“It seems to me that nothing but silence can heal the wounds made by disputations in the region of the unseen.” Caroline Stephen, Quaker Strongholds
From a failed poem, I remember these lines: “Grief /is a pail I empty and fill/every night.” Sitting in silent meeting for worship in a 300-year-old Quaker meetinghouse, in my head, I revise the lines to: “Night/is a pail I empty and fill/with every grief.”
I linger in memory, one that begins with a text from my friend. Bring soft and mushy foods I read on a Thursday night. On Friday after a haircut, I drive to Room 226 at her rehabilitation center. She’s there to relearn how to move her left side, as her triple-negative breast cancer presses down on her spinal cord and can-do spirit. On my passenger seat is a brown paper bag, crammed with a blue-green scarf, a card, and a large serving of rolled oats soaked in unsweetened almond milk.
We are friends because when I was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer, she had already been through her first treatments. Her black hair had fallen out and returned a beautiful silver-gray, and she offered me wisdom about reimagining chemotherapy, persisting with joint pain, and having everything you know about love, family, and work tested by breast cancer. Mesmerized by her you got this attitude, I adored her. I hung on her litany of metered words and ideas, many of which I had never heard before, and relished her affirmations of my progress.
In memory, I text her back. See you soon. When I arrive, I ask for my friend, and a
nurse, without looking up from her clipboard, says she’s gone, rushed to the emergency room. Room 226’s nameplate is blank.
Now after many years, I am triple-positive metastatic to her triple-negative. My own diagnosis, the line down the center, is like a busy city street, filled with cars of overheated people honking their horns and swearing at each other.
I breathe. Death, donned in a light-pink scarf, sits next to me in the meetinghouse. I listen carefully, pressing my upright spine against the hard, wooden back of the meetinghouse bench, and I hear my own heartbeat thumping against my rib cage.
Here is the paradox: to be fully alive means I live with death, grazing my arm as my teenager teaches me to make a friendship bracelet, hovering next to me as I wake up in the middle of the night and stare out onto the moon tipped leaves, lingering at the edge of every meal, celebration, and goodbye.
I revise the line again: “Grief/is a night we empty and fill/pail by pail.”
Though my life is now crowded with multi- syllable words like compression deformity, avid lesions, and osseous metastases, I am not drenched, irreparable, or consumed. I am grateful.
I am grateful for my husband, who stage- manages my life, and my teenagers, especially when they clean their rooms and make me laugh. I am grateful that I am not in pain and that my dentist replaces my crown for free. Thankful for the parking, custodial, and nursing staff at my treatment center. I am in awe of my friends’ indomitable spirits when facing their own life challenges. And my fellow metastatic travelers and advocates. I am thankful for Herceptin, Lupron, Zometa, and Arimidex, and I revere the mundane, discovering over and over that it is extraordinary.
Undisturbed, I sit in a place of limitless silence. My heartbeat reverberates deep within my consciousness. With my eyes closed, I can see my friend sitting across from me in the meetinghouse. She, too, has her eyes closed; her silver-gray hair shines like a light.
I nestle into the beauty of this vision. I exhale the despair of her loss, of so many losses, and inhale pure joy, rising from the soles of my feet.
At the end of a Quaker meeting for worship, an elder breaks the meeting. I open my eyes and envision another way to rewrite the line: “I empty and fill/with griefs/and nights/pail by pail.”
Death’s mystery dwells in my blood, so I shift my body, acknowledging my physical presence in the meetinghouse, a place that has held 300 years of despair and beauty, terror and exhilaration. I turn towards a fellow worshipper to shake her hand and say good morning.
*Published in Wildfire Magazine, MBC Stage IV: Survivorship (October/November 2021)