Saturday, December 12, 2009

After The Disability Forms, The Gates Of Hell

It has taken me weeks of working hours each day to complete my disability application forms. I am in awe of those who manage this task when they are injured or more seriously ill than I am. I have no comprehension whatsoever of how a person navigates this process without medical and financial training!

Way too much of my creative energy has gone into writing expense lists and describing why I can't bend over a treatment table, lift other people's bodies, and make judgment calls about other people’s health right now. You might think it would be straight-forward, but they make you jump through hoops, an activity nearly impossible while applying for disability. Documenting my inability to work is about the last thing I want to do before or after a biopsy, but I need to get some financial support flowing. I've given to this insurance company for 22 years, now I am ready to receive.

Steve and I dropped by the post office after completing my forms to send them registered mail, and then we headed north for the Stanford Cancer Center. After my visit there, we strolled on over to The Cantor Arts Center on the Stanford campus. For those of you who’ve never been there, it is an amazingly great place. I’ll begin with praise for the food. The museum cafĂ© serves delicious, primarily organic food, with lots of healthful options. It’s a fabulous diversion from a day in the medical complex, especially when sitting outside and pondering Rodin. The lawn and courtyard around the museum building are dotted with his sculptures.

When my step-sons Ben and Luke were young (around 5 and 7) we would take them to the Rodin sculpture garden, where they could play and eat and have some “stealth” art and emotional education. We’d have them pose and imitate the sculptures and then ask them how they felt. They totally got it. They learned how their bodies held and conveyed feelings and emotions. They could see it and feel it, and then they could run around and eat something yummy. We didn’t even have to go inside the museum; there was so much outside to see and experience. For them as little kids, this was a perfect day at a museum. It was for me too.

But this visit to the museum was not part of a so-called “perfect day.” Ben and Luke were not with us, and I have metastatic breast cancer. All I can do is weep as I touch the back of Rodin’s “Fallen Caryatid,” a sculpture of a woman crouching, carrying a boulder on her shoulder. All the photos of this sculpture view it from the front, but it is the back that conveys the deepest message for me.

If you can visit the museum sculpture garden, look for her and touch her back, especially the left side of her mid-lower thoracic spine. You might get a sense of how I feel. I have felt like her for years and years. I always attributed my physical sense of burden to the effects of bending forward over a treatment table all day, or to the effects of my residual adolescent scoliosis (read pages 150-154 of my book for this story.) I recognize something in the way she braces herself.

Like the women who were taken captives and enslaved by the ancient Greeks after whom this sculpture is named, I feel like I am burdened with holding up the roof of the temple with my back. I don’t know if this feeling is part of the cause of my cancer or the effect of it. Does it really matter how or why I have found myself living with cancer?

I can’t remember feeling this way that day on the beach when I was 6-years-old (see p. 11 of my book), but I can picture myself at 12, around the time of my first menstrual period, and I can recall the compressed sensation in my spine. Did this begin with estrogen, or was the oppressive sensation of teenage angst independent of my hormones? As my estrogen levels fade away over the next week or two perhaps I’ll have a clue.

Across from where my friend “The Caryatid” sits, is “The Gates of Hell” Rodin’s magnum opus. Rodin incorporated a tiny version of my friend into this massive sculpture, and positioned her at the top left corner of the Gates. At the center of The Gates is the well-known figure of “The Thinker.” The Thinker sits atop a rock, leaning forward with his chin resting on the back of his right fist. He leans with his right elbow bent and perched on his left knee. His muscular body is literally twisted and looks tortured and compressed by his thought process. Steve has always appreciated this image as a reminder that “thinking” is the entry point to hell.

Today my body feels rigid and unchanging, like these sculptures, a physical representation of life, but slightly out of time phase. I find it nearly physically impossible to be fully present when my body screams from the past. It is the nature of the stuff our bodies are made of to be impressed by the past. Our tissues and cells and spaces adapt to our lives. We are like the wake left in the water after a boat passes through, or an echo that persists after what made the sound is gone. We are a "residue" of some larger process. What we see and hear and touch and feel and smell is already a few steps removed from the process that formed it. How can we be engaged, embodied, and present when faced with the challenge of what we carry from the past?

I laugh about how cerebral I can be about all of this suffering and wonder if having insight about how I got this way will help me find a way out. I sit with Steve at “The Gates of Hell” trying not to think about our lives. Breathe and meet the moment is really all I definitively know how to do. How my life is unfolding seems unknowable while immersed in the incoherence of cancer, but breath and presence are simple and coherent, the only medicine that matters.