Postscript

Ten years ago this month, I walked out the door of the Tom Baker Cancer Centre in Calgary, Alberta, my ‘good to go’ papers in hand and a newly minted batch of peach fuzz on my head. I remember it being a typical fall day in Alberta—bright, crisp, and full of promise. I felt relief at my regenerated pate—an international design conference in New York beckoned, and I wanted to look more ‘edgy-artist’ than ‘chemo-girl’.

Cancer remained in my psychological self long after eradication from my physical one, and it took me a while to embrace the promise of that day. Eventually I did, taking my second chance and running with it—all the way to Mexico. Some people thought it was kind of crazy, and some days my own Optimistic Nature was pummelled into submission by the ever present Fear of the Unknown. However, after being released from treatment and falling right back into the status quo with frightening ease, I came to realize something. If my life was going to have more meaning for me, I had to become responsible for making it so. For me, that meant creating fundamental changes which would challenge me in new ways, creatively and emotionally. Finding fulfilment beyond my own normal meant following through on an oft imagined dream to live in another culture, where living with less didn’t mean living a less rewarding life.

Cancer was not a gift, but it was an opportunity to look at things differently. Moving to the Yucatan and embracing a culture foreign to me, was the catalyst for the kind of change I hoped to experience. After three years, I’m still adjusting to this new life and the challenges it has presented, but for the most part, the challenges are with an adversary more daunting than cancer—myself.

“Sorry”, Melva said, “that shouldn’t have hurt, but you’ve got the tiniest veins in your hands I’ve ever seen, and they’re not cooperating.”

I don’t know what Melva is talking about because I have my mother’s hands—large, sturdy and highly cooperative. My grandmother had English teacher hands—delicate, pale, and somewhat secretive. My hands are doing battle for me now, fighting back in a way I can’t, making it difficult for Melva to do her job. I’m not angry with Melva, I don’t have the energy. But I’m annoyed she seems so flippant, like she’s getting ready to jumpstart a car battery instead of a human body. My human body. Melva seems an okay person, but she’d be better suited to nursing animals than people. A dog on chemo wouldn’t care if Melva said, “The first time I rolled a chemotherapy bag down the hall to a patient, there was a leak in the bag and damned if it didn’t eat a trail right through the linoleum.”

Tossing the third ruined needle into the hazardous waste bin and snapping her gloves off with aggressive efficiency, Melva strides off in search of a small vein expert, and I find myself alone. Melva has been a distraction. Her absence leaves me nothing to focus on except my surroundings, something I’ve been avoiding. I scan ‘the others’ with slightly downcast eyes and realize just how much I’ve been trying to make myself, and them, invisible. They reflect what I choose not to see—fear, weakness, resignation—and I prefer not to look in that particular mirror. I’d rather look at my hands; they haven’t lost their self-esteem. I squeeze them in tight fists, willing the veins to cooperate.

This story came to mind as I was writing. I send it out to all who have endured the Melva’s of the world, to those who have thrived and those who are still waging war with their bodies. And to my remaining Hope Sisters—Leslie, Sherry and Susan.

A Good Death

How do you want to die? It’s a question that inspires some to grab a sand shovel, dig a hole and stick their heads in it — which, less metaphorically, is a possible answer to the question. But the more we ask this simple yet deeply complicated and personal question, the more its answer will probably determine the difference between a life that ends peacefully or regretfully.  –David G. Allan, The Wisdom Project, CNN

Death and the meaning of life are two subjects we can obsess over at 18 or 80, but that seem to move to the forefront of our thoughts at mid age. We expect to face the death of our parents and steel ourselves for that shattering call. We expect some of our friends, lovers, ex-lovers, may go gently, or not, into that good night. But if you’re like me, you don’t expect the grim reaper will come knocking at your own door any time soon. Instead, it’s the meaning of life, the meaning of MY life and how I hope to live it, that occupy my thoughts.
In his insightful writing for The Wisdom Project, David G. Allan shares books and films on the subject, as well as his own ‘good death’ checklist, because after all, “Our ultimate goal,” he quotes Dr. Atul Gawande in Being Mortal, “is not a good death, but a good life to the very end.” Here’s to that.

Alas My Own Thighs

She filled her bowl with borscht
for the second time,
added sour cream,
and pondered the heat in her years-old body.
The problem was space,
having had to do with space all of her life,
None of it hers.
Orange fruit in a black bowl
is one thing,
aging female bodies, another.
No single way.
No knife.

Going on sentimental forays at 4 a.m.
demons catching a ride
is no way to find it.
She wouldn’t mind being six again,
not sixteen or even thirty-six,
when she was still fulfilling the dreams of others,
her own dreams featuring buses
lost in public places.
She forges ahead, fictions revised,
and with gender intact
as her mother would have wanted.
— Joyce Luna
Yes, my fascination with the language of poetry continues unabated. This guest post is from Joyce Luna—artist, musician, and poetic wanderer. She currently lives in Victoria Canada with her dog Mickey. She’s also my mom.

More Duck Than Swan

I always wanted to be a ballerina. Somehow I thought it would make me more swan than duck, more girl than boy. “I want to take ballet lessons”, I announced to my mother one day. In the kitchen preparing dinner, she stopped to consider my fervent request. “Are you sure?”, she asked, as if a seven-year-old can ever be sure about anything. But I was sure. And for the next eight weeks I walked toe heel toe heel to a small community centre bursting with equally fervent seven-year-olds who had the same ideals of grace and beauty as I did.Ali Bath Master_small

My best friend thinks there was some mystery coding in almost every little girl between the ages of five and 10 who grew up in the 1960s — they HAD to go to ballet school. Chubby, clumsy, it didn’t matter. “I was no different”, she shared. “When I was ten I asked my mother if I could go to the ballet school a couple blocks from our house. She was classically supportive as usual. In a sing songy voice she said, ‘You’ll be soooorrrryyy’…she was correct, again.”

The outcome of all those classes didn’t seem to matter to our underdeveloped egos—we just wanted to dress in tutus and dance. As a seven-year-old, my body acceptance was still firmly intact and I launched myself across the floor like a duck to its first pond. Two months later, it became rather apparent that I was more Forest Gump than Karen Kain, and even at that tender age I was self aware enough to know my Swan Lake days were over before they had begun. For years after, according to my mother, I walked around the house on my tippy toes, as if the less I touched the ground, the more I could touch the sky.

I no longer aspire to be a dancer, having made peace with my limitations, but I still aspire to…

Photograph inspired by Chrissie Hynde; thanks Ric Kokotovich

Sleepless in San Sebastián

What torture lurks within a single thought…”

I could have stopped reading then, so emotionally charged was the first line of Amy Lowell’s poem, ‘A Fixed Idea’. With those seven words I felt exposed, and had to read on; I had to discover where her torment lay, what lay heavy upon her life.

When my own body stills at the end of a day, my mind does the opposite, refusing to give in to the night and its requisite expectation of sleep. Has it always been this way? I remember being very young and afraid of the dark for a time, a nightlight in the corner of my bedroom glowing like a monster with one eye. Then later, much later, a year of insomnia took root from a cloven heart; I would lie awake and look out my apartment window, at all the other darkened or empty apartment windows, and whisper to myself, “There is no one out there for me”.

You lie upon my heart as on a nest,
Folded in peace, for you can never know
How crushed I am with having you at rest
Heavy upon my life…”

Years later, it was the thought of death that kept me from sleep. My own death of course, because it seemed the most pressing. My doctors told me I wasn’t going to die, but my mind chose an alternate reality, convincing me I surely would, because others had. To combat my own internal Godzilla vs Mothra, I’d imagine a ball of light entering the top of my head and moving through my body, banishing sinister cells through the sheer power of its illumination.

You bind my freedom from its rightful quest.
In mercy, lift your drooping wings and go.”

And now? What are my tortured thoughts when my lover sleeps but my mind does not? The world is a bountiful place, the world is a bountiful place, the world is a bountiful place. Should I wake him? Would he calm me with his voice and his touch? A red painting, a green towel, a pair of shoes, a lone streetlamp. The methodical identification of objects is meant to make the dissonance cognitive, but instead it simply leaves me glancing at the clock. The clock. The clock. Is anyone else in this dark night awake?

Inspired by the poem A Fixed Idea by Amy Lowell

Stuff That Works

My dad is a Guy Clark fan. He especially loves ‘Stuff That Works’.

“I got a pretty good friend who’s seen me at my worst.
He can’t tell if I’m a blessing or a curse.
But he always shows up when the chips are down.
That’s the kind of stuff I like to have around. Stuff that works. Stuff that holds up. The kind of stuff you don’t have on a wall. Stuff that’s real. Stuff you feel. The kind of stuff you reach for when you fall.”  – Guy Clark

There was a time when my dad was into stuff, but like the banks of a river,  the ebb and flow of life have changed him. In his early 70s, he set out on an adventure to discover a new part of the world and in the process, something more about himself. A few years later I did the same, partly an attempt to live a long held dream of mine, and partly because I was ready to learn something new about myself too. I recently asked my dad what  ‘living the dream‘ meant to him, and this was his response.

“Living the dream” isn’t a phrase that resonates with where I am in life…it’s not really my tempo. For me, it’s not a matter of what do I want to do, but more, who do I want to be?

I do hold deep hopes for positive changes in our broken world and I am optimistic in that regard. I am saddened by the tragic events in the lives of those around me and in the world at large, but I refuse to give up hope that a better time is a comin’.

Back to “who do I want to be?” I have a strong desire (not a dream) to be a compassionate person in my daily walk through life, as I engage with family, friends and strangers. It is how I want my government in Canada to be, basing their decisions on what is caring and right, not “how much does it cost?” It is how I want other Governments to start treating their people; our national and global response to the refugee crisis in the Middle East and Europe; and the list goes on. I can’t make these global changes but I can exercise compassion each day of my waking life.

Am I living this desire, this dream? Maybe only at some times in my day, some days in my week, but it’s a worthy task so I will continue the trek.

My father is warm and compassionate and a classic introvert. He rarely speaks of himself but is a zen master at uncovering truths about others, and appears to embrace life through moments that many would miss. The best thing about the gift of growing older alongside my father is this—as he discovers and reveals more about himself, so too do I, and in the process, I am learning to accept and embrace others with a deeper love, compassion and understanding.
Thanks dad.

Sin Nombre

I stopped to take his picture but I didn’t stop to ask
Cuál es su nombre?
Or to ask him what he was reading so intently
his finger still marking a passage of time

Leather and tweed
in La Lagunilla, the little lake,
a place my friend Richard calls ‘the Flea’
where lives are laid out for the next highest bidder

And then this man with his piercing blue eyes
like mine, his mother’s hands
like mine, his face carved
like the madera of the instruments he sells

Puedo sacar su photo?
I asked?

But I didn’t stop to ask his name.

Flea hero