It might have been the incessant rain or the murder of crows gathering in the dead oak outside my window. It might have been the dying flowers in their pretty vase or even the candles—flickering their last at the ends of their wicks. Whatever it was, I found myself at the gate. Unlike Heaven, there’s no keeper. This gate is unlocked and you can come whenever you please, though it pleases no one to come here.
I tuck my heart close, lest I lose it, and set my shield down; having been here before, I know there will be no protecting myself from what I find. Next, I tuck my shoes and soul beneath it’s weight, comforted that they’ll have some shelter from the elements while I’m away. Whatever else you do, never bring your soul here—this is no place for the divine.
When all is as it should be, I step through and begin my descent. Down, down over eons of rot that squelch between my toes. Down, down through hallways of bones and teeth where I somehow know which belong to those I’ve loved. Down, down where moonlight can’t go. Down, down where the rain is full of salt and never stops. Down, down until the path levels out and turns to the broken dreams of the living. Only then do I know I have arrived in the Underworld.
It isn’t Hell, if such a place exists. Hell is for souls and there are no souls here. Just the end. The end of whoever it was you were in the middle of loving. The end of yourself as you were when they lived. The end of all you knew and all you didn’t. The end–where all that holds physical form loses it to water and worms.
Now that I’m here, I crinkle my brow the same way I do when I’ve just entered a room and already forgotten why. After all, I already gathered up the remains of my loves and left them here months ago. I stand at the exact place I stopped then and try to remember to no avail. Finally turning with a shrug to retrace my steps to the gate which leads right back to my life as I left it . . . it’s only then I realize my mistake.
I left the wrong way last time–returning to life as I left it—surrounded by empty spaces where love used to be. I let go of their bodies but held on tight to the emptiness they left behind. Turning back toward the dark unknown, I shudder. I want to go back to the gate: back to my shoes and my soul and my shield, back to familiar, if empty, spaces.
But I don’t.
I know I came for this—the sixth stage of grief. The one that comes after you find your way through your worst nightmares to acceptance. It took me a while. Acceptance cost me and I had to gather up fresh courage for this:
There’s new love, new adventure, new wisdom that await on the other side of all you go through when you grieve. More than enough to fill the empty spaces to overflowing. But if you want it, you can’t go back the way you know.
To reach the sixth stage is to set down your shield. It’s all heart. It’s running barefoot through the Underworld, soaked in the tears of everyone ever, in a darkness too deep for moonlight. It’s feeling the sickening squelch of eons of rot between your toes and pushing forward, knowing that if you keep going, you’ll love again and get hurt again . . . and again and again until your teeth and bones join the others here.
And it’s worth it.
It’s worth it.
So I run. Heart wide open through all I’ve loved and lost before. I run barefoot through darkness as deep black as a crow’s feather with nothing but hope to guide me forward. Until I’m falling down, down into a deep, slow river. Cool, fresh water rinses the tears of everyone ever from my hair and washes the rot of eons from my feet. I close my eyes and float on my back, not warm or cold, not happy or sad, and not marking the moment moonlight creeps in–slowly turning blackest black into gray and gray into silver, until the sun rises–shifting silver into the pale gold of a new day.
This happened six years ago today! And remains one of the most terrifying experiences of my life. When the chips are well and truly down, that’s when you find out what you (and your dog) are capable of! Anyway, my mama was talking about this with my aunt the other day and asked if I’d written about it (which, of course, I had). So here it is, enjoy!
This past Sunday, I decided to go kayaking at Lucky Peak Reservoir and since no one wanted to go with me, my ever faithful Why?lee was conscripted into service as first mate. As always, I checked the weather on my phone several times prior to putting in and it was supposed to be 88 degrees with partial clouds, then a storm at 9pm. Others must have seen the same report I did, because there were lots of people still putting their (motor) boats in when I arrived. There were clouds, and it rained for a moment, but the sun was shining brightly and it looked to be a lovely afternoon.
Here is a photo taken right when we pulled up on a little beach about 200 yards or so from Turner Gulch:
But, as promising as things looked when I first arrived, the clouds behind me were darkening up fairly quickly and after only five minutes on the beach, I made the decision to pack up and paddle back before things got worse. I screwed the cap back on my coke, rolled up my chips and put them into the back hatch of my kayak. Then I turned to get my life-jacket (which I had been sitting on) and my dog (whom I had been sitting with). While my dog was still there, my life jacket had blown away. Not good.
I found it hung up in some sage brush and trekked after it only to turn around when I felt a strong gust of wind and see my kayak (which was half in the water, half out) blown completely out of the water and dropped onto the beach. Now, my little kayak is only about 10’6″ inches long but it still weighs in at a solid 45 lbs. Not good.
I took a moment to put the life jacket on and tighten the straps while thinking over my options. Obviously, the weather app on my phone LIED to me and the question became, do I make a break for the dock where I put in or do I try and wait it out? Had it been earlier in the day, had I not known it was going to be worse in another hour, and had I not really, really thought I could make it, I might have tried to wait it out. But as things stood, it seemed to me I had a good chance to make the boat ramps before things got out of hand, so I went for it.
I put in and paddled about ten yards off the shore before another gust of wind literally blew me all the way back to the beach. I gave it a moment, the wind died down and we struck out yet again. This time, I made it much further before another gust came through and spun the boat in a couple of 360’s all while continuing to push us back toward the shore we’d just left. I tried to stop the spinning using my paddle and the wind tried to rip it out of my hands. Water was coming in over the front of the boat, it started raining again, only this time the stinging your face kind of rain, and in the midst of that terrifying chaos I went into survival mode.
Everyone was trying to get off the water asap, yet another indicator to me that I was not the only one caught off-guard by the sudden arrival of gale-force winds. I no longer expected to be able to paddle all the way back to the dock, instead, my plan morphed into getting the attention of one of the motor boats passing me and hitch a ride for Why?lee and myself. I was confident that if we could just keep from tipping, and flag someone down, we’d be fine.
However, after three boats passed us by as I frantically waved my arms and paddle in the air while screaming “HELP!” my confidence in my plan began to slip. The wind wasn’t letting up, my kayak had three inches of water in the bottom just from waves breaking over the front and we were as far away from the shore we left as we were from the shore we needed. A wonderful calm came over me, I stopped feeling tired, cold and scared and resumed paddling for our lives.
I felt like a paper doll in a paper boat trying to paddle in a storm drain. I could feel my incredible, amazing, wonderful Why?lee (who was sitting between my knees, facing forward into the wind and completely unable to lay down due to lack of space) shifting his weight to prevent us from tipping. Every time a gust hit, he would lower his head over the bow of the kayak and brace himself. I am confident that had I had Orion with me instead of Why?lee, we would have been in the water, boat and paddle gone, swimming for our lives.
When I was nearly halfway there, I saw a boat coming back in my direction from the boat ramps and thought it was coming for me, but as he got closer, he wasn’t slowing down so I screamed “HELP!” and waved my arms. He cut the boat engine, lifted the hood of his poncho and looked around. When he saw me, I yelled, “Can you help me?” And he yelled back that he was going out to get the rest of his family, but promised he would come for us after he picked them up.
This was both wonderful and awful news, but it gave me hope and as he pulled away, I went right back to paddle, paddle, lean in and wait it out, paddle, paddle, lean in and wait it out. After what seemed like an hour, but was probably closer to seven or eight minutes, I heard something behind me, and when I turned to look, the boat was back, now with three men and two women on board. One of the guys smiled at me and said, “Ready for a break?”
Sweeter words were never spoken.
They hauled me into their boat, which had pretty tall sides and no easy way in from the water, then they looked at Why?lee and said, “Um, we can just tow him and the boat the rest of the way.” I could appreciate their fear, Why?lee looks like a wolf and they didn’t know him, but no, no we can’t do that I thought, my dog is with me, he didn’t have a life jacket and I was no longer in the boat to hold him tight with my knees and make sure he didn’t fall out.
All of this ran through my mind in a matter of seconds as I grabbed one of the rope handles on the lip of the boat and leaned down, gripping his harness with only my right hand and hauling him into the boat by myself. Looking back, adrenaline is a powerful thing because I cannot imagine how I lifted all 85 or so pounds (more than half my own body weight) of dog roughly four feet with one arm while leaning over the side of a boat. But there you have it.
So Why?lee and I sat on the floor while our rescuers held the kayak on the side and we motored the rest of the way to the dock. I hopped out, they helped me haul Why?lee out and then set my kayak on the dock. I ran it up to the end, right where the pavement begins and just headed for my truck before remembering my keys were still in the kayak. When I turned to go get them, Why?lee just sat down and looked at me with his ears laid back and an “OH HELL NO” expression on his face. I laughed, a little hysterically, and drug him back to get the keys. I am fairly certain it will take an act of God to get him in a kayak ever again.
Here is a photo I snapped just before we got in the truck:
After taking a minute to chill out, I pulled down to the boat ramp and before I could even get out, my rescuers were loading up the kayak for me. Yet another blessing, as my arms were still trembling and generally useless. Once I had it tied down I started to head home but quickly pulled over, shaky and just not focused enough to feel safe driving. I got out, grabbed my coke and chips out of the boat, got back in and took this photo of the water we’d just been on (Note: Why?lee would not look at me for the photo, even though I offered him a honey BBQ Frito): Then I saw I had a text. It was from my dad and said, “Get home now. It’s too scary out.”
I text him back, “You have no idea . . .”
Why?lee wasn’t speaking to or looking at me all the way home. We were both in a bit of shock, I think. But once we were home safe, I made him a very special dinner which included an entire can of tuna fish. He earned it and I’m not above bribing my dog for his forgiveness. : )
I also included each one of my rescuers in my prayers because no one has to stop. No one has to do anything, but some people do and because they did, I never had to find out if I was strong enough to make that last hundred yards on my own.
The storm raged all night with gusting winds, lightning and thunder. And after my hot shower, I went to bed glad I had decided to go for it and wasn’t still huddled on the beach with Why?lee praying for the storm to pass.
When I woke up the next day, I was covered in bruises and felt like I’d drank a fifth of vodka by myself and been hit by a Mack truck. But I was also safe in my warm bed next to my also safe Why?lee bear, listening to my coffee make itself, and feeling pretty good about being alive.
So I suppose Lucky Peak Reservoir can still be considered lucky, indeed. : )
One of the more insidious effects of cancer in my life, was the slow degradation of my ability to be what I had firmly placed in the column “Things I Just Am.” I thought those qualities were an integral and unchanging part of me, but from the moment I was told I likely had cancer, they began to slip away.
For instance, when they shuffled me from one room to the next after giving me the news, scheduled me for a surgery I knew nothing about with a surgeon I had never met, and then sent me out the door: the me I was so sure I was would have never smiled, signed paperwork I didn’t read, and then left.
The me I thought I was would have asked ten thousand questions and insisted on coming back later to discuss surgery with the actual surgeon before agreeing on a date and a plan to move forward. The me I thought I was would have advocated for myself, refused to sign papers until I was sure I understood them fully, and made sure I had researched all of my options on my own before just accepting what I was told. Not only did I not do any of that, I didn’t even notice or care that I wasn’t doing any of that.
When I got home and handed Carl the blue folder with my surgery information inside, he was furious. If you know him at all, you know that fury is an uncommon emotion in his life and it certainly wasn’t what I expected. I’m not sure I knew what to expect, but I remember being surprised when right before my eyes, my happy go lucky man, grew three feet taller, put on about fifty pounds of muscle, and developed the ability to fly.
Within a few hours, he knew everything the internet knew about thyroid cancer and the surgeon I was scheduled with, he had developed a list of 23 questions for said surgeon, and scheduled us for an appointment prior to my surgery date to ask them. He was incredible and would maintain his role as my fierce and shameless advocate throughout my treatment and recovery and, well, our married life, as it would happen. : )
When all was said and done, we cancelled that surgery, found another ear, nose, and throat specialist in the valley who we were much more comfortable with and I went forward with a biopsy (that the original office recommended we skip) to see if any of my thyroid could be saved. And when I say “we,” I mean my superhero husband who swooped in and saved the day, while I wandered around bemused and generally useless to myself. I don’t like talking about my time as a damsel in distress (so much so that I never even brought it up in my original Cancer Files).
I wouldn’t realize until much later, after years of wrestling with the question, “Who are you if not what you can do?” that those feelings of helplessness and uselessness and the knowledge that I could not take care of myself (much less be there in the lives of my family, friends, and animals as I was used to being) had devastated me more than the illness itself.
No doubt about it, things were getting tight. She stretched her arms and legs as far as she could, just to check again, and sure enough, the soft, seemingly flexible walls of her living space were decidedly less flexible than they had been the week before. It was happening so slowly, she almost hadn’t noticed, but lately, it had become clear–this room, which had started out quite comfortable, was shrinking.
It was a desperate situation really. She wasn’t exactly sure how she’d gotten here and therefore, wasn’t exactly sure how to go about going somewhere else . . . There were others nearby, but none she felt comfortable asking. For some reason, they didn’t seem to like her. They were always scooting out of her way, mumbling and grumbling. She apologized often, but that didn’t seem to help anymore. Another hint the room was shrinking, she couldn’t move a hand or foot these days without bumping into Bladder or Diaphram or some other random, grumpy neighbor.
Something soft brushed her toe, interrupting her thoughts, and she kicked out, “HIYA!” Then everything constricted suddenly, as it sometimes did. She pressed out against the walls, hoping to get away from whatever it was, but there was nowhere to go . . . finally, she looked and realized it was just Bladder again. “Oops, sorry!” She said, but only received a pained groan in response. Sigh. Typical.
One way or another, she was going to HAVE to find a way out of here . . .
“SHHHH, Stomach!! It’s sleeping now and I don’t want it waking up until we’re done talking. I didn’t invite Baby to this roommates meeting.”
“Yeah. Look, I called this meeting to see if I’m the only one whose getting worried about the new roommate. I mean, at first I thought Baby was pretty cool; it was so quiet and took up hardly any room at all.”
Around the small room, organs nodded their assent.
“Then, the other day, I woke up feeling like I was going to burst, opened my eyes, and baby was LITERALLY using me as a pillow!”
“Ya know, now that I think about, Baby’s foot has gotten caught on me three times just in the last week. I mean, it’s always polite, all “excuse me” and “so sorry!” but that never happened when Baby first moved in.” Ribs chimed in all together.
“I’ve been getting a little nervous, myself.” Whispered stomach. “I didn’t really want to say anything because I wasn’t completely sure it was Baby’s fault, but honestly, since just a couple of weeks after it moved in, I’ve felt positively awful. It got better a few weeks ago, but still, I used to work with whatever came down about three or so times a day, now, if there isn’t enough there, I can’t control it, I just start kicking bile back up. I’m not sure if I’m crazy or broken or what, but I just know it started soon after Baby moved in.”
“Well, that does it.” Bladder stated quietly. “I don’t want to be hasty; Baby’s awfully sweet, but it sounds like we all have concerns. I vote that we meet again in a month or so for a another check-in. If things don’t get better in a few months, we may just have to ask Baby to leave.”
Everyone present nodded somberly and tried to move back into their normal positions, but there just wasn’t room, so they squeezed in as close to where they used to go as they could. And just in time, too! With a whoosh, a tiny hand flew out, smacking belly button in the back. Belly Button let out a surprised yelp and Baby promptly held up the same hand in a gesture of apology. “So sorry! Pardon me, Belly Button, I’m afraid I woke up with a start.” Baby said with an easy smile.
I’ve been talking to a girl whose name I know, but who hasn’t given me permission to use it yet, so I’ll simply call her She. She’s been telling me stories about where she has been and all that has happened to her since she was born and I listen with a rapt ear because although I know of her, I have never truly known her.
I am not her mother–She is the daughter of misfortune and I listen to her now because I have spent the entirety of her life pretending she did not exist. She would speak quietly and I would sing over her; She would tap on the windows of my soul and I would swiftly pull the curtains. I knew with every painful beat of my broken, unhealing heart that she was there. It is guilt which salts the wound and will not let it close.
Now, I am tired of her ceaseless whispers and tapping. And so, after all this time, I have invited her in for coffee so we can talk. Well, so She can talk. I have promised to only listen and relate what She says. I have promised that no matter what she has to say, I will record it without altering her story. I have promised to unlock the door . . . she need not tap on the windows any longer.
I think she knows this will not really be a record of her life, but rather, a record of her death. By the time this story is finished, She will have relinquished the borders which give her substance and I envy her strength–reciting her memories, such terrible memories, in her soft and steady way. She does not seem to mind that she is fading with every word. I also, a bit grudgingly, admire her cleverness–She said she came only to speak her truth, and I let her in not realizing that, Continue reading “She: How to Begin?”→