Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Death Face and What Cancer Taught Me

I wake, stretching, feeling my achy joints cracking as the last residue of sleep leaves me. 5 am is my time. I love the morning. The quiet. The darkness. The stillness.  The children sleeping with cherub cheeks. The Keurig spitting. The furnace kicking alive. The unfulfilled promise of another day.

I push up into a sitting position, reclining against a pile of pillows wedged behind me.   Brock has already turned on CNN and he pads into the room, emerging like a shadow, hands laden with two cups of steaming coffee.

"Is she on again?"

The "she" he is referring to is a 37 year old woman who's lifelong dream has been to swim a distance in the Atlantic Ocean that has never been done before. For weeks the news covered the pending journey. This woman had faced a series of setbacks and she'd gritted her teeth, settled in for the long haul, dauntlessly clamoring, refusing to accept defeat. Against all odds, she'd determined to take the risk for this dream and here she was, the culmination of a life's work coming to fruition.

"I think so. She was supposed to have started  swimming yesterday I thought."  He hands me the coffee and I sip, a steady sigh of steam rising from the surface.

I would not admit it aloud, thinking it is rather cheesy, but I have been silently cheering for this woman, hoping for her success. When the news covered her life's story last week, building audience anticipation for the event, I viewed quietly with the kids and Brock until finally I left the room, tears slipping, and wept alone in the bathroom. Perhaps it was being menopausal that resulted in my behavior, or perhaps my own personal journey through the fire of a hell I didn't know I would be forced to endure. I pray for her success as though my own is incumbent upon it.

There is a sudden cheering on the tv but not a joyful cheer. The surge of noise is a mournful sound. A sound that means "Please, God, no. Don't let it be true." My coffee is almost to my mouth when I hear it and it jolts me so I spill it on my lap, burning into my belly.

And yet I am not even thinking about the burning because on the tv I am watching her swimming. But not for long.  Nature has a way of becoming an unexpected guest: a wave so large emerges from the bowels of the ocean that even a seasoned surfboarder would have taken flight. The cameras are on her and then they are not. She is swallowed in one breath by the ocean.

But the cameramen came prepared, with sophisticated underwater equipment. The picture on the tv shows her being flung around, tossed like a pebble, pushed deeper. The sound is a gurgling like too much water being drained from a bathtub. The sound is an echoing  reminding me of when I was a child and I would stay underwater in the tub, just my ears, with the water framing my face, and hear the bubbles, the voices, the rushing faucet smashing water.

The camera's light shines on her as she twists and turns. She casts a white glow. An incandescent bulb. She is too deep now. It's been too long. My heart beats hard. Then darkness. The camera malfunctions.

I feel her story though. I know what is happening. She is consumed by the water. It slowly lifts her up now, toward the surface. I can feel her weightlessness, how the water caresses her, thrusting her higher, spitting her out.

She is not afraid. She is not anything. She feels the same calm she has felt only during meditation.

It feels good to let the ocean smash her will, bend her to its own. It feels good to know something bigger than her is enveloping her, part of her and yet very separate. She is pushed one final time forward and then stillness.

Her story is not over. I still see her. Not her face. I have never seen her face. Not all these weeks on television. Never her face. She is facedown on the surface, hair fanning out like weeds, wild, willowy.  My view is from under the ocean. It is dark down here but beyond her, the surface. I can see the light. I am moving slowly toward her. She is blackness.

Her hands perpetrate  the slow movement of a shy hello, bobbing with the undulation of the waves. Her hair crowds her face but I am close to her now. So close. I know she is dead. I feel her death. It surrounds her. It reminds me of when I was a child playing at the beach and my sisters dug a hole, burying everything from the neck down. Death has swaddled her like a newborn baby wrapped into the cocoon blanket by his mother.

I am close enough now. I gingerly reach toward her hair face. A strange glow behind her I know is just the sun, the sky, the other side, merely inches away. The water is velvet between my fingers as I brush back her hair revealing her face.

I stare at her. It is impossible.

The hair fanned out. The arms askew.

The death face is my own. She is me.  We are the same.

This is the dream I awoke from Wednesday morning.  It was 3 am. I woke, startled and began to weep quietly. I was still tangled in the dream and tangled in sleepiness and logic was not fully upon me but I knew this dream is a sign. I reached for Brock in the dark and rested my face against his back, letting the dream subside. I drifted back into sleep for an hour and when I woke to take my levothyroxine as I do every day since cancer destroyed a part of me; when I do, the dream reemerge and I can't go back to sleep.  I spend an hour in the darkness breaking it apart until eventually I come to understand its meaning.

There was a time only one short year ago when all my life's ambitions were arranged like art in a gallery.  I was amazed at the power of my body. Proud at the determination I displayed as I committed myself to more reps, just one more set, another mile, just ten more pounds on that lift. I thought I had it all figured out. It was a puzzle and all of my pieces were placed. I was that close to seeing the finish line.

But you are never allowed to know when it will be taken away from you. You never know when the wings you are given will lift you up so high that you will be among Angels.

I saw for a moment the death face. Just for a while I experienced how it felt to think it would be the end. It was a moment that was too long and too intense. It was a moment that was many moments and the one I remember best is this:

I am laying on the couch again. I am due for surgery in just a few days. It is four o'clock in the afternoon. I am watching my daughter Madeline. She is laying on the floor reading "The Heroes of Olympus". She is ten. Her blonde hair cascades down her back. She is on her stomach and her legs are bent at the knee, feet in the air, kicking slightly back and forth.

.I imagine the moments in her life that I may not ever witness. I see her at her 6th grade graduation and she is still my baby faced girl, slowly emerging into adulthood. Her first junior high dance where she stands in a crowd of her friends and giggles about the boy she is crushing on. Her first solo violin performance in the high school orchestra. Another dance recital. Another birthday. Now she is 16. She plays soccer and scores three goals in one game. She dresses for prom without me,  but she thinks of me as she looks at herself in the mirror, makeup, hair piled atop her head in blonde curls. I see her graduate at the top her class. Her dad is so proud. Her sister hugs her tight in the picture. She goes to college and meets the man she will marry. They honor me at the wedding. Her Tika, my sister, speaks on my behalf. She has her first baby. It is a girl. I am a grandma. I am not there that day, but I am.  My spirit is always there with her.

It has taken me a long time to come to accept the events of 2014. I am still sometimes in denial. What I've come to understand it takes more grit and determination to accept my body will eventually fail me and I will eventually die than it ever did to run miles or pump weights, give speeches or write 20 page essays.  I accept this idea some days and some days I do not.  I am a novice.  I am learning how to live in the moment.

For everyone who has stared death in the face, there is not a medal made of enough gold, a trophy big enough.  You may not have a stage.  You may not have snapshots in magazines.  Yet,  it is you who has the courage children read about in fairy tales. Yet, your courage, your resilience, your determination is real. It is what makes legends.

I honor you.

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