By Claudia Ricci
I carry my cup of tea into the living room and stand at the door. I stare out at the pine trees, their boughs laden in snow. I open the door. I inhale. The air is a painful blast.
There are 8-foot piles (I had written 15, yes, but now I've really seen them) on either side of the garage. I sink to my knees (not hips) going the long distance to the compost pile.
I turn from the door and walk to my study and it is then that I swear I hear someone talking. Yelling. No one is home with me, so I don’t know what to think.
I blink. Suddenly there is a lining behind my eyes and it is silver and slick as a mirror. I blink again and the lining tears and a woman appears behind the mirror.
She is naked and her flesh is doughy. She has the kind of body that was cherished during the Renaissance. But her complexion is dark and there are salmon highlights on her cheeks, as if the sun is trying to sneak through her skin. She is breathing quick and hard. She is holding scissors to the sky. And wearing a shield of thin bright gold. She keeps screaming, “HELP ME HELP ME HELP ME THERE IS SOMEONE TRYING TO ERASE ME!!!”
I think about yelling back. I think, oh, I should try to help her. But then I think, how? What would I do?
I sit down and try to write a story:
Today I am going to airlift a mythological figure to safety. She is a goddess with blankets of wavy black hair. She carries a two-pronged sceptor, sharp at the tips, and she wears a gold shield over powder blue robes that are transparent, like the sky. I am going to rescue this goddess with music and song. Tambourines and lutes. I am going to airlift her to a place by an emerald sea. There she will be carried by a boat back to her home, wherever that may be.
I print out the paragraph and stare at it. I crumple it up. I go to the kitchen with the intent of making another cup of tea, but then I decide to make coffee. I go back to my study and sit down again. I start typing something new.
I am sitting in the Café Lorca in Jerez, under a scorching blue sky, and I am drinking strong coffee and listening to the flare of fingernails on strings. A rasqueado. God knows how I love the flamenco.
I stop. I won’t even print this one out. It would be a waste of paper. I erase the line. I erase the goddess paragraph, too. Yes, after all that, I erased the naked woman without a second thought.
I stare at the cup of coffee. I get up and go to the kitchen. I pour the coffee down the drain. I take three oranges and squeeze a glass of fresh juice, the liquid thick with pulp. I stare at the glass. I used to pop Vitamin C pills like they were candy. But now, it seems a rather dangerous prospect to take Vitamin C. Or even to drink a glass of juice. That nurse at Sloan told me very clearly years back: “Vitamin C feeds lymphoma.”
I take a sip of the juice and then I pour the rest of it down the sink. I think of myself as healed and cured. But there are mornings when, out of nowhere, I just...wonder. Whether.
I go back to my study empty-handed. I need to write something, but I can’t think of a thing. I start typing away.
I wish to be freed of every last drop of fear about the lymphoma, and every last filament of the memory of it. I wish never to have one single thought of those deathly chemicals.
And yet, now I realize. I cannot ever stop remembering. Not completely. I wish I didn't but I've got the memory embedded in my tissues. So. I now declare myself fully and finally healed. I now pronounce myself completely in remission.
I stop. I pick up my dictionary and look up the word ‘remission.’ “Forgiveness or pardon of a sin or other offence; deliverance from guilt or punishment.”
I start typing again:
Sometimes I think it is useless trying to write anything at all after you have survived cancer. No matter how many years go by, no matter how long it's been since the lymphoma -- eight eight almost nine nine -- once you have had it, you can never not have had it. You can never quite live the way you used to. Even when you are cured, you can never quite be forgiven. You can never quite be delivered completely of fear. You can never quite be sure the floor will hold you up forever and forever and will not fall through again. You can never rest assured. Period.
I stop. Go to the kitchen and make some more tea. Red clover, because it keeps the blood clean. When I leave the kitchen though, I am distracted by the thoughts that I am about to type, and so I leave the cup on the counter.
If a person is punished then they must have done something to deserve it. The punishment I mean. And I certainly was punished. Week after week, they pumped me with chemicals so poisonous that they dared not let them touch my skin. The nurse explained to me one week: ‘these chemicals are as toxic as Drano, and so, they go right into your veins. We wouldn't want them to touch your skin.’
Somehow the logic of that statement never made sense to me but I never asked any questions. I didn't want to know too much.
And then, when the poisons were done, I weathered day after day, week after week, of radiation beaming through my chest. Radiation that burned the flesh of my esophagus and the back of my throat and the front of my chest.
I would lie there trying to salivate, because I hated the taste that the radiation left. I hated that taste so much that I didn’t want the back of my tongue to touch the roof of my mouth.
I am typing faster and faster.
So yes, I was punished, yes. But what was I punished for? I must have done something awful. I must have abused someone. Someone. You see my logic. I was punished so I must have committed some crime. I must have done something. Thought something. Written something.
I stop typing immediately. I erase everything I have just written.
I realize what happened: yesterday I had lunch with a friend I hadn't seen in years. My friend Karen K. We started chatting and then she stopped and said, "Hey, first thing, how is your health?"
I told her that I am great. "I don't even think about being sick anymore." The conversation proceeded.
And then this morning, when I woke up, it was there. That old nagging fear. That "you can never be sure" feeling. That winter whether.
I start typing faster: I did nothing wrong. I got sick. Period. I am well now and I have been for years. I am going to stay well.
Well. And then I just keep typing that word, over and over and over again:
Well.Well.Well.Well. Well.Well.Well.Well. Well.Well.Well.Well. Well.Well.Well.Well. Well.Well.Well.Well.
Soon there are waves of WELLs on the page. They kind of look like waves. They kind of remind me of that favorite Torah passage, the one called "The Song of the Sea," the one where Moses leads the Israelites through the parted waves of the Red Sea. It's an unusual passage in the Bible, set up like a poem.I sit there. I need something to drink but I can’t get up from my chair. I sit there some more and then I think about that night, that awful awful night, and I type some more:
I remember the night I was diagnosed. I was half dressed for my son's Bar Mitzvah. Literally, I had the navy blue skirt with the tiny red roses on, but not the top portion of the dress. I was standing there in my bra when the doctor finally phoned back. It was 5:30 on a Friday night in June and I had been calling her all afternoon to get the results of the CT scan that she had ordered earlier in the day after she had seen that egg-sized lump on my collarbone.
The doctor knew I was about to go to my son's Bar Mitzvah. She said, "Why don't we schedule something for Monday, you and your husband can come in then."
I said no. I said, "Doctor, if you know something then I want to know too."
And so she told me. Cancer. She said the word "cancer." I said the word out loud and my husband heard it, and unbeknownst to me, my two daughters, who were hiding on the staircase to the third floor, they heard the word too.
The doctor said, "You will need chemo and radiation." I had a pen and paper by the bed and I wrote those two words down. Chemo and radiation. I don't remember much after that. I remember that I went to my son's Bar Mitzvah in a complete fog. I couldn't eat a thing at the dinner. At the service afterward, I remember we were singing "Mah Tovu," that beautiful, no hauntingly beautiful, hymn that comes from Numbers, Chapter 24, Verse 5, the one about Jacob's tents in the desert -- "How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel! -- and the music filled the temple and covered me like a warm blanket and I sat there and had an image of all those incredible tents, standing white and gleaming in the desert and me hiding in the white tents.
The next morning, just before the bar mitzvah service, I told Rabbi Klein, the assistant rabbi, what was going on. I said, "Please, Andy, I don't want to cry. No matter what happens to me, I don't want my son to remember me crying at his Bar Mitzvah."
Andy Klein is an incredible guy, and an amazing rabbi, and he looked me straight in the eye and smiled broadly. "You won't cry," he said. "You can trust me, you won't cry." All during the service, as my son chanted from the Torah scroll, I locked eyes with Andy Klein, the incredible rabbi, who was across the room, on the other side of the bima where the Torah scroll sits. And miraculously, I didn't cry.
Now, though, I am crying. I am trying not to but I am crying. Hard. So hard I stop typing and wipe my eyes and then I stop crying and I start humming the song about Jacob's tents. "Mishkenotah Israel..." The song makes me feel better, it fills my chest, and sits there, the song vibrating like a well of healing water. I start typing again:
Sometimes I am frightened that cantaloupe-sized tumor will return to my chest, and then I will need more poisons. If I do, I have decided that I will just drink the chemicals and be done with it. I will end the wondering. You know the wondering I mean. ‘I wonder whether I will…’ and ‘I wonder whether I will not.’ The ‘wondering whether’ will kill you. All that whether is just such a bother. Like snow in winter. Winter, whether or not it will go away. Winter weather
that may never be spring. Ever again.
I sit back and reread what I have written. I wipe my eyes and look out the window at the snow.
I look back at my computer and wonder whether I can retrieve the lost goddess paragraph. But my search for it is fruitless. The goddess is gone for good. I print out what I’ve written and leave the pages there in a neat black and white stack on my desk.
I get up and go to the kitchen. My cup of tea is ice cold. But outside, there is a slice of salmon-colored sky on the horizon. When I return to my study, light is pouring through the window onto the desk. The glass pane is old. Wavy.