– Nonfiction by Joan Conway –
This is my fifth session of chemo for breast cancer, and even though I am prepared to be at the hospital for much of the late morning and early afternoon, I feel shaky. As I walk into the room, I put on a brave face, step on the scale, watch the nurse record numbers,
“Excellent Joan, your weight is the same as last session.” I let out a long breath.
‘We have you set up in the corner.’ I see her eyes smile through her plastic goggles, the only distinguishing feature as she wears a mask, as well as a cap, which completely covers her hair.
This is my first six-hour session, how on earth am I going to get through the day! I settle into the recliner draped in a white cloth that can easily be removed and washed when I l leave. My hands tremble as I open my pack and spread its contents on the table by my side, my journal, a novel, a few books of inspiring poetry, my phone for music, and magazines- today it is ‘Where Women Create.’ This features unique studio spaces, but as I settle into the chair, I smirk at the idea that creative spark can arrive in the oddest of places.
My lunch bag is tucked inside. I peak in for reassurance. Glass containers with matching red lids are stacked in a neat row – hummus and crackers, cucumber and red pepper slices, a peeled boiled egg, a pink lady apple already sliced and cored, almonds. I took such care this morning, wanting to entice my taste buds, trick my mind with these individual packages, small presents congratulate me for withstanding the day.
The steroid drips through the IV. It looks benign in its clear plastic bag, but I know that once in my body it will slither through my veins like a snake. I will be unblinking, on high alert for two days. After the steroid is drained from its pouch, the first round of chemo drugs is hooked up.
I pick up my book and read but am distracted when I notice a woman going into the doctor’s office. I am told by the nurse that he now phones most patients and only meets face to face when cancer patients have their first consultation. I look at her thick dark hair, feel my heart open for the journey she is about to embark on. Our eyes meet but hers flicker in fear as she takes in my bald head wrapped in a thin silk scarf.
My skin is dry despite the cream I apply. New creases form about my eyes – am I reverting to a reptilian state, will scales soon appear? My muscles have atrophied, they hang loose on my arms. Although I might say that this woman and I are close to the same age, I feel as though I am ten years older as a result of my treatment during these past months. I wonder if she thinks, ‘Oh my God, this soon will be me?’
The hours drift by. Somehow, I snooze, then startle awake as the machine beeps, announcing the end of the cycle. I track the nurse’s movements with my eyes. Not having anyone with me makes her gentle reassurances even more crucial.
‘Your doing great Joan, just a few minutes more while we drain the bag.’
I pack up well before the time. The moment the IV is removed I head out the door, take the stairs to stretch my legs and to avoid the enclosed elevator. In the stairwell, I remember many Christmas’s ago, I joined a group of women who make it a tradition to sing carols outside of the rooms where patients lie. We gathered in the same stairwell to hear ourselves before starting out. With the hard surfaces along with the dynamic of being in a chamber, the acoustics were amazing.
As we would start down the hallway, my throat would tighten. Seeing frail people without family or friends nearby during the holiday season struck me as an extra hardship. I could barely belt out a note without tears welling up in my eyes.
Now, as I walk down the stairs, I think of people not being able to have visitors in the hospital due to Covid, my own appointments without the company of others. I clutch my pack to my aching chest, feel my knees buckle, grab the railing to steady myself. I want to collapse on the stairs, wail in this chamber for all that I have lost, and for all the others who suffer alone, but I hear someone open the door behind me. I force myself down the stairs to the exit.
The sun is high in the sky as I stumble out of the hospital. I blink at the bright light, hear car engines rumble, children holler to each other in the school yard, which is right across form the hospital. They too have just been released from their day. I am suddenly comforted thinking how life continues in strange and reassuring ways.
I know I need to return to the riverbank before heading home. The view is washed in green, leaves exploding over night. It was merely days ago when I watched them open, a tea green mist barely perceptible to the human eye. Now the full green palette is before me, swatches of khaki saplings, emerald birch, chartreuse cottonwoods, all interspersed with deep green bands of pine and spruce.
A huge weight slips from my shoulders as I totally immerse myself in this green world. I stop to examine some waxy leaves from a young cottonwood tree. They shine as though dipped in oil. On the branch are some unopened buds with their sticky golden sap oozing out. I rub this resin on my wrists, their pungent odour fills my nostrils.
When I lived on our wilderness property, I strove to understand plants. The cottonwood buds, infusing the air with their fragrance, inspired me. I read they were filled with medicine, learned to soak the buds in olive oil, then turned the golden oil into a healing salve called Balm of Gilead. I was equally intrigued with its history, as the balm is mentioned in both the Qu’ran and the Bible. At times when I touch plants, I can sense a thin film blocking my memory, as if I once knew how to use their medicine. I am sure that if I could time travel, I would find a missing link in my ancestry when women were healers and held this knowledge.
I stop at a large cottonwood tree growing alongside the river. Its bark is deeply furrowed, the thick skin of an ancient being implanted in this guardian of the earth. I think of its roots embedded into the riverbank. It drinks hundreds of liters of water a day, a network of veins transports nutrients up through the trunk into all parts of the tree, the branches extend in every direction, leaves reach up to the sky. This cottonwood towers over sixty feet, its canopy spreads as a green umbrella, shades me as I stand under it as I was told to stay out of direct sun as much as possible because of the chemo drugs.
My acupuncturist taught a qigong posture used to meditate as though one where a tree. I take a stance with my feet hip distance apart, knees soft, allow my weight to sink into my feet. I float my arms up to the level of my heart, palms facing my torso creating a circle with my arms. I imagine I am hugging a tree, wish to become grounded with roots descending deep into the earth, blood as sap circulates and nourishes my body, my arms and legs lengthen, the crown of my head reaches up, softens to receive sunlight and the energy from the sky above me.
I release my worries from the hospital, see them vanish into the vastness of space, slowly exhale and inhale. When I place my hands on the bark of the tree, I remember that I can remain pliable, find grace in my circumstance. These trees are sentinels to keep me safe.
When I worked with youth, it was as if my limbs were stretched in many directions with spider like senses. I could feel through the air, intuit their moods and the things they would not say.
I sit at the art table with Ollie. Red osier dogwood branches, sinew, beads and feathers spread before us. I reach for one of the twigs.
“Here Ollie, if you bend this into a circle and tie it with some sinew it will dry into a hoop. That’s the base for a dream catcher.”
“I don’t know Joan, it looks hard.” I can sense the three other teens at the table, their chairs pulled back, waiting to see if he will try before they take a turn.
I guide his hands, “See, it’s pretty strong, it won’t break.”
He looks pleased with the circle he has created and is willing to take the next step. I gather the sinew into a small ball and show how to create the web by wrapping the sinew around the frame. Then catch each hitch so that the inside circle grows smaller and smaller.
He works slowly, with patience. I watch his hands, long fingers, smooth brown skin and think in another time, he might be groomed as a carver. The other youth have pulled their chairs closer to the table, I can tell they too are ready to give it at try. I am relieved. If Ollie would have thrown it down, in an impatient gesture, which so easily happens, they would have all left.
Instead, he holds his dreamcatcher up and says, almost in a whisper, ‘I didn’t know I could make something so beautiful.’
We both beam.
Night stretches before me, a dark chasm I cannot fill. Aware that my partner is sleeping upstairs, I creep about the house, dim the lights, listen to music through headphones, watch YouTube clips on types of gardens. I will plant a kitchen garden but will give up my community plot where I grow squash and potatoes, as well as other vegetables that need more sun than our shaded yard can provide. I find a sketch pad to plot out what it will look like but even though this interests me, it is not enough to take away the awareness that I want to sleep .
I stretch out on the couch, am fitful, cannot get comfortable. My eyes ache and I have a headache from exhaustion. In desperation, I reach for my cell phone to find a meditation, which might calm my nervous system. I find a full body relaxation, start with my toes and move up through my limbs into my torso until I eventually end up at my head. This helps but still I cannot sleep. I decide that resting will have to do.
The quality of darkness outside the crack in the curtain changes. Nights deep velvet tones soften to a leaden glow, with it comes bird songs as they too awaken. I recognize the deep low whistle of a varied thrush, the sputter of starlings, the sweet plaintive sounds of what could be a finch, and of course the rambling caws from crows. They nest in the trees on the back of our property, soon their fledglings will be hoping about the yard or hiding in my shrubs as they learn to fly. The adults will keep a close eye on them, I will have a hard time even going into the back yard without being dive bombed by concerned parents.
I wish to be held in a nest throughout my incubation, protected by downy feathers, bits of lichen, thin grasses and sticks, all interwoven and intricately engendered, lodged high in a tree out of harms way.
The noise outside the window rises to a clamour as crows land on the trees surrounding our house. I have marked their arrival. Every morning at 5:15 they start their raucous calls; it is enough to rouse me out of my resting state which I know I cannot return to.
I grab a wrap and head towards the door but before I do, I take down the calendar that is on the fridge and mark an x through yesterday. I will have one more alert day before the steroid wears off. If it is the same as the last chemo cycle, I will be totally exhausted and will have a difficult time just to get up off the couch.
My bones will ache for several days. I will struggle to walk around the block. However, after that I will have a few good days before my next treatment. For the moment, all I can do is greet another day.
It is light out although sunrise won’t happen for another hour. I am relieved to see the morning. It feels like a huge accomplishment to have made it through the first night without sleep. I tuck myself into a lawn chair and wait to see what birds will arrive.
The tulips by the patio are now in full bloom although there deep purple heads are still closed until the sun hits them. My clematis will soon open with its fuzzy silken hairs. I wonder if hummingbirds use these for their nests. If I were a bird, what nest would I need? Would it be like the hummingbird’s minute perfection, their velvety soft cups hidden from sight, spider’s silk intricate weavings bind bits of plant fibers and leaves.
Or would I need an eagle nest, like the one that towers up the largest cottonwood along the riverbank, a bundle of sticks and branches stacked and interwoven, in plain site. Something I could stretch out in, no longer afraid of what’s coming next.
About the Author – Joan Conway
Deeply Rooted is an excerpt from a larger memoir that Joan Conway is writing on her healing journey with breast cancer at the time of covid. It provides a glimpse into how the land helps to direct her decision-making, offers her comfort and security when she needs support, and asks her to tap into intuitive ways of being. Joan writes poetry, creative nonfiction and is a blogger. She is published in journals and anthologies, most recently in Heartwood Anthology- The League of Canadian Poet, Another Dysfunctional Cancer Poem Anthology, and Don’t Tell: What Families Hide. Joan lives and plays in NW British Columbia. You can find her creative explorations at greenblossomstudio.wordpress.com.
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