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Crib notes for life's final exams

I turned 60 in December.

For a long time, I had been living in secret terror over a potential cancer diagnosis. Every day--every hour, sometimes--was a test of my ability to be calm, to live in the moment, until I had the courage to Find Out.

On my 60th birthday, a poem serendipitously came my way: The Layers by Stanley Kunitz. It's a poem that looks back on life, and it struck such a profound chord with me on that day that I wrote it out by hand. I sent it to people who know me well. I started to memorize it. It was my new poem, the poem for my Third Act.

I went out afterwards for Chinese tea and a Tarot reading. I walked through the neighborhood in the cool, damp December mist, treading softly on the balls of my feet in order not to ruin my important birthday by disturbing the fragile shell of ice holding my death-terror at bay.

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides from which I struggle
not to stray.

The Death card didn't come up in the Tarot reading. Just The Fool.

Well, I finally Found Out a few days ago. I do have cancer. The kind of skin cancer that is highly treatable. It wasn't too late. But it was almost too late.

In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”

The treatment doesn't involve hair loss or bone marrow or radiation, or even much cutting (there was a biopsy and two stitches). Just some topical chemotherapy--which is to say a toxic and super-irritating cream--that I'm responsible for administering to myself over the next several weeks.

The lesion is on my chest, more or less where I was figuratively stabbed in the heart about ten years ago. I believe strongly that the body becomes a map of life's indignities and sorrows, and by the age of 60, it's getting tired of hiding them.

Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?

My relief, of course, has been only partial, and slow in coming. There was the visual diagnosis, then a two-week wait for lab results to rule out the really bad kind of skin cancer, then the phone call, and the relatively good news, and some private tears of gratitude. Then came the ramp-down, walking on my whole feet again, Knowing and Taking Action, and the slow bleeding-off of the long period of terror.

And now I've got this weird involvement in pharmaceuticals and doctors' offices, where people all act like everyone has cancer and why should we have to explain anything to you, are you new?

(And also, this is dermatology, so you go into this chi-chi doctor's office and are surrounded by trophy wives who are there for beauty treatments, and you really don't fit in because you've clearly let yourself go, and it's like actual skin cancer is the ghetto part of that practice.)

I knew there was something I needed to get off my chest.

Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.

I am, you might say, mostly out of the woods. I intend to come all the way out, with every tool and weapon at my command. And meanwhile, I have a lot of living in the moment, beyond fear, under my belt.

Which, after all, at 60 is a good idea in any case.

The poem ends:

Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

So today, I got this.

Dark Em's right forearm with a new tattoo reading 'I am not done with my changes.' in her handwriting.

Crossposted from Dreamwidth, where there are comment count unavailable comments.


( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
Mar. 18th, 2016 12:06 am (UTC)
Thank you, dear! I'm honored.

*squints* Is that Kaylee's "as chocolatey as possible" birthday cake for Simon there in your icon? :D :D :D
Mar. 19th, 2016 12:17 pm (UTC)
Thank you so much for sharing this. I'm so glad your lesion is treatable.
Mar. 20th, 2016 03:40 am (UTC)
Thank you. I'm glad too, and life seems to be going on, as it does!
Mar. 20th, 2016 03:33 am (UTC)
Happy belated birthday - I'm glad your diagnosis was "treatable".
Mar. 20th, 2016 03:40 am (UTC)
Thank you!
Mar. 22nd, 2016 04:01 am (UTC)
Oh my goodess, you were stabbed in the heart??? What happened????

Did the scar from that stabbing grew cancerous or something? Anyway, I'm so glad it's the easily treatable one *hugs*
Mar. 22nd, 2016 04:38 am (UTC)
Oh dear. No, no. Sorry to cause alarm! The keyword there was "figuratively". A very, very traumatic relationship fiasco and some other heartbreaks all in one short period.

The skin cancer is real (though retreating fast, I hope), but I'm a great believer that emotional wounds show up in the physical body, and its location generally over my heart seems meaningful to me.
Mar. 22nd, 2016 04:39 am (UTC)
And thank you for the hugs!
Mar. 22nd, 2016 07:48 am (UTC)
I am very glad you're going to be okay, and I'm sorry you had to live in fear at all. Happy birthday, and happy changes.
Mar. 24th, 2016 06:38 am (UTC)
Thank you, dear. To be perfectly accurate, I didn't have to live in fear, I chose to, and it's been a very interesting life lesson!
Jul. 30th, 2016 05:14 am (UTC)
Thank you so much for this. I need the same tattoo! My problem was not fearing dying of cancer but lamenting the life I hadn`t had...instead of fully living the life I was having.

I had heart surgery a year ago to replace a valve and it`s helped me treasure what I have.

My best wishes for your health!
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )



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