yet every single afternoon – no matter how fleeting it seems in our eternal retrospect – contains more wonders than anyone could possibly take in. Butterflies, dragonflies, an infinity of clouds changing color and form, the patterns of the waves on the sound, the flowers in bloom, the gorgeous green and elegant curve of each solitary blade of grass.
How many more times will I stand on the sidewalk in December, face turned upwards, looking for snow?
After the surgery there was the scar. Long and jagged and crooked, held loosely together with uneven Frankenstein stitches. As if they’d gone in with something cruder than scalpels – a long knife, maybe, like the kind you use to gut a large animal. I looked down and felt like meat. Blood seeped around the stitches, which seemed totally inadequate, not up to the task of holding my insides together.
It’s hard in more ways than one. The expense, the payments, the insurance premiums, the out of pocket, the deductible, the tests. The time off work. Paperwork with line items broken down into mysterious abstruse equations, white envelopes piling into unopened drifts on every surface. Someone to take care of you in that situation is out of the question – enough has been spent. And should it get spent? Can your family afford you having cancer? If you broke yourself down into a dollar amount, would you find yourself worth it?
I waited alone in the house, with the twinges, the pain. The pieces of me which were now gone lay off in a lab somewhere, sliced open onto slides, maybe. I imagined strangers in white coats deciphering the clues in the layers of tissue, moving slow and careful.
It was a record cold winter. We had two feet of snow. A wood stove for heat. This was a little inconvenient under the best circumstances, but with an eight inch incision that yawned and pulled along the edges, it simply meant no heat. I had to walk 30 minutes a day, to keep the blood from clotting in my veins, for which I was considered high risk. This at least helped keep me warm. Our street seemed safe enough, snow and all: one mile of even sidewalk, carefully maintained, a gentle curve along the water, the small weathered beach cottages of a small northwest town mostly edged out by newly constructed tasteful large view homes with Japanese themed gardens in the northwest style or small green squares of unnaturally green lawn or pebbled patios. Condo homes with rows of white balconies topped in the spring with deep red geraniums. Even with all the snow, a level and genteel walk.
I’ve always loved to walk in the snow. The chill, the muffled sounds, the brightness. The heavy boughs of the firs frosted with white, low hanging, the resinous scent sharp in the air, mingled with the salt smell of the bay.
I set out in my cheerful pink pajamas.
Maybe I miscalculated. The drifts were deeper than I realized. The snow had frozen slightly on the top, forming a surface more treacherous than usual. I was also looped up on the stiffest painkillers doctors will give – something for the pain, something to dull the anxiety of waiting for the results.
The snow soaked through the thin cotton of the pajamas. I lay stunned, more profoundly exhausted than I’d ever felt: drained and hollow. The tear along the scar a hot pain against the seeping cold of the pajamas, the snow unexpectedly hard. The trees leaned above me, unreachable.
From my drift I watched my neighbors, walking in the snow, seeming to pass me at strange angles. The sounds of their feet seemed strangely muted, far away. As they passed I could see their faces, stamped with looks of disgust, like they’d always known i was a junkie and now here was the proof. First the cheap rental with peeling paint, the ugly cars haphazardly rusting in front, then this sodden blood-trailing heap in the snow. Or maybe they only saw my raincoat paired with pink pajamas, poorly brushed hair and cheap boots and assumed I was just another homeless person, making my drunken round between my panhandling/drug dealing station on 4th ave and the bush I probably slept in inside the park.
I couldn’t stay there but had no reserves. Not exhaustion, but something more profound: a pit inside me edged in black. I could feel my breath coming in shallow rasping gasps. Light in the head, hollow in the middle, feet like stone. I slid. And then crawled, my knees numb in the snow. Then staggered. Grabbed a handful of shrubbery for support, my hands destroying the carefully pruned line of a neighbor’s hedge.
I live here, I wanted to say, in the vacuum of silence that seemed to open all around me. This is my home.