Sometimes the loss of a beloved pet is a strange sort of gift in that it brings up old losses that may have been floating beneath the surface for years, losses that are deeper and often more complex, losses that may need additional grieving. Losing Bacho has reminded me of the deaths of both parents and my relationships with them. And losing Bacho has naturally rekindled the grief of losing Jack.
Not long ago I had a first-hand experience of illness as metaphor. Suddenly I found that my sense of balance was completely out of whack. Moving my head made the world spin. As an audiologist I was quite aware of the irony of vertigo making me miss a meeting all about new discoveries in hearing science. But as a writer and a spiritual seeker, I was also aware of the metaphor. The frenetic pace of my recent weeks had thrown my whole system off balance. The metaphor was perfect.
After watching the recent Ken Burns documentary on PBS, Cancer, the Emperor of All Maladies, I felt the need to write about it, not so much because of its superb analysis of the history and state-of-the-art of allopathic cancer treatment, but because of what it left out.
More than once, people have commented about some of the “far out” experiences I write about in my book, "An Uncommon Cancer Journey." I have always accepted these experiences without question. But recently I have thought about these experiences afresh in light of new scientific discoveries. It appears that quantum physics may provide some possible explanations.
You may wonder why I chose the labyrinth for the Bacho Press logo. I felt that it was a very fitting symbol for the journey that Jack and I took toward healing. Its twists, turns, and seemingly false starts are characteristic of pilgrimages, especially when they involve life threatening illness. But they also resemble life’s ordinary challenges.
Last weekend I attended a Sufi retreat in Seattle. We repeated the beautiful invocation several times during the retreat, selected phrases from it, and let those words penetrate deeply into our meditations. On Saturday night we had a party where people read poetry and sang songs. I read the chapter from my book where Jack and I had an astonishing experience at a gathering in Sieburg, a suburb of Bonn, Germany.
My friend Ed Battistella is a popular author, writer, linguist, dean at Southern Oregon University, and an exceptional interviewer. He writes a blog called "Literary Ashland," where he posts his interviews, and he knows how to ask tough questions. He recently sent me a list of questions.
In this post I’m going to share something about my emotional condition during our adventure in healing, even though this is really more my husband’s story than mine. But it seems that the hardships of the spouse or care-giving family members are often neglected. The feelings that arise in the cancer spouse/partner can be troublesome because they can be very negative, while the cultural expectation is that the care-giver is tireless, patient, and loving.
The subtitle of my book, An Uncommon Cancer Journey, is The Cosmic Kick That Healed Our Lives. This phrase comes from a remark that my husband, Jack Hardesty, made about his gratitude for developing cancer. He called it his “Cosmic kick in the ass.” It sounds astonishing that anyone would think of cancer with gratitude. And it can surely be a terrible tragedy. But to Jack it was a blessing.
Once he was well, Jack would say repeatedly that beauty was one of the most important ingredients of his healing. Whenever we travelled, we always made sure to go to the local art museum. It was while he was receiving treatment at the Janker Klinik in Bonn, Germany, that he developed the plan to open an art gallery some day, and several years later he did.
As my fingertips explore your body
they encounter the long white remnants
of the surgeon’s knife. One extending
from neck to navel has almost faded away.
(I didn’t know that scars could disappear.)
The round one that held the failed feeding
tube is still there. The gash that stretches
from shoulder blade to ribs looks
like a brush with the Mafia.
Sometimes I wake and listen
for your regular breathing after dreaming
of darkness and death. Ten years
from diagnosis, seven from the last chemo.
The doctors thought you would surely die
within nine months. Midnight trips
to the hospital through record snowfalls
that January. Our marriage also had cancer,
but it took the embodiment
to make us understand.
People often ask what worked.
Was it the German doctor’s concoctions,
the laying on of hands, our therapist’s guidance,
spiritual awakening? Or perhaps your own solid
determination to reach that vast reservoir
of healing. We had to excise the defenses,
cut down the pride, stem the addictions,
uncover and own the looking away,
everything that masked the heart.
Sleeping lightly, you are soft, smooth
and muscular, more like a teenager
than a man in his seventh decade,
dreaming of saws and chisels
and long straight pieces of cherry
rough places plane,
the woodworker’s dream.
— Alice Hardesty
Earlier versions of this poem were published in The West Wind Review (1998) and in the online newsletter of Healing Journeys.
“Tule Fog” painting by Leach~Werner Studio