I just got home from the gym where I spent a good, long time in the steam room, wondering when the results of my latest mammogram would be available. Four years ago I had my third cancer scare, but in the end, everything turned out alright, and I don't let a day go by without being thankful for my health, my good friends, and my peace of mind. When I got in the car and checked my messages, the doctor's office had called, giving the "all clear" for another year. I wasn't really worried this time around, but every time I go in for routine tests, I remember the summer of 2012 and the moment when I finally accepted the fact that, no matter what happens to me in this life, all of it will lead to a good death.
Here's one of the last chapters of my memoir for everyone who's been faced with the certainty of mortality...for Erin and Tony and Deb and Nan. And for those of you who've shared your stories with me for the past few months...it seems we're all going through something profound as winter slowly melts into spring.
"A Good Death"
from OPEN ROAD: a life worth waiting for
Published January, 2013
It's well past midnight and I still can't sleep. This morning, after a month of breast pain and discharge, after a month of worrying and wondering, I finally had a mammogram. All the women's health books I’ve read said not to worry if I have breast pain. Not to worry if I have discharge. It’s all a normal process of hormonal shifting.
Unless the issues are unilateral…which, naturally, mine are.
For almost a month, my left breast has felt different and I’m scared. But not scared enough to be paralyzed by my fear. So this morning I did something about it. Knowledge is power, but the results won't be available until tomorrow. And today I learned the vital lesson of never asking the lab tech, "What do you think?"
"Does your family have a history of breast cancer?" she replied, gazing at the screen.
"No...not that I know of," I told her.
"Well, this could be something," she said, pointing to a cloudy image on my left breast. "But I can't say for certain. The radiologist will take a look and we'll let you know."
I haven't had a mammogram since I turned thirty, when I had health insurance that covered such things. Now, even though I have great independent coverage, I still have a deductible to pay. I haven't gotten one sooner because I've been fine...or so I thought. I do monthly self-exams and started going to the doctor annually. Last year, she said everything looked good. Still, I never banked on incessant breast pain and the fear of what it might mean.
For the past few years, it's always the left side of my body that’s been a challenge. That Baker's cyst behind my left knee after the car accident. The left eye that had a spot requiring special testing. In metaphysics, the left side represents the past, the mother, the receptive side of who I am and what I want to become. It's my body's way of reminding me that I desperately need to let go of the old tapes…the old ways of being.
Tossing and turning, I try everything to help me get to sleep. Reading a book. Drinking a glass of warm soy milk. Writing in my journal. Nothing helps. Nothing takes away the fear I feel deep inside.
I think of all the work I've done this past year. All the work my literary agent's done to pitch A Tapestry of Truth. While editors all over New York City praise my writing style, the book has yet to find the right publishing house. For over a year, I've lived with hopeful anticipation that is always met with immediate rejection. Kelly keeps my spirits up, but it's hard to see other books on the shelves at the store and know that my work is just as good. Just as worthy of being published.
I'm prolific, if nothing else, having finished writing Common Threads last month. Squirreling around in my head for plot points yielded some long-buried nuts and I'm thankful for the mental housecleaning. Still, I’m curious to see if I can write a memoir. Can I allow myself to explore something that real? Well, what I'm feeling now is certainly real...and I don't much like it.
Then again, I didn't much like most of what happened to me in the first half of my life. I wonder if that's all I'll ever have...a few peaceful moments sandwiched in-between a host of horrible illnesses, horrifying relationships, and the horrific challenges of financial stress.
My inner drama queen is instantly silenced by the fact that for over a year I had lived with the fear of imminent death when heroin dealers and their arsenal of handguns haunted the duplex next door. If I do have cancer, it's not an imminent death. I will deal with it. I will get treatment.
I will survive.
So I turn off the light and fall asleep, believing that no matter what happens, I will remember Ralph Waldo Emerson's quote that's posted on my bathroom mirror: "All I have seen teaches me to trust the Creator for all I have not seen."
In the summer of 2012 I was knee-deep in purge mode. Every year I spend hours in the basement, cleaning and gleaning that which I no longer need. Since my return from California, I have little to sift, but I still make piles to donate. Piles to give away to friends. It’s a cathartic ritual I annually summon in the weeks before my birthday in order to start my solar New Year fresh and renewed. But in 2012 I wasn’t purging tangibles. I was ridding myself of emotional baggage I had hauled across the country and then back again, for in the back of my mind, I always thought I would one day return to Esalen...for a visit or even longer if the Garden Manager’s job was available. Return to finish what I had started. Return to create new beginnings.
The fantasy had faded over time, but it never fully diminished. In the months leading up to the mammogram, I found myself revisiting Esalen in my journals. In photo albums. In dreams. I wrote a novel about a young woman abandoned by her parents who eventually ends up living in an Esalen-esque setting. By early September Common Threads was finished and I sent it to my literary agent. That night I wrote in my journal about the loneliness I felt at the end of writing a book: No one really understands how momentous this is…no one’s been a witness to this unfurling. Maybe that’s how it is for a lot of writers. Many of us embody the sound of one hand clapping.
A week later, I was anxiously awaiting the results of the mammogram. Sleep didn’t come easily. I lay in dread, thinking about the possibility of having cancer in my left breast, the one closest to my heart. And I realized that I had been keeping my heart closed for a long time. Afraid of hoping. Afraid of setting myself up for failure. Afraid of repeating the same old patterns. I resisted being in the world. Resisted asking for the recognition I wanted...the love I needed.
Yet, I was loved. I had Satish and Danta and their family. I had my yoga students and neighbors and friends. No matter what the tests results were, I knew I would be able to take care of myself; I would have all the love and support I might need.
That night I had a dream where I was standing at a distance, looking at a charming white house with a wrap-around porch. I saw an old woman peacefully sitting in a rocking chair. A young couple came out and covered her with a quilt asking, “Do you need anything, Kate?”
It was then that I realized the old woman was me. Stepping closer, I felt a presence by my side…an angel or a spirit. “That is you, Kate,” she said.
It was a beautiful sunny day. A breeze blew across the porch. The wind chimes sang in harmony with the rustling leaves. I saw my older face, etched with lines. My hair, white as snow. My lips, rose red. My eyes, still brown and bright.
Leaning closer, I was suddenly aware that this old woman, this version of me, was going to die.
“See how she relaxes into it?” the angel whispered in my ear.
One moment later, the woman was gone.
“Is it hard to die?” I asked the angel.
“Easier than taking a breath,” she whispered.
Then both she and the dream vanished.
The next morning my cell phone rang. The test results were in. I was fine. No cancer. Everything was normal.
I went outside to sit on my front porch that overlooks the lush and lovely gardens which have been both my sanctuary and my salvation.
I took a deep breath. I let it out.
With that one breath, I died to the life I had wanted, so that I finally could enter a new one...a life that has been waiting for me with open arms. In that moment, I let go of needing to be tethered to dreams which would never come true...a life I could never experience. At last, I had finally crossed the vast sea of a tumultuous past and landed on an empty shore...a blank canvas of luminous existence.