gratitude

engine

I can hardly believe there are three days left in October as I type this. Another year almost come and gone.

I mentioned this on my Instagram feed a few days ago, but I had a biopsy last week. It was a situation that began in August when I had my baseline mammogram, and it led to a second scan, and then my insistence on a second opinion when the first practice claimed I needed a biopsy. I am relatively young and have no strong family history of breast cancer, so I was hesitant to do it. But then eventually I agreed when the second specialist explained that the way it was clustered on the mammogram image did, in fact, need to be checked.

So on Friday the 19th (my grandmother’s birthday incidentally) I drove to Atlanta for the procedure, and it was honestly a little more than I’d bargained for. This wasn’t a lump I could feel; instead it was a spot deep enough that it required a sterotactic biopsy which just means that they do it while being guided by a mammogram machine. Like anyone else, I have had so much going on in the regular business of my everyday life. So I realized when I finally laid face down on the table that they elevate to access your breast and do the procedure that I honestly hadn’t really processed any of what that meant – the big stuff anyway. It was just an item on my to-do list until I laid still for 90 minutes for it to happen and that is when I finally let my head go to the what if question that this whole thing prompted.

The tech was an angel, an absolute angel. She grabbed my hand like a old friend when the needle made its way in and told me to squeeze. They like to stop the bleeding before you leave the room so that you don’t have risk of infection at the site later, and as I finally sat up, she stood there holding compression on my bare breast for another 20 minutes until it stopped bleeding so much. Then she cleaned me up and bandaged me with an ice pack and gave me a hug to send me home. As I sat there shirtless in the cold and sterile room and she cleaned me up, I remembered why it feels so ceremonial to clean someone else’s body. All the times this has happened before. In religious texts, when we read of washing someone’s feet, that first bath with a baby when they are still covered in blood from their entrance, the memories of bathing my grandmother in those last days when she couldn’t do it herself. These shells we live in. Both sacred and mundane.

In the days that followed, the initial soreness wore off, and on Wednesday the doctor called to say that magic word benign, which I knew was the statistically probable answer, but exhaled deeply nonetheless. What if, what if, what if is a scary game to play for any one of us.

And for me, if I am being honest, the physical vulnerability highlighted the fact that I am the only adult in this house. My working body is the engine that keeps this train moving, and never for a second had I thought about the possibility that it might not until last week. As is always the case with the moments that shift our perspective in life, this was so many things rolled into one. Fear and courage. Pain and relief. Dissatisfaction followed by gratitude. And the heavy realization that in ways I am very, very alone. But also in ways I am supported beyond what I realize. The friends and family who volunteered to go with me to the procedure itself and even the way that the universe delivered a stranger who treated me like a sacred friend for the hours we crossed paths.

Here is the weird thing I am learning about life: we are never alone, but also at the end of the day, we are all alone, every one of us. These big questions can never be resolved by anyone other than the one you see in the mirror.

I have a lot of catching up to do this weekend — uninspiring things like laundry and grocery shopping and cleaning the bathtubs and grading papers. But I have also spent time recuperating under blankets with soup and hot tea and some television last night. I started watching Amazon’s Forever on the recommendation of a friend. I am only 4 episodes in but struck by the quiet thoughtfulness of this show. I won’t ruin it for you with too many details, but I will say that Fred Armisen plays the most perfect husband who is always cheerful and serves his wife dinner each and every night, and they exist in a house where everything is in its place at all times. Their lives are easy and predictable. And yet there is this moment where you see Maya Rudolph’s face as he serves his perfect dinner in their perfectly clean home, and there is such boredom, such misery. It delivers those lessons that only a paradox can teach you, the ones that echo inside you for a while after you quit watching.

It is only ever the scary and the risk and the unforeseen and the unknown that makes it worth any of our time, isn’t it? Tomorrow could change everything for me — for the better or for the worse. And that idea is terrifying but also electrifying. I have no idea what lies around the bend, but I know that my life has given me a spine of steel and the softest heart, and I think those two things can withstand anything.

I picked up Naomi Shihab Nye’s latest poetry collection a few weeks ago, and my favorite poem in the book concludes with her assertion that, “We’re so anxious but deep down, in the heart place of time, our lives are resonant, rolling. They’re just waiting for us to remember them. We are here, so deeply here, and then we won’t be. And that is the most unbelievable thing of all.”

It is unbelievable, isn’t it? That we are not here forever, that every single one of us has an expiration date. That we have no idea what tomorrow will bring. That we are never alone but also we are the only ones who can do it. I am so glad, always but especially this week, that this very particular life is mine. I would not trade any piece of it for anyone else’s. This body is mine, and the engine is still rolling onward to something I cannot see.

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