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Photo courtesy: Rhonda Baugh

Not quite a “Wordless Wednesday” . . .


If I close my eyes to remember, I can just make out the shadow of my former self standing up and walking out the door, mortally offended by the kindly Breast Cancer Navigator who had just told me I had cancer. Like an unexpected snow, the pronouncement fell from her lips, rendering me wordless. Language betrayed me.  But not for long.

Within cancer, dance words and phrases that tend to sanitize and glamorize suffering and pain, to hide the horror and heartbreak visited upon ordinary people going about their daily lives. Old words take on new meanings –  “staging” is no longer about the theater; “fog” evokes a state of cognitive loss rather than Van Morrison’s misty mornings; “the cure” is no longer “hair of the dog that bit you” but an elusive thing all wrapped up in a pink ribbon.  “Sentinel,” which I had previously reserved for the lonely cormorant perched on a post in the shallow waters of sleepy Morro Bay, now pertains to the first node to which cancer cells are most likely to spread from a primary tumor, and “infusion” is no longer a culinary technique that transforms olive oil into a delicious gourmet gift; rather, it is intravenous chemotherapy – harsh and chemical.

With the current lull in my condition, the new vocabulary no longer comes fast and furious as it did following diagnosis. For now, the pathology report has been filed away along with hastily scribbled notes from doctors’ offices and graphs showing likelihood of recurrence.

I like to think I am, as Ted Kooser writes, “between cars on a passenger train,” still searching for the right words.

From ‘Local Wonders,’ as read by Ted Kooser

Life is a long walk forward through the crowded cars of a passenger train, the bright world racing past beyond the windows, people on either side of the aisle, strangers whose stories we never learn, dear friends whose names we long remember and passing acquaintances whose names and faces we take in like a breath and soon breathe away.

There’s a windy, perilous passage between each car and the next, and we steady ourselves and push across the iron couplers clenched beneath our feet. Because we are fearful and unsteady crossing through wind and noise, we more keenly feel the train rock under our legs, feel the steel rails give just a little under the weight, as if the rails were tightly stretched wire and there were nothing but air beneath them.

So many cars, so many passages. For you, there may be the dangerous passage of puberty, the wind hot and wild in your hair, followed by marriage, during which for a while you walk lightly under an infinite blue sky, then the rushing warm air of the birth of your first child. And then so soon, it seems, a door slams shut behind you, and you find yourself out in the cold where you learn that the first of your parents has died.

But the next car is warm and bright, and you take a deep breath and unbutton your coat and wipe your glasses. People on either side, so generous with their friendship, turn up their faces to you, and you warm your hands in theirs. Some of them stand and grip your shoulders in their strong fingers, and you gladly accept their embraces, though you may not know them well. How young you feel in their arms.

And so it goes, car after car, passage to passage. As you make your way forward, the roadbed seems to grow more irregular under the wheels as you walk along. ‘Poor workmanship,’ you think, and to steady yourself, you put your hands on people’s shoulders. So much of the world, colorful as flying leaves, clatters past beyond the windows while you try to be attentive to those you move among, maybe stopping to help someone up from their seat, maybe pausing to tell a stranger about something you saw in one of the cars through which you passed. Was it just yesterday or the day before? Could it have been a week ago, a month ago, perhaps a year?

The locomotive is up ahead somewhere, and you hope to have a minute’s talk with the engineer, just a minute to ask a few questions of him. You’re pretty sure he’ll be wearing a striped cap and have his red bandana around his neck, badges of his authority, and he’ll have his elbow crooked on the sill of the open window. How impassively he will be gazing at the passing world, as if he’s seen it all before. He knows just where the tracks will take us as they narrow and narrow and narrow ahead to the point where they seem to join.

But there are still so many cars ahead, and the next and the next and the next clatter to clatter to clatter. And we close the door against the wind and find a new year, a club car brightly lit, fresh flowers in vases on the tables, green meadows beyond the windows and lots of people who together — stranger, acquaintance and friend — turn toward you and, smiling broadly, lift their glasses.

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