Saturday, August 8, 2020

Eight Years Ago

Eight years ago,
my kids were at the zoo with their dad. 
A one-year-old little girl 
and a four-year-old little boy. 
A warm August day. 

Eight years ago, a doctor, 
days from retirement,
told a woman he had just met
that she had cancer. 

"Will I see my kids grow up?" 
I asked him. 
He didn't look at me. 
But part of me believed him. 

Eight years ago, 
I had to call my mother 
and tell her
that word. 
Without hesitation, 
she flew home. 

Eight years ago, 
I shook. 
Couldn't eat.
I listened to the air conditioner
late at night
scared that it may swallow me up. 
Part of me wished for that. 
Maybe it would be easier. 

"HER-2 positive," 
the doctor told me.
I stared out at my backyard. 
"I wasn't expecting that," he said. 
I wasn't either. 

Eight years ago, 
I waited for surgery. 
Five excruciating weeks. 
Sheer torture 
until they could tell me how far 
the Intruder had invaded.  

Eight years ago, 
August changed. 
Summer heat 
a reminder of fear. 
a reminder of the ignorance 
of the before 
and the abyss 
of the after. 

Eight years ago, 
I waited. 
I tried to breathe. 
And somehow,

Eight years ago, 
I took a seat at a keyboard and typed. 
Typed and typed and typed
as if those keys would save me. 
And they did. 

*   *   *

I recently purchased a new collection of Zora Neale Hurston's short stories that have been long neglected. The editor of the collection, Genevieve West, explained in the introduction that when Hurston was just a teenager, her mother died and her father married a woman that Hurston despised. Hurston left home and school, and wandered to different places, working hard to support herself. 

As West further explained in the introduction to Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick, at the age of 26, Hurston took advantage of a Maryland state law that guaranteed anyone under the age of 20 a free public education. She did so by pretending her birthday was ten years later (1901 rather than 1891). So began the formal education of my favorite writer of all time. 

In 1925, Hurston wrote to a friend, "My type-writer is clicking away till all hours of the night. I am striving desperately for a toe-hold on the world." (West, xxi) 

Twelve years after she wrote that letter, Hurston published her novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Chapter 3 opens with one of the best lines I have ever read: 

There are years that ask questions and years that answer.

I have tried to decide whether the year I found I had cancer was a year that asked me questions or a year that answered them. Now I've decided. Asked. Definitely asked. 

Two-thousand-twelve asked me so many questions, from what parts of the human body make a person a person, to whether one can parent a child in death, to what love really looks like. And the last eight years have answered. 

Only they didn't answer in the ways I thought they would. They answered by telling me that there is no clear answer to anything. In the best case scenario, we will get a toe-hold on the world. That's it. That's what I know eight years later. 

I know that life is hard. So very hard, for every single one of us. I know that the world is always in motion. Swift, scary, beautiful motion. I know that love and trust require work and patience and forgiveness. I know that nothing is ever certain; and that uncertainty, while suffocating, can also include contentment. I know that I am here now, with nothing more than a toe-hold on the world. 

But that toe-hold, that tiny moment of connection with a person or with nature or with myself, that's the answer to it all. It's just a toe-hold and eventually, it will slip away. But it's life, and I am forever grateful that for the last eight years, I have been able to live it. Pain, purpose, love, loss, and all. A toe-hold on the world. I think that if we ask for more, we're sure to be disappointed. But if we embrace that toe-hold, there's a pretty awesome vista over our shoulder.