Ritual marks moments that need to be honored and noted. The culture of this country does not support or encourage as much ritual as I crave, so it must be created. When my daughter returns for a visit, I place fresh flowers upon her bedroom table. Each evening I light candles of intention and set them upon my hearth. With seasonal changes marked by the moon, I change the tokens and charms hanging from my mother’s gold chain. And now as my novel Sister of Grendel moves toward its entrance into the larger world, I realize it is time to create a ritual for my muse. It is something I should have done long ago. It will be personal, evocative, as pleasing as a cathedral and as intimate as a coin in a pocket.
Bread is baked. Good Luck Soup is assembled. My son and his friend are down in his “man cave,” alternating guitar and bass jamming with video games. Their voices rotate in unreliable pitches from deep to shrill just below my feet as I sit writing at my dining room table. My daughter is ready to go ice skating, despite the brutal cold, because she wants to be with her friends. She is more restless than content these days. She awaits word of acceptance from the hoped-for college. I am caught and shaken when I realize that next year at this time, she will be on winter break, that she will be a quarter ways across that bridge away from this home toward her next. Both of my most beloved people are moving deeper into a zone of the most profound and amazing transitions. My babies are becoming adults and trying on new roles.
And so, I bake bread. Assemble soup. Write. Another of my beloveds is also undergoing a final transition, and over this one I have the most control. My novel SISTER OF GRENDEL will be ready for a ebook launch in the next few months, along with the accompanying paper-book format. As the light returns and I make my way toward Epiphany, one word at a time, her story brings with it an unexpected gift of transition to me as well. Although I have been a published writer for decades, in 2014 I will at long last feel ready and equipped to take up another role. For me, 2014 will be the year I shall declare myself as novelist.
At dawn…I will be in a jet with my children, rising and lifting and heading to Chicago. And from there, another heavy transcendence in steel-riveted cocoon of metal with wings, pushing east, into time reversed, to arrive in London, just in time for a warm cup of something before falling into bed…on the same date. We will try to trick time. We will meet ancestor ghosts and insistent dreams and spill ourselves out with laughter, and the keen awareness of what the journey brings: we are making memories.
As my mother awakened, she motioned for me to come to her side. The acrid scent of anesthetic drifted from her. With an elegant hand she drew me to her, and whispered, “Did they take it?”
“Come closer,” she sighed. “I need to smell something beautiful.”
I leaned down to her, and she inhaled the fragrance she’d given me a few months earlier for my 23rd birthday.
It was 1982, the Middle Ages of breast cancer treatment, when they rolled you into surgery, split open the suspicious behavior of your body, and if they found, with knife and lens, that those cells were doing what cells do, but without ceasing, they carved them out of you.
As mother and daughter, we rarely withheld anything from each other, and certainly not for long. We usually managed to tease out what needed to be discussed over coffee, or during an afternoon of shoe shopping, and always as we planted tomatoes or rolled creamy dough into sugar dreams.
That’s how I knew she had been terrified–she didn’t tell me about the tumor until the eve of her surgery. My mother was the most capable woman I knew, but she did not know how to handle this new valley in her life. If she could not deliver bad news on a platter, dressed with what could be done to make it right, she would not bring in her burden until the last possible moment.
She was not the first. My family’s breast cancer legacy begins with my great-grandmother Susan. Susan’s lustrous mane was a bodacious auburn during an age when all outrageous things were corseted, so she hid her embarrassment beneath a dusting cap. She nurtured capable daughters who worked hard, prospered, and celebrated even small triumphs by playing the piano by ear and singing in four-part harmony. She managed the binge-drinking husband—the horse knew the way home from the Corner Bar—and she made it clear to her daughters that a handsome face was not enough. Although a clear-spoken woman, when she felt the mass, she kept silent. When she could no longer keep silent because the pain twisted cries from her, it was too late.
Susan’s daughter, my grandmother Elizabeth, was a bold woman, proud of the successful, boisterous family who gathered around her table on Sunday afternoons. My elders drank coffee with gusto from her heirloom china cups and dipped her home-made donuts in bowls of sweetened cinnamon. I listened to stories of how popped corn with sugar and milk constituted breakfast and supper during the Great Depression; how clothes would be picked open at the seam, turned and re-stitched for several more seasons of wear; or how some of their friends were never the same upon returning from “over there.” My aunts and uncles would shake their heads, dazzled by their gains of good fortune. Then my grandmother would try to tell one of a handful of her oft-repeated jokes, but would be undone by her own laughter, its force so strong it would pull everyone forward, all of us cheering for her, urging her to cross the punch line herself. Breathless and hooting, she’d wave a hand and relinquish it to someone who knew it, while collapsing back into her chair, offering her dazzling smile.
When breast cancer came to her, she did not proclaim it; she mentioned it to her sons, allowed more glimpses of it to my aunts, and revealed it fully only to her daughter Mary–my mother. Grandmother wanted it removed and flung far from her presence. She did not want it to trap her as it had her own mother in a dry case of death. Grandmother survived the surgery, scoffed at feeble efforts of therapy, and died decades later on good terms with old age.
Within those preceding frames, after my mother’s radical mastectomy, she agreed to experimental, oral follow-up chemical treatment that tagged her rounds of chemotherapy. She rolled a ball up and down the wall, again and again, to rebuild strength that never fully returned in her arm. She joked how she was grateful she started with a heavy head of hair, “So now I have just an ordinary amount.” She presented commandments direct from the god named Oncologist who said, “Considering your family history, your daughter should get a base-line mammogram in her twenties.” She insisted I do just that, asked if I were practicing my monthly self-exams, and sent me clippings about studies suggesting ways to minimize the risks of breast cancer.
My mother’s cancer resided in the waiting room for nearly a decade; then, not long after my father’s death, it came for another visit. She was content with a distant date offered for the surgery; I was not. After the biopsy, I stood at the nurses’ station and said, “Find something sooner.” The offending lymph nodes were removed within weeks. Episodes of cellulitis would regularly inflame her arm during the next dozen years, but cancer would not be the cause of her death.
More than 20 years after her first cancer, my mother traveled a modulated and gentle exit brought about by transient ischemic attacks. While sitting vigil, I opened the last drawer of mementos and tokens carried as touchstones throughout her long life: the picture of Dad too thin but beaming upon his return from the South Pacific, Mother’s Day notes scrawled in my brothers’ little boy cursive, a picture of me on the day I was hooded for my master’s degree. There were golden rings; a bone china coffee cup; pictures of us laughing on the front stoop of the farmhouse, our arms warm around each other’s waist. I looked at a snapshot of my mother, lovely, taken within hours of the birth of my daughter Madeleine. In it, Mother bends over the hospital bassinet leaning close to her granddaughter, smiling, again inhaling something beautiful. I remember how she looked at me after the picture was taken and said, “A daughter’s daughter is the most precious thing.”
And then, there it was. Nested in a small box was the first prosthesis. I thought she had tossed it away long ago, hardened by her heat and action, its underside crusted by age. Its weight in my hand yanked me through the door of legacy. I looked at my mother, her breath shallow, her eyelids still. Taking her elegant hand, I leaned close.
Hours later, I walked out of the care facility; a full moon ached in the ink-dark sky. I stood in the nearly empty lot, watched the caretaker drive away with my mother’s body, and sobbed.
During the years since my mother’s death, flickers of cancer tease the periphery of my own body. I greet good news after each mammogram, and savor the words: Not yet. Not now.
My daughter and I talk about her maternal ancestors, their cancer journeys entwined in the sharing of their lives. I make donations. Sign pledges. Wear ribbons. I wish I could stand as a fourth-generation barrier between breast cancer and Madeleine. But I know all I can really do is take her hand, lean close, and breathe in something beautiful.
—this essay received First Honorable Mention in the Kelly Culhane Writing Contest sponsored by Savage Press–http://www.savpress.com/
For the holidays, my favorite daughter gave me a new wallet (“the biggest they had”) with a compartment inscribed “passport.” Today I put mine in there, along with a fresh new bill larger than I ever typically carry, and a gifted new lipstick (“angel red” from a chosen sister). My favorite son gave me a new Shun vegetable knife, and it makes even the slicing of onions something akin to worship. I just opened this year’s Moleskine journal, and embellished its black and certain cover with a photograph of nearby Minnehaha Falls, conjuring meaning and beauty for its pages, upon which I have already written. I’ve also affixed to it a pen loop, and through the loop secured my late mother’s favorite Parker pen, ready with a cartridge of fresh ink. These three things make me feel profoundly privileged. Blessed. A little wistful. And absolutely ready for anything. This year: I am ready to journey even farther. I am tested and proven in ways to care and provide for myself and loved ones. My writing and art shall flow as never before.
The posts that have not happened:
– a reflection on the tenth anniversary of 9/11 where taking a group of adult learners to an art museum eased the shock and heart ache.
– my personal story of more than two years climbing around inside the belly of The Beast Called Bank of America and emerging with a roof still over my family’s head.
– a recounting of a short discussion with My Favorite Daughter during which she asked, “So how did you manage Powerpoint presentations with a typewriter?”
– a pause about getting word that SISTER OF GRENDEL is exactly the sort of novel an editor likes…but that was the word from the assistant and not the editor, which means I am exactly where I have been for sometime: waiting.
And with what life is offering up these days, they will likely continue to be Posts That Have Not Happened. But at least now I have recorded my good intentions. Sometimes good intentions are underrated.
One met deadline, however, means I will have a poem included in the upcoming OPEN TO INTERPRETATION photography and prose/poetry collection. The poem “A Boat Called Leaving” will be set with the fifth photo in the juried images: http://www.open2interpretation.com/.
It’s one of my guilty pleasures.
I consider myself a stealth fair-goer. It’s all about finding those quiet spaces in the midst of all the hubbub to watch and consider and be reminded of a great number of things.
My offering for Opening Day, written back in 2008:
For millennia, this impulse to carnival!
To gather, between seasons,
honor not only the passage of time and heat,
but use it as an excuse, reason, justification
to consume and revel.
no, to aspire to
(if only for a little while)
excess and boast: I ate it ALL!
sausages glistening like drag queens flaunting
kraut boas, pickle relish rhinestones, mustard lamé
apples seeking even more beauty from a caramel masque
ice cream coupling shamelessly with fudge as the nuts watch
puffs surrendering their ivory hips to whipped cream
sugar dancing until dizzied pink
To gawk at those who dress as if asking
us to admire their inability to limit
their excesses—Momma, that man’s breasts are bigger than yours!
Here we ogle.
Here we are bodacious among the outrageous.
Here we even listen to country music.
Here it is important to believe
the hawker who preaches as if he’s speaking just to you
and you just know that his cutlery—
offered only at the State Fair with a full set of steak knives at the unbelievably one low price of $20 along with the vegetable spinner and orange juicer—
really will work as well at home on the last of the heirloom tomatoes.
Here we are fair spirited and we twirl
on the double Ferris wheel or the Mad Mouse
strapped to trust and each other.
Rich and poor.
Sound and the fragile.
He who is about to go to war and die.
She who is about to deliver a daughter and fall utterly in love.
They who will not share another evening like this together.
The cry of carnival
fits in a plastic bucket of chocolate chip cookies
slips over us like the glistening scrim of oil left in the Worlds Best French Fries cup
begs us to glide above our real lives and believe,
like the child sitting next to you at the Rabbit Race,
life will be complete
if you win the white teddy bear.
You realize what you want
along with all the other overfed pilgrims
hangs and sways
shining in syllables of orange, pink, blue and green
just out of reach.
My daughter asked to see old photos and books from my youth. We found the tub of scrapbooks and photos not too far down in a pillar of storage boxes tucked in a closet. We looked at old photos of my mother, even more clearly than ever the template from which I was cut. Old photos of myself, revealing the same lineage in my son’s visage. There were yearbooks from school. Programs from 4-H. An odd assortment of ribbons and some trophies. A box of mixed glories and hopes.
What I want to share from it most now, though, is my kindergarten “Progress Report.” My teacher was the finest of kinder: Mrs. Prince. She saw much in me, it seems. Two long columns of “S” for Satisfactory. (“I” denoted Improvement Shown. “N” represented Needs Improvement…a three-note scale that did not shame.)
It’s a found poem, in many ways. I offer it here:
Scholarship Report – 1964
Ready for reading
Shows interest in books
Can use numbers in practical situations
Knows and recognizes number 1-10
Takes part in class discussion
Contributes meaningful information
Is an attentive listener
Has ideas to express
Expresses himself (sic) before the group
Is developing phonetic sense
Can write own name
Attempts to improve his writing
Expresses himself well
Uses materials carefully
Responds to rhythm
Sings with group
Can skip and gallop
Works and plays well with others
Conduct in class
Meets new situations
Does work neatly
Keeps hands to himself
Keeps materials from mouth
Can put on and take off own wraps
Relaxes at rest time.
I am not a Luddite. Maybe a little techno-resistant. Certainly not an early adapter. I am dazzled by all the options open to writers and others in the blog-sphere. And I will persevere until I have everything integrated…but right now, I am flummoxed. Bear with me. At some near-future time, I will have just one website. It will be elegant and lean. Few bells and whistles. Just a place to record things and post things I hope others will appreciate.
The more you read this, the more I’ll want to write.