Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Feathers and Masks

Another beautiful day, in a string of warm, clear spring days that fill me with that feeling of waking up on the first day of summer, or on the first morning of vacation. The smell of cut grass and the sound of an ice-cream vendor’s jingle lures me outside, and though rain is a distant thought, it’s a thought without apprehension, like a good night’s sleep at the edge of the horizon.

Two weeks off work is nice, but I’m not allowed to drive yet, and even if I could, I’m not healed enough to hike up to the places I love. Mind and spirit eager, body unable. Soon, soon…I’m already planning a slate of conditioning hikes and motivating myself through friends, one of whom sent me beautiful pictures of a hike above the eastern Columbia gorge, and another who successfully summitted Mt. Hood. I’ve been reading extensively, writing a lot, and planning my trip to Peru.

A week ago I came home from my parent’s house following surgery.

My prognosis is the best possible. Even though the mass was cancerous, it was a seminoma, the less aggressive and easiest type to treat. The surgery is the first treatment, and now I undergo staging, beginning with a CT scan to determine if the cancer spread. I’m confident that, like my blood tests, the CT scan will show nothing.

I had cancer. I have cancer. I do not have cancer.

Those words sound strange to me, like a swear-word in poetry. Who’s to say they don’t have a place in my vocabulary, even if their shape is uncomfortable on my tongue and my mind doesn’t accept their blunt meaning?

I say it, and the syllables don’t fit. I say it, and it sounds like copy, like someone is trying to sell me something. I don’t trust it. But that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. In fact, it’s true.

Technically true. I show no signs of cancer, but tests could reveal it later. And I’ll still be treated as if I have cancer, something I have to accept because I had cancer. I’m not even a survivor, yet – I’m in a limbo of language and medicine, with years of follow-up tests ahead of me and no words to describe my relationship to this illness.

For several years, I'll need surveillance - one of those "war" metaphors we use to describe our battle against devastating illnesses. I'm doing my best not to use those metaphors - they're limiting, they bracket and channel thoughts and contribute to negativity when something goes wrong and you "lose." I'd rather just watch relax and get back into the swing of things. On cold mornings, it's hard to get out of bed and drive to the mountains to go hiking in the rain - but when I'm physically unable to go, it's maddening not to have the choice. I want to go back to work. My spiritual connection with the world feels deeper now, and part of that connection consists of being able to act as I should in all parts of my life - the zen of taking out the trash, paying bills, cleaning the bathroom, all those little necessities that contribute to the "inwardness of life" rather than the outwardness. I feel expansive and generous, and not being able to perform the routine is as frustrating in my convalescence as not being able to jump up off the couch and live a spontaneous life. If I have a relationship to this illness, it isn’t described in words as much as it is described in action.

But words are all we have for discussing it, coming to terms with it in a communal sense.
One of my friends described surgery as being wounded, and that puts a different spin on it. Modern medicine removes much of the emotion from the event, surrounding the patient with professionalism and distance, the comforts of faith in science and technology. But the distancing removes the trauma, and reduces the effect – possibly, even reduces the ability to recover. If surgery is a wound, then by identifying it as such invokes the trauma itself – I imagine receiving a similar laceration in an accident on the trail, the road, at home. I wouldn’t meekly submit to it, but once wounded, there is no anesthesia, no team of trained doctors to fix the problem. Not at first, anyway, not until you get to the hospital. But there’s a difference between walking into day surgery, and walking in to the emergency room.

I’m beginning to think that modern medicine is trusted too much and doesn’t do enough for the patient’s recovery. Modern medicine is easy enough to believe in – for most of our ailments, there’s a treatment, a pill, a procedure to fix us. But afterwards, we’re on our own, and that’s where faith in science and technology fail us.

That’s when we need the strength of our friends. That’s when we need doctors who wear masks and feathers, who heal our spirit so that our body may recover.

I didn’t take vicodin because I don’t like what that type of drug does to me. I reached out to friends and they reached out to me. I’m listening to my body, pushing when I can, reaching when I can and resting when I can. I’m hard and not hard on myself. I don’t have much to guide me in my physical recovery, except myself. But there’s a different story when it comes to healing the mind and spirit.

Had I listened to my doctor, I would’ve stayed in bed for two weeks, remained immobile as much as possible, and let my body weaken so that my sutures would close and the muscles would repair themselves. I would’ve drugged myself when the pain and discomfort began to frighten me with all their possibilities of intensity. I would’ve been dependent on others. And what then? I come back weak and frail, muddled in mind and limping? No – I chose to heal by faith, not in science and technology and accepted medical knowledge, but by my own faith in my own body, mind, and spirit, buttressed by the faith of my friends and family. Those are the masks and feathers I needed, those are the doctors I listen to, and those are the doctors so many people want for when they suffer.

It's at times like this that we need words, or at minimum, meaningful silences. Modern medicine doesn’t use words – it uses phrases, forms, and formulas. It dehumanizes because it is ill-equipped to deal with anything as complex as emotion or thought. We aren’t repairing cars, here, we’re repairing people, and as grateful as I am that I received very good care and very effective treatment, I sometimes feel as though we need a mechanic to travel with us for a while, someone who will help translate the new sensations of driving after we pick up our newly repaired vehicle from the shop and take it on the road again.

I’ve had great support and I’m almost ready to hit the road: go back to work, begin hiking again, really start living. The clarity and calm I feel isn’t new, it’s just enhanced. I have not changed, I’ve progressed. I have not learned, I’ve remembered. There’s too much on the path to stay in one place for long, too much to sense, too much to share, so many people to meet and so many words left to say. So much to give back…

There are words for what my masks and feathers have done for me. I don’t know what they are yet, though they’re forming slowly in my mind and my mouth is starting to form them. But I can wait. I have patience. And I will say them, one day.

Since I shamelessly borrowed a phrase from him already, I’d like to end with a few lines from Pearly Everlasting, a poem by Gary Snyder that starts small with renewal from destruction (the title flower in Mt. St. Helens’ blast zone) before roaming from the local to the global in spirit. When we seek, we will have shamans to guide us.

“If you ask for help it comes.
But not in any way you’d ever know
– thank you Loowit, Lawilayt-lá, Smoky Mâ
gracias xiexie grace.”

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