Breathe. Accept.

Part of the THIS IS THE MOMENT series.

January 22nd, 2021


I’m back!

I had to look back through THIS IS THE MOMENT to see how long I’ve been away, and was shocked to see that I last wrote to you in November.

I’m so sorry about that.

Do you believe in jinxes? Yes, I’m serious. Do you believe that words uttered can have the effect of toppling one’s wild and precious life?

In my case, it’s about a happy, uplifting appointment at the CHUM I had in early December with Dr. Aubin and a resident who was attending her, and also with my beloved nurse, Chantal.

During 2020, I received chemotherapy every two weeks from January to August, with no breaks at all—a gruelling experience, but one I thought was worth it because I knew that late August would mark the end of the two-year clinical trial I had signed up for. It meant that I would no longer be receiving Nivolumab.

When December arrived, my body had reacted so favourably to the research protocol: I looked well. My weight was super stable. My bloodwork was almost always really good. In the examination room, we were all smiles. Enjoying this happy moment, Dr. Aubin turned to the resident who was with her that day and said:

“Mme Payette est une patiente qui va exceptionnellement bien .»

(translated : « Mrs. Payette is a patient who is doing exceptionally well.”).

Dr. Aubin had even convinced the sponsor of my clinical trial to preserve my status as a research patient, because my data was valuable as long as I stayed the course and received Folfox.

I smiled. It was one of those moments in a cancer patient’s life that’s like a cloudy sky opening up and revealing a blinding ray of sunlight.

I felt lucky. I felt unburdened for a few brief minutes. I felt…weightless and hopeful. I allowed myself to feel charmed. Blessed. And inside that ray of light, I even allowed myself to think: maybe I’m one of those people whose tumours just stop growing.

ART: Ellen Levinson, Orange Sunburst Forest Abstract

I carried that feeling around with me for a while. I shared it with my family, and I shared it with my mum, who, at 85, and trapped inside her house by COVID-19, was in need of good, happy news. I’m okay. All is well. The slightest of white lies from daughter to mother.

But it’s not good to get ahead of one’s self. I should have known better. I should have taken some positivity away from the doctor’s encouraging message, discreetly, and then made sure my feet were firmly on the ground before continuing treatment.

What concluding the infusions of Nivolumab has allowed me to do is learn from my body, and begin sorting through which medications were and/or continue to be responsible for certain side effects. For instance, I think I can confidently say that Nivolumab was responsible for the muscle weakness and joint pain that had been increasing for months, because since last August, these have subsided and I can move and squat and do physical work almost painlessly now.

Still, I should have known better than to escape into believing in magical outcomes, because the need to live outside of cancer, even briefly, left me vulnerable when, in sync with the pandemic, I was hit by unrelenting waves of side effects.

* * * * *

Throughout last fall, my eyesight worsened. Not only sunlight, but even lamplight burned my eyes. If I had sprouted fangs and begun hissing, I couldn’t have acted more vampiric. It was crippling. Concerned and cautious, Dr. Aubin requested an appointment for me at the ophthalmology clinic, my third since I became an oncology patient. It was booked for December 18th.

Meanwhile, a second problem had been building momentum: for weeks, I had been experiencing spasms in my right trapezoid muscle—a large muscle that starts at the neck, branches out to the shoulder blade and reaches down to the middle of the spine. The cramps had been worsening and were nearly constant.

Watts, George Frederic; Hope; Tate; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/hope-117695

On the 18th, when I was called to wait in the ophthalmology examination room, on a chair designed to keep you still and straight-backed while the doctor places a treelike apparatus of lenses, lights and supports in your face, my back spasms had become so fierce that it was as though I was being zapped by a taser over and over and over—as though electrified tentacles were firing into my back.

The resident doctor arrived (you always see the resident first), and spent a long while asking me questions while he blasted light into my yowling eyes (if eyes could yowl, that is). After a period of uncomfortable silence interrupted only by requests to “please try to keep your eye open” (futile), the resident physician said:  “Mais Madame, vous avez un trou dans votre oeil!” (“But Madam, you have a hole in your eye!”).

Um…uh…oh…bbbb…but….

What on earth could I say? This didn’t sound very medical to me and I had no idea what he was expecting me to say…though the fact of my being there in that chair spoke for itself, I thought…

Swynnerton, Annie Louisa; The Sense of Sight; Walker Art Gallery; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-sense-of-sight-97597

I realize now that what he had read in my file—something like: Patient complaining of photosensitivity in both eyes—didn’t prepare him for the gravity of my situation. After all, this had come up twice before in the first year and a half of treatment, and both times, I’d been sent home with a list of over-the-counter eye drops that I was told should do the trick of moisturizing my eyes. That information sat in my file, and no follow-up was ever booked by any of the ophthalmologists I saw.

Off he went to get the ophthalmological surgeon, Dr. Louis Racine (remember that name—he’s brilliant). When the latter entered the examination room, I was still seated in the dark, besieged by back spasms and slowly retreating into shock. He immediately set to work, and just as I was about to ask him something, he said (in French): “Madam, I’ll ask you not to talk. When I’m done I’ll answer every one of your questions, but for now, I’m trying to save your eye.”

GULP.

How can I explain what it was like, sitting there? When I left the house that morning, it was with the expectation that I probably had a blocked tear duct, caused by the construction going on at our house which had sprayed so much plaster dust everywhere. I thought this because my right eyelid had swollen a few days previously, and my eye was constantly leaking tears. I had been distracted by the back spasms that were getting worse.

And this same Thursday was also the day when Cindy, a beloved family friend, was moving in with us, into the addition the builders had just about completed. Both she and Simon quite literally had their hands full and in any case, because of the COVID lockdown, I was still not allowed to be accompanied to the CHUM.

Shortly after, Dr. Racine informed me that both of my corneas were in terrible shape, so dried out that the right one had perforated, and the left one was on the brink of sharing the same fate. I was dangerously close to becoming blind in at least one eye.

Faster than I was able to process, I found myself in a different room in the ground floor clinic, lying on a gurney. A different resident was attending Dr. Racine and it was clear by his hyper deferential manner, that Dr. Racine (though young!), had his respect and a lot of clout.

What was done to me that day was this:

As I lay there, fully conscious, afraid that my back spasms would make me move despite my best efforts to stay immobile, Dr. Racine cut through the surface of my cornea, saying “Ne bougez pas” (“Don’t move”)—all the while giving the play-by-play of his actions to his colleague—removing the useless tissue and closing the hole by gluing a temporary contact lens over it.

ART: “Breathe”, Sara Young

I’ve seen dogs and cats who are usually filled with kinetic energy go docile and still as stone when taken to the vet. I understand them. I have rarely felt so vulnerable. My situation unravelled so quickly, it was all I could do to keep myself together and not cry. I kept quiet. I made my life at that moment into the smallest, most stripped down existence possible.

Breathe.

Accept.

Breathe.

Accept.

Stoner, Tim; Breath; Government Art Collection; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/breath-29343

And trust in this man who had inserted into my right eye a lens with a bright blue fake pupil that made me look like a cyborg. It was scratchy and irritating. He covered it with a protector and then we went back toward the examination room.

Minutes after, he sat at the computer saying (always in French): “No, not Saturday…Sunday? No…Okay Tuesday!”. Then he turned to me and said: “Next Tuesday, I’ve booked you for corneal transplant surgery. You’re going to be okay, you know.”

Or something like that. And then he put his hand on my shoulder and said: “With everything you’re going through, you could have done without this, couldn’t you?”

And instantly, I felt like a woman, like a person, and I was flooded with a sense of relief and gratitude.

The transplant was done as planned, on the following Tuesday, with my son Jeremy parked in the CHUM basement waiting for the call that would allow him to come and get me. I came so close to blindness.

* * * * *

Since then, I’ve been getting a big fat dose of what it’s like to live with a single functioning eye; how it throws off your ability to judge depth and distance. And I’ve discovered that there is a sympathetic link between our eyes, so that when one is burning and struggling to stay open, the other tends to do the same thing…

I’ve had my first Christmas baking experience with limited vision. I’ve become adept at getting 4-5 ophthalmic medications to drop, bullseye, right into the centre of my eyes (yes, BOTH eyes because my left cornea was just at the point of tearing, too).

Not long after, my back spasms reached a level of such intense pain that for most of January, I’ve been taking anti-inflammatories, more powerful muscle relaxants, short-term pain control to block the signal between the muscle and the brain (or it might become a permanent pain pathway), in addition to all of my eye meds.

The people at the pharmacy all know my name. I get great service.

* * * * *

What caused the destruction of my corneas?

It seems likely that it was a chemotherapy drug, because I had never had any such issues before, and they only appeared after treatment started.

I’m scared, because even as I try to do everything I can to help my eyes to heal, I am still ingesting the poisons that have damaged them. When I saw Dr. Racine this past Monday, he was disappointed in the slowness of my eye’s healing. I’m now wearing a contact lens over my right eye, in the hopes it will speed the healing of my cornea. Otherwise…Oh, never mind. You know enough.

And what of the muscle spasms?

Well, three days ago, I went back to the CHUM (the day after I saw Dr. Racine), but this time to Nuclear Medicine, on the 8th floor, for a bone scan. The entire procedure takes 4 hours.

Dr. Aubin should have the results when I see her next week.

* * * * *

So? Do you believe in jinxes?

I’m still inclined to say no, even though I am definitely NOT doing exceptionally well.

I have missed reading terribly (but recently, I’ve been able to).
I have missed writing terribly (but today I’m diving back in with a vengeance).
I miss seeing friends and family (even if only with one eye) terribly. But that’s COVID 19.

But I don’t think I’m jinxed. Not for a minute.

I feel so grateful to modern medicine and to the health care professionals who have steered me through so many dangers and threats.

I am grateful for my eyesight, fragile though it may be.
I am grateful for Dr. Aubin, Chantal, Dr. Racine and all of the nurses who work on the chemotherapy floor.

I love my family, my relatives, my friends –near and far.

I LOVE THEM.

Maybe BREATHE, ACCEPT, BREATHE, ACCEPT, is the very best thing I can do.

And LOVE.

Of course.

Hashem, Satta; Sight and Insight 1; Leicester City Council (Adult Skills and Learning); http://www.artuk.org/artworks/sight-and-insight-1-95197

CUBICLES OF HEALING AND PAIN: Notes from chemo base camp, part 7

PART OF THE THIS IS THE MOMENT SERIES

December 10th, 2018

Last night, sleep didn’t come to me as easily as usual. At 11:25 pm, I was still awake, lying in bed in a room illuminated only by the glow of a white winter night sky. In my previous life, this would have triggered anxious thoughts about how I was going to get through the next day of work on so little sleep, but now, it’s just what it is. There are no real consequences to such things because my days are more about not getting sick, not getting tired, and laying low, than about anything outward-looking.

So I lay there in the incomplete darkness and turned my gaze toward the window through the white phantom curtains. I took in the December evening, the quiet of the house and the square space of my room—ceiling, shadow furniture and the folds of the blankets keeping me warm.  And I asked myself a question that must come to every chemo patient eventually: What is my purpose?

When, last July, I figured out that I wouldn’t be able to work, or do much else once treatment started, I felt an enormous relief. I felt lightened. It felt like I had been busy running toward the next class, the next meal, the next appointment or chore for so long, I didn’t want to run anymore. I may have been running away from a lot of things too.

So much of our lives is propelled by plans, fears, desires, ambitions, routines, hopes, commitments, dreams, obligations, pressures and momentum. But what happens when the road ahead requires passive compliance?

My life has the strangest shape. It has so few of the usual pieces that I’m stumped by it. I watch people come and go, and know that I’m outside their worlds. Every now and then, when conditions are just right, I can join them, and for a while, I feel part of the stream of life. But I’m still just a visitor these days.

Winter isn’t helping. It arrived mid-November with snow that stayed, and biting cold. It has pretty much immobilized me. Chemo and cold are incompatible. My body’s responses to the frigid temperature are odd and painful. Chemo has transformed winter into an alien thing which keeps me housebound much more than is good for me.  And it’s only just beginning.

Joni Mitchell, skating on Lake Mendota, near Madison Wisconsin, 1976, photo by Joel Bernstein

Lying in my bed last night, I found myself thinking about the other world, the one at the CHUM, where I experience short, intense bursts of purposeful, alternate life. There was nothing difficult about my treatment last Wednesday, but the day was long, as always, and my eyes wandered.

The cancer treatment centre of the CHUM is on the 15th floor: the top floor. Isn’t that wonderful? We step into the elevator and rise and rise above it all, and wait like (bald) eagles in our eyries. It’s a separate world made up of multiple large areas subdivided into “rooms”, or cubicles, where chemo is administered to hundreds of patients every week. Perhaps the most important difference between the CHUM and most of Montreal’s other hospitals is its brand-newness. Most cubicles, just like the waiting areas everywhere, have a floor to ceiling window-wall which offers not only a view of the eastern part of downtown Montreal, but also allows natural light to stream in, and patients and their families to look out and beyond the multiple wall plugs and pumps and infusion tubing.

Conroy, Stephen; The Garden; The Fleming Collection; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-garden-218248

Still, most of the large, comfy chairs in these areas have their backs to the window, which means that during the five to six hours that I’m there, there’s always the possibility of eye contact with other patients.

I’m surprised by everyone’s discretion. Some of us smile easily at each other, but conversations between patients are rare. Most of us are accompanied by family or friends for at least part of our stay. I’ve had seven treatments so far, and have never engaged in any kind of meaningful chat with a fellow chemo patient, once inside. Why is that? Well, in part, at least, it’s about the space available to us: we’re all settled in areas with walls and curtains that allow for a high degree of privacy, so interacting is a choice.

But those partitions also delimit the borders of our pain. No matter the brave or resigned face patients and their loved ones put on, from my chair, I observe so much more. Even though the discomfort of chemotherapy is easily bearable while in those chairs, you can sense pain everywhere.

For some, it’s the effect of repeated, long term assaults on their body and spirit. There’s an older man I’ve seen at blood tests and in treatment who suffers from thyroid cancer. I know this because I overheard him one Monday morning (pre-chemo tests day). His face is razor thin and his body is brittle. He has no more fat to sacrifice: cancer and treatment have devoured it all. He’s all angles and jutting bones, and his expression is mostly sour, impatient, and defiant. I wonder how much of him hurts with every movement of his body. His wife is always there with him, and I feel for her because hers is a thankless task. Then, last Wednesday, he and I found ourselves waiting to be called in for our treatment. And I looked at him, smiled, and said Bonjour! And he looked back and smiled Bonjour!

Well what do you know! This man, with his robotic voice, —which I imagine he owes to hours of radiation treatment— he’s just struggling to find a way around his pain.

Shackleton, William; Wings of Silence; Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/wings-of-silence-54462

CUBICLE 17

I was in cubicle 17 last time. To my left, occupying the corner space and hidden by a curtain, was 16, and then, moving along the left wall, were 15 and so on. Of 16, my closest neighbour, I could see little other than the nurses coming and going, and hear voices, until an attractive man, perhaps in his early to mid-fifties walked out, heading, no doubt, to get some coffee. He wore a suit jacket, not some comfortable sweater, and was perfectly groomed despite the venue. I‘m sure he smelled good too. What I could sense from him was the temporariness of his stay here—he was here to accompany the person I could only imagine in the armchair next door. His eyes didn’t search the room. He seemed to be trying to maintain a kind of social neutrality as he moved about, free of the I.V. pole and bags that patients are tethered to. Free of cancer.

Sims, Charles; My Pain beneath Thy Sheltering Hand; Bethlem Museum of the Mind; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/my-pain-beneath-thy-sheltering-hand-192943

CUBICLE 16

The hours passed. The I.V. bags containing all of our poisons were changed at the required intervals by hyper-competent nurses. And then a new face emerged from behind the curtain of cubicle 16. This fellow was perhaps in his late thirties, early forties. Tall and casually well-dressed in fitted black, from shirt to shoes. He was so different from his companion. He looked around as he came and went. He had an easy smile that drew me to his kind face. He could have been walking in an office building, except…for his I.V. pole with all the tubing attached to him, his shaved head and the bright red scar that began at his right ear and ran all the way up the side and top of his skull, past the mid-point. And the falter in his walk.

Brain cancer. You think that immediately. Then your mind runs through all kinds of terrifying scenarios. To words like glioblastoma. You imagine the surgery that he’s been through. You imagine what the first inklings of his illness might have been. You imagine seizures. You imagine the terror he must have felt when he was diagnosed. The bomb that went off in his life. The seismic ripples. The fear. And how far he’s come in a short time. And now, chemo.

Behind the curtain of room 16 there’s his story, most of which you can only guess at. But you wish him well. You send him every positive thought and feeling you can muster in such a place. You try to hold hope for him in your heart. You marvel at his beatific face, which is hiding so much pain.

CUBICLE 15

In cubicle 15, right next to him, there was a couple. They arrived together dressed similarly in relaxed clothes: jeans, sweater, no fuss. He got comfortable and she sat very close by on the plain stackable chair provided. They seemed close in age: perhaps their early forties. They looked like the parents of a few kids—I guessed maybe between the ages of 9 and 13…something like that.

They spoke to each other in near whispers, their expressions tense and urgent. The nurse came and got things rolling. And I found myself staring at them. I couldn’t help myself. Their S.O.S. signals were impossible to ignore. Once his drip started, she moved closer to him, and rubbed his hand gently, and for a very long time. Back and forth, back and forth. Sometimes they spoke quietly, but mostly, she sat vigil in silence. Later, I noticed that he had raised one of his legs to rest on her knees. And again, without smiling, without really looking at him, she continued her soothing, stroking motion.

Hodgkin, Howard; Silence ; Victoria Art Gallery; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/silence-229837

There was love there, but they were at odds. Everything about them was tension-filled and anxious. More whisperings and agitation, followed by a period of coldness. Then her hand would reach out again and stroke his…The silent inhalations and exhalations of a terrible shared suffering.

At mid-day, a plump woman dressed in civilian clothes arrived at their cubicle, and the wife left. The visitor moved close to him, sat, and a conversation began. I know she must have been a staff psychologist by the way she spoke with him—discretely, calmly—but also because she stayed with him at least a full hour. During their exchanges (which I monitored discretely—it’s so hard to look away from another’s suffering), I saw him move from tense withdrawal, to resistance, to openness and then, to tears. I couldn’t help but witness those: it was the only moment in the whole day when his voice—now raw and vulnerable—was audible to me.

And then the session was over, and his wife returned, and within minutes, she was whispering urgently to him, her face filled with anguish and tears. Her side of the story, I thought. Her reality. He didn’t reach out to her. I imagine that he was still held in the state of being he’d reached with the psychologist, feeling, perhaps (I really hope so) calmer, more centred, less afraid—and so unable or not ready to open himself to her again.

They fell back into their pattern. He, quiet and withdrawn; she with her soothing hand extended, as she focused on the book she was reading. And the love and pain radiated from Cubicle 15.

Boisseau, Annie; The Moon is Hanging in a Purple Sky; University of Surrey; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-moon-is-hanging-in-a-purple-sky-231140

* * * * *

No anguish I have had to bear on your account has been too heavy a price to pay for the new life into which I have entered in loving you.”
― George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss

“Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.”- Khalil Gibrand from The Prophet

One word
Frees us of all the weight and pain of life:
That word is love.”
Sophocles

 

EXPRESSIONS OF RESISTANCE

I arrived home yesterday depleted. That’s really the only word for it despite the fact that it was a good day. Wednesday is my hardest and longest teaching day. Paying such close attention to people who are nestled so closely around me for hours on end may, in fact, draw out of me more than it does some of my colleagues. Perhaps more than I’m really able to give.

November Sunset, photo by me
November Sunset, photo by me

At the end of such a day, it makes sense that I just wanted to head home to lay low, to have several cups of steaming tea and soothe my vocal chords.

I dropped all of my bags, set the kettle on the stovetop and opened this laptop. I do this to reconnect with the world that I’m drawn away from by my work and my absences. I move from my email inboxes to Facebook, seeing what I’ve missed (or briefly caught on the screen of my IPhone before it flitted away).

It’s a highly interactive but quiet world that is both a highway of engagement with others and one of my favourite places of retreat.

November 17th, the sun through my kitchen window
November 17th, the sun through my kitchen window

I discover brilliant sites online that I subscribe to happily and which now fill my Inbox every day with notices. I skim through the online papers though there are too many.  I visit the surface of the lives of the people I care about, wanting to see the evidence, through pictures, posts and messages, that they’re well, that they’re still there. I’m apprehensive about letting any of them fall through the cracks of my awareness.

 

When I got home yesterday, Christian and my husband were sitting together watching something on Netflix. Everything about the scene and the feeling in the house was benign and calm, except me.

Victor Hugo, La Pieuvre

I couldn’t bring myself to go sit with them; it was too soon. So I opened up this laptop. And scrolled. And scrolled. And scrolled. And was inundated by posts about the Trump presidency. Facebook’s algorithms saw to it that all of them—from the most considered and balanced to the most polemical and shrill—were unrelentingly distressing, worrying, disturbing, depressing and alienating. This stream was magnified by the posts of friends and their friends from both sides of the border who are, as I am, in agony.

 

This election year in the country of my neighbours to the South has filled me with a sense of dread. There’s a darkness in the world that has revealed itself and that clings to me.

I know how this sounds. But I also know that I’m a healthy and emotionally balanced, level- headed, very intuitive woman and I trust what I’m feeling.

I’ve been alerted.

Warned.

I feel the breath of something that wills ill. Something that’s tearing the social fabric in an unendurable manner. Something that it may take decades to heal from. Something that seeks to separate us from each other and divert us from what we must do and become.

More immediately, it’s a dark energy that will envelop and endanger the people I love: my students from all around the world, my children and grandchildren who will be more wounded than I because they’re still headed into the biggest portion of their lives.

There are so many voices crying out these days. Some of them (many?) screaming painful, ugly, vile things that infect everyone. But many, too, yelling out like sonar beacons in search of kindred minds and spirits and the reassurance of these connections. People of kindness and conscience.

I don’t feel that there is an US and a THEM.

This dark thing that hovers over us all is about inequality, despair, fear, tribalism, malice, innocence, ignorance, corruption, rapaciousness, cynicism, greed, misfortune, selfishness, the degradation of modern life, insecurity, exploitation, and a sociopathy that normalizes and institutionalizes everything that breaks down the connections between us and the planet which is our shared home.

Surveillance, by Levalet

Facebook has hugely amplified my bewilderment and sadness in the wake of the rise of Donald Trump and his entourage. It’s true. Sometimes, what I read there makes me queasy.

I think maybe that’s part of what was happening to me yesterday when I sat down after work. I just felt sad. It was a heavy and cold feeling. It was that longing for a good cry. It’s what creeps in when my energy is low.

In recent weeks, I’ve come to understand that maybe suffering is part of what I’m meant to experience. When there’s little else a person can do to effect immediate change in the face of a terrible wrong, owning the suffering that emanates from that darkness is something. It’s a valuable first step.

This seems to be a shared sentiment because, beyond the unrelenting stream of post-election news online, there are the cries of many voices expressing pain and distress. And also a desire for something good and just and universal.

Melancholy, by Alyssa Monks

From the pain comes resistance. I’ve felt this too and I watch its myriad expressions and modulations appear online every day, especially among artists and writers.

I’ve recently been invited to join other writers searching for a means to combine their voices in an expression of resistance to the darkness, certainly, but also, hopefully, to build pathways of understanding and unity between us.

I want to be part of this movement, but I know that I’m not a political writer. I hope I’ll be able to find a way to contribute something that’s meaningful and useful even though it’s personal.

On the table yesterday, I found a package from Amazon addressed to me (most of them are and most of them contain books). Inside, I found three volumes of Mary Oliver’s poetry. Lean, lovely books that weigh nothing in the hand but somehow have such import.

I opened the smallest one first, A Thousand Mornings, and read one poem after another. At first, I thought that I would break down and cry—her work is so beautiful—but I couldn’t stop reading. There was such grace and truth in the short poems I pored over that I felt them lifting my spirits almost immediately. I can only describe this as a moment of quiet bliss.

The ones I found most beautiful are the ones that spoke to the pain inside me yesterday. Who knows which will resonate in a week or a month from now.

Here are two of them:

 THE MORNING PAPER

By Mary Oliver

Read one newspaper daily (the morning edition

is the best

for by evening you know that you at least

have lived through another day)

and let the disasters, the unbelievable

yet approved decisions,

soak in.

I don’t need to name the countries,

ours among them.

What keeps us from falling down, our faces

to the ground; ashamed, ashamed?

 

POEM OF THE ONE WORLD

By Mary Oliver

 

This morning

the beautiful white heron

was floating along above the water

and then into the sky of this

the one world

we all belong to

where everything

sooner or later

is a part of everything else

which thought made me feel

for a little while

quite beautiful myself.

WHAT WOULDN’T HAVE BEEN

Photo by Lisa Zane

I met up with my cousin yesterday. She’s also my godchild. Sixteen years separate us. She’s a twin. On most week days, during the summer she was born, I used to cycle a dozen or so kilometers to the duplex her parents rented, to take care of her not-quite-three-year-old brother, and help out any way I could while her young mum (my aunt) cared for her newborn daughters and tried to finish writing her master’s thesis.

That’s to say that I love my cousin immensely and that our connection has deep roots. The fact that she’s a twin, and that I eventually also had twins, has only strengthened our bond. But our lives are full and we see each other too rarely.

 

Yesterday, we sat with our coffees and tried to catch up with each other’s lives. When there’s so much to say and so little time to say it, conversation does a strange thing: it cuts to the chase.

And so we found ourselves discussing insights that come only with time and distance.

If you were to represent our lives on a timeline, you might expect to see two parallel lines on which the usual signposts of life—youth—studies—romance and coupling—establishing a career—children—mirror each other’s, with hers lagging behind mine at a consistent interval.

But it isn’t really so.

In part, that’s because I got off to a very early start in some things, and she in others. We made different choices and we live with them.

 

What an easy and fruitless explanation.

I’ve been thinking a lot about our conversation. I’ve had these thoughts about the road less traveled and the road not taken—complementary expressions (and titles)—one inspired by the other, that are intended, in part, as meditations on the meaning and responsibility of choice.

This morning, I looked up Robert Frost’s poem to refresh my memory (I’ve included it at the end of this post). I followed him from the fork in the road that brought him to a place where one path wouldn’t allow him to see too far ahead: to where it bent in the undergrowth”.

I followed him as he looked from that path to the other, the one “having perhaps the better claim, because it was grassy and wanted wear” and chose that one, the one less traveled by, which “has made all the difference.”

It’s made me realize that you can read it over and over and understand it differently each time, according to where you’re standing on that day.

What strikes me most readily is the traveler’s avoidance of the road that doesn’t allow him to see too far ahead. I’m struck by his delusion that the other is really any different. Because even a straight line to the horizon offers only a partial glimpse of the road ahead.

We place enormous stock in the choices we make in life, and we should.

My cousin and I talked a long while about those. Such conversations inevitably lead to “what might have been”, the weight of which increases as we grow older.

 

Looking at her beautiful face that is just beginning to show the slightest evidence of her age, and her smile which is as luminous as it was when she was still a preschooler, you would never know what she carries with her. The pain. Held inside her from childhood and still poking gashes into her like a shard of glass. How it changed the way she walks in the world. How it has diverted her from who she might have been.

For some of us, those injuries come early on in our lives and for others, only much later. Sometimes they’re so savage and unrelenting that they break something inside us. Sometimes, they drip, drip, drip, drip until they’ve created a hole that we’ll never be able to fill or close.

 

But all of us are wounded at some point in our lives. All of us sustain blows that we rise from. All of us struggle to integrate suffering.

How different would my cousin’s choices have been had she carried a lighter burden?

That’s a question I ask about my own life as well.

It’s enormously important and also futile.

It matters: not because it’s answerable—it isn’t—but because it leads to self-knowledge and to a self-awareness that generates the truest compassion.

It has also led me to a deeper understanding of all that flows from WHAT WE CANNOT CHOOSE.

* * * *

Brompton Cemetery, London, England

 

On Monday August 22nd, I went for an afternoon walk with my youngest son, Christian. It was his 25th birthday, but we’d done most of the celebrating that weekend.

It was a cool and breezy day and that’s probably what convinced us to head towards the Library and then see where we wound up next.

Across the street from the Library is a cemetery that belongs to Saint-Joachim parish, which is three centuries old and situated a few kilometers away, on the lakeshore, the dead having long ago exceeded the space made for them near the parish church.

My father’s buried there, as are loved ones from generations preceding my parents, but I hadn’t visited it for years.

 

Brompton Cemetery, London, England

I’m not sure why that is, because I love cemeteries. When I went to London to visit Christian last year at almost the same date, one of the first places he took me was Brompton Cemetery for a long and lovely walk.

Most European cemeteries are old enough to have been partially reclaimed by nature: the trees have grown tall and many headstones—monuments really—have long since begun leaning back toward the earth.

 

That’s not the case at the Pointe-Claire cemetery. When my dad was buried there in 1989, only ground plaques were allowed. It bothered me and it bothered my mum that people could so easily walk over the stone upon which my dad’s name was engraved.

 

About 10 years ago, they changed the rule, and so my mum decided to have a new monument made for my dad’s grave, and asked me if I’d go with her to choose it. While we were there, she told me that she also wanted to have the name of my stillborn son—Gabriel—inscribed on the stone. The circumstances of his death were such that no memorial of any kind marked his passage through our lives. I accepted of course. It was such a kind and sensitive offer.

 

That must be what drew me to the cemetery with Christian on the day of his birthday. There we were, together, searching for my dad’s new headstone. It took a while because the cemetery has expanded in the years since I last visited and I was confused by the extra rows.

 

Then I found it. Christian came to stand by my side because it had immobilized me. And there we saw, below my father’s name near the base of the headstone, the inscription: “À LA MÉMOIRE DE BÉBÉ GABRIEL DAOUST”.

It was beautiful to see. It marked a traumatic event that occurred more than a quarter century ago. We stood there for a while, whispering how lovely it was and what a good idea my mum had had.

 

My mouth had gone dry and I felt a bit unsteady. We began walking toward the edge of the cemetery which overlooks a hill, and then, as though someone had thrown a switch, my heart pounding, the tears came. I said to Christian: It’s 26 years away and it’s two seconds away. Then he took me into a gentle hug and there we stood, embracing in the cemetery on a sunny summer day; his birthday. And it felt like the most appropriate thing in the world.

It was life coming full circle. Because you see, had I been given the choice, I would never have chosen to go through the dark and painful experience of losing Gabriel. I would have opted for “the better claim”, the greener path.

 

I understand that it’s good that life gave me no choice. I wouldn’t be the person I became. By choosing to not go towards the pain, I would have sidestepped one of the deepest and most resilience-building passages of my life.

Had I done so, I would never have had Christian.

At the cemetery’s edge, August 22nd 2016

On his Facebook page for August 22nd, Christian posted pictures of the headstone and a selfie he took of us both standing on the edge of the cemetery, in that moment of utter vulnerability and tenderness. They were accompanied by the following message:

 

 

“Today of all days, I should give thanks to my mum and honour one of my namesakes. A quarter century on this planet and I’m feeling really lucky. Thanks everyone for making my life grand.”

 

 

Christian was born nineteen months after Gabriel.

Had I been able to choose, Christian is WHAT WOULDN’T HAVE BEEN, in my life.

He has made all the difference.

 

The Road Not Taken – by Robert Frost

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

 

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

 

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

 

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.