Copyright © 1998, Lora Wise McKenna
The most fascinating part of an illness, to me, is the part that's seldom discussed - thehealing. Like a work of art or life itself, the healing process moves out from under your well-intentions and goes where it pleases.
My sister asked me how much radiation I was getting per treatment. "You mean it comes inquantities?" I said, thinking it was like love or talent, measured abstractly with words like "some" or"not much".
The treatment room has subdued lighting and is sterile but pleasant, like a beauty salondesigned by a museum studies student. In the middle of the room is a white cloth-covered slabthat moves up or down electronically. Over that is a big disk that moves from on top of the slab tounderneath it with the push of a button. Each treatment lasts only five minutes but afterwards Ifeel so accomplished.
I knew in my heart the sarcoma was not the major issue in this healing project. The majorissue was that I hadn't been able to just sit quietly in God's lap for 30 or so years because I wasobsessed with my mother's alcoholic demise. Everywhere I looked was death.
All my energy went to killing off Death. Red lipstick. Pink toilet paper. Green silk panties.Chocolate cupcakes. Freud. Plies. Freeing my son. Containing my husband. Nothing worked. Ifought so hard, there was nothing left. It's dangerous to walk around with nothing, but I was cleverenough to get sick. Then I'd go to bed and sleep until I had the strength to get up and do morechores, and wear myself out again.
Keeping busy made me feel safer, but there was a constant battle going on. I was having ahard time doing what Rilke described as "walking side by side with the beast". I tried hiding, butthat didn't work.
Last summer, I once again became The Girl With Nothing Left. After a day of camping witha friend, I was relieved to finally return to the place of ultimate safety - bed. That night I awokefrom a nightmare so terrifying, I knew I must do something to protect myself. My friend's huge whiteLab was lumped in the hallway staring at me. I touched the dog's head for good luck, scurried intothe bathroom, and used two toothbrushes to form a cross which I held in place with two Band-Aidsat the juncture where the toothbrushes met. I took my toothbrush cross back to the bedroom,placed it under my pillow with a book about angels, and went back to sleep.
This fighting off of Death became particularly evident in my aesthetics. My arrangements ofcolor and shapes were all special codes which to me eliminated all sharp angles, all bleakness, allsilence and emptiness. Logic was not useful here - only intuition. I have always had specialregard for people who measure things. They have their job. I have mine. The radiation therapistsmeasured my tumor, my incision and my doses of radiation in order to heal me so I could continuemy job. I am eternally grateful.
The trouble with fighting Death is that I get confused. It's hard enough to drive from hereto Ohio with a map. Imagine how hard it is to erase enough death so that you can rest oncemore in your mother's infinite sunlight.
The day after the nightmare, I spoke to my father on the phone. His use of language,a mixture of backwoods boy and classical scholar, has always fascinated me. Once, whendescribing an incident in which he fell into the lake chest down, he explained, "I lit on my breathingapparatus". During our phone conversation, he suddenly exclaimed, "You're gonna get BlackTongue! You're gonna get Black Tongue!" I assumed it was something he'd read in one of hisLouis L'Amour novels. Sure enough, next morning my tongue was covered with a thick black film.Look at this" I said to my girlfriend, sticking out my tongue. She gasped. Finally I called my fatherback to tell him he was right.
"Not you !" he bellowed in exasperation, "I said I was gonna die of Black Tongue!"
My girlfriend took me to a healer in southern Delaware. She was very sympathetic andtold me that stomping my bare feet on the earth would make me feel more "grounded".
When I was 14 and the severity of my mother's illness was the secret center of myexistence, I went to our priest, a liberal Episcopalian. "My mother tells me I'm a witch. What doyou think?" I asked. I wanted him to say "Your mother is a lovely woman, but she's lost, throughno fault of her own, out in outer space somewhere. We can't reach her yet, but it's ok; it's notyour fault. Someday she'll come back to you."
But he said nothing at all about my mother. Instead, he asked if I'd like to go with him andhis family for a week in Vermont. I immediately grasped that he felt I'd be better off with his familythan with my own. On the chance he might be right, I went. Perhaps in another state he wouldanswer my question. He didn't.
When we resumed to our home town, my father and I attended the early church servicethat Sunday. The minister explained to the congregation that he and his family had a "friend" withthem during summer vacation. This friend, he said, was not an average, jolly, hyperactive 'teen, buta slow, keen observer of everything around her. He walked down from the pulpit into the centeraisle to demonstrate to the congregation how this friend looked at trees while attempting to climbMt. Kiersarge He told the congregation that they should be as observant as this young person. Hedidn't have a clue that what I was doing was looking for things to hold on to so I wouldn't land in anabyss, like my mother.
When my father-in-law started staying with us this summer, I was panic stricken. Anyone who is severely depressed and disconnected from society represents the worst possible threat to me. Not only is he a reminder of the worst fear I have, but I struggle endlessly trying to think of ways to change him, jolly him up in order to not feel such emptiness and loss. This, of course, doesn't work. He's too old and too far gone to be anything but very depressed and veryangry.
So I came up with the only possible solution to have him removed from my home. Ifantasized telling my sister-in-law that I had cancer and that my husband must take care of me andshe must finally and completely take responsibility for her own father in her huge,brand-new home. She would have no other choice under the circumstances. I knew thatthere were no other words to motivate her but these. Nothing else would work but this.
After the surgery I awoke to a soft, sweet voice saying something reassuring. I waswrapped like an infant in pale blue cotton blankets. The entire universe was breathing for me.Magic liquids flowed into my veins, freeing me from pain and fear. I didn't have to fight any more.I was safe.
Day after day passed. Friends or relatives wrote or spoke to me by phone and I wasimmersed in love. Each voice became a giant lily pad that held me up while I traversedmysterious waters.
After four days I came home. By nightfall I knew David, my husband, and Barney, my sonwould probably kill me. David had to get his monthly newspaper out, David had migraines, Barneyhad temper tantrums, the dog was jealous of Barney and barked whenever he entered my room.David cursed and told me I'd gotten the dog to drive a wedge between him and me. The basementflooded. The kitchen sink stopped up. Christmas, New Year's and Barney's birthday passed. All Iever wanted was for both of them to rest on the same lily pad with me. I threatened to leave themboth.
Finally the snow came. Great white silent blankets of snow. Everything stopped.Neighbors worked side by side with their shovels until the entire street had one huge whitemedian strip with two clear pavements on either side. People offered each other food, videos,books. One of my neighbors drove David and me to the hospital for my radiation.
The entire city was as quiet as a New England campground at midnight. Everything wasslow and soft. Time was of no consequence. Everyone asked each other, "Are you alright? Doyou have enough food, heat, whatever? Are you alright?" It was exactly like it was when I cameout of surgery, all weightlessness and white pillows. David couldn't get out to deliver papers, sohe stayed home and listened to Beethoven. Barney was fast asleep upstairs, having spent twohours that night making a snow fort with a boy from across the street. I am finishing this, finallysecure that we could, at least for tonight, rest in peace, all on the same lily pad.