Two weekends ago, I attended the annual women’s spirituality
retreat I’ve been going to every January for the last 6 years, since the group
was formed. Last year, I asked my doctors to move my chemo treatment so that I could
attend it. It’s a pretty important milemarker for me, and every year, I sit in
the circle of twenty or so women, and I get to see where my levels are that
year. I get to remember the crises or issues I was working on in previous
years, and how they’ve fallen away, or if they’re still present. It’s my annual
I still remember the first year when my big issue was around
the food they were serving. Everything was homemade, delicious… and in buffet
style. I found myself eating beyond capacity at each meal, and by the end of
the retreat, I shared what I learned was why: I had no food at home. I was
trying to gorge myself, as if that would satiate me beyond the 24 hours, and I
could bring some of that fullness home with me to my empty fridge.
This was in the days long before I got a handle on money or
my relationship with it, and I didn’t buy food. Sure, I ate, and it wasn’t an
anorexia thing; I just felt that I didn’t have enough money, or enough care for
myself to buy anything, so I’d eat popcorn for dinner, or cook up the 55 cent
packages of asian noodles I could buy near my work. It wasn’t abundant for
I shared this with the group, I cried about not treating
myself well, about not prioritizing my needs. And, several years later, I can
report that that behavior around food, though occasionally rearing, is pretty
This year, however, I was eager to “get to the root” of
several things—one thing in particular—and it was the last day of the retreat.
We had our morning meditation session, we’d shared, and the closing meditation
always took place after a walking meditation through the forest path and down
to a lower outdoor chapel of sorts, with wooden slats for benches, right
next to a trickling stream, in the center of a wooded bonanza of nature.
I didn’t want to do the walking meditation. We’d walked down
the path silently yesterday, though not with intention, and I just wanted to
GET there, so I could have more insights. I wanted to get to the real meditation. I even voted that we skip it.
But, I was overruled, and found myself walking about 15
feet behind another retreatant, with slow, purportedly meaningful steps. So, I
walked slowly, and a little past the wooden bridge over the stream, I began to
relax, to notice, to breathe, to see where I was, to be where I was – exactly where I’d been one year
before, when I was chemo-bald, in the middle of treatments, and so very unsure
of what was going to happen to me.
I felt that duality,
the nature of being in two worlds, one in the present, one in the past, walking
with my past self and experience, knowing that a very frightened but very brave
woman had worn these very shoes on this very path one year before.
And I recalled something else.
After my first round of chemo and month-long hospital
stay last October. After my esophagus melted in reaction, and I was told I
would probably be infertile after treatment. After my doctors told me that even with
treatment, my best statistics were a 40% five-year survival rate, I went for a
I am lucky enough to live in a neighborhood where I can walk
pretty close to trees, and I was taking a much needed walk, albeit slowly.
Coincidentally, it was on this walk when I got a phone call from Stanford,
looking to plan our intake interview for bone-marrow transplant. I hadn’t yet
made my decision to pass on the transplant and go with straight chemo,
believing that to be enough. I hadn’t yet heard all about the pre-transplant radiation that zaps
you to smitherines, that I would have to relocate for 9 months to the
Peninsula for 24-hour care, that even with the abominable treatments, I would only be given a
60% chance to live instead of 40. And this woman was calling to talk to me
I told her I needed to call her back. I was taking a
I walked up near a house where a large redwood grows next to
the sidewalk, pushing the concrete out of its way, slowly and surely. I walked
up to that redwood and I put my palm
flat against its umber, striated flank.
And I silently asked the tree: Am I going to live?
(Did I lose you yet?)
And in my body, in my poor shop-worn blood, in the center of where we listen, I felt and heard
the answer: Yes.
I am going to live.
I get emotional writing about it. And, walking down that forest path in Napa
just two weeks ago, I got emotional, too. It was
there I remembered all that had happened, all the fear, and the relief, and the anger, and the
certainty I felt (even though who can be certain) that I was going to live
through my cancer. The trees had told me so, and I believed them.
I may have lost you with the tree-talking thing, but, meh,
c’est la vie.
The point is, I lived. ‘Til today. I am healthy, besides
this damn cold; my blood is normal and cancer-free, and I am alive.
Every single day is a relief, a question, an imperative
question and invitation. I heard on NPR last night about a woman whose mother
went into full remission for a year and a half, and then the cancer returned
with vengeance and she died. But how important that year of life was, to her
and to her family. It’s been a year and two months since mine went into
remission, and stories like that turn my insides to ice.
Luckily, I was on my way driving to band practice. The band
I didn’t belong to a year ago, couldn’t have conceived of, in a car I didn’t
have or conceive of a year ago. I reminded myself that I, too, have made this
And—for whatever it might mean to you, it means the world to
me—I remind myself that the redwoods said Yes.