Monday morning, 9:30
your life will change
—from Prayer for Tomorrow, the first poem of my chapbook, One Step: prayers and curses.
On the 12th of this month it will be exactly one year ago. I was at work when the call came informing me that my wife’s test results were positive for breast cancer. It was a sucker punch to the gut. Breathing, heart rate, balance, everything is thrown off kilter. The brain becomes an inert blob of jelly sitting in the skull. One staggers off dazed. In that moment I did not make a conscious distinction between my wife and myself. We were both struck as one. This unspeakable thing, this lightning strike out of nowhere had happened to us.
But the tumor was not inside me. It was inside her. It was large and in the doctor’s own words, “aggressive”. Immediate action was required at the exact moment we were least equipped to make rational decisions. In such a situation the mind, broken as it is, knows what it must do, as if the body freezes in the instant one must run. These opposing forces pull in equal measure, setting the mind and body out of phase with each other and the earth. This condition persists. I wanted the sun to come up again but was afraid of what a new day might bring.
It’s like this, step by step, through the process. The mind can’t keep pace with the body. When my wife went through chemotherapy, the first course of which was horrendous, I thought my heart would fail me every day. She was the one suffering. But she never cried, never complained. I was the one who cried, who stumbled, who searched for words.
I’m not proud of my behavior. I tried to hide my tears from her. She needed me strong and I tried to project that image to her. In fact I was astonished by her strength. I made her salads and she inspired me every day. And whenever I asked her where her strength came from she only made a joke, either, “It’s all an illusion” or, “I’m in denial”. Were we both trying to trick ourselves? Both maneuvering our uncooperative bodies into postures that enabled us to step from one day into the next? I watched her don makeup and a wig and perform onstage with the St. Petersbug Opera Company. Her joy in performing helped her overcome the deadening effects of chemo. Meanwhile I marched stone-faced through extra hours of work, a red notebook near at hand. But weren’t we really performing something like theater on a daily basis, a theater of denial and postures and poetry and song that enabled us to go on?
While I shed tear after tear she appeared in the morning light with—could it be?—a smile?—ready, open, eager for all of life’s gifts ever-flowing. What could I do but bask in her wonder? I carried the red notebook with me and surprisingly enough Atomic Theory Micro Press liked what I wrote enough to publish it. I’m thankful to them and to those of you who’ll read it. It’s a token to the immensity of life, beyond words, beyond imagination.