It rides high in its saddle.
It shifts and plummets—swoops—drifts.
It is still: stiller than a held breath, stiller than water frozen in the birdbath, stiller than the color white.
It is wing-shaped, solemn, more silent than midnight.
It is framed in my mother’s photo album, round and innocent and full of the future.
It spirals upward and falls back, exhausted, then begins to climb again.
It is tied like a fishing fly, filament of air, filament of light, yellow halo, black depth, circling a hook.
“You will have to learn to live with uncertainty,” he says. He is a doctor, a friend, the husband of a good friend. What does uncertainty look like, I wonder, though I know what it feels like. It feels something like driving a long stretch of Highway 2 across the northeastern part of Montana. A place so bleak and desolate where sky meets land that there seems to be no definition. A place where your definition of beauty is called into question—then reinforced. A change in the horizon, a ripple of ground that might be canyon or rock formation, a dilapidated shed poking its ribcage into the air; gas station, bar, or billboard, anything at all—becomes, for me, something to be added to my list of aesthetic pleasures. And the land itself, like an abstract painting: green against blue, yellow against blue, tan against gray, dark against light. There is absolutely no road I’d rather drive than Route 2, straight into nowhere.
Intricate, delicate. Intricate, delicate. The mantra rises, inspires. Exchange, exchange, substance and subject, matter and material, atmosphere and impression, feeling and conviction, oxygen and carbon dioxide, in and out and pull and push and change and change, world and body, thought and emotion, blend of word and blood and air. Inhale, exhale, breathe in, breathe out, inhale, exhale, over, over, over, over, over.
I have been happy in this house. This nondescript, white rambler built in the seventies. I’ve been happy in its spaces, curled in the bed with a book and a cup of tea, or in my study, surrounded by photos and toys, goblets and marbles and an array of wooden boxes, looking out my window as the sky lightens in the east where I came from but do not miss. I’ve been happy looking out—at the deer who use our back yard as their trail, at the way the wind flays the branches on the hill but does not spill down into our yard so that we are tucked away by the fire, untouched. I was not happy in my other three houses: the fake stucco Tudor, or the authentic old colonial, or the genuine large Victorian. I played at being happy in each of them, but they held my play-acting up to me more often than not. Their corners and closets could not contain my longings. I am glad to have found this modest house where I can spread out my colors and rest in peace.
What is a lung? A tissue of fabric that fills us with air, lifts us into the day. I know its shape. With extreme precision, with pinpoints of pain, it draws itself on my back—as though if I could twist my arms backward they could trace the outline, wing-shaped, and then the body itself would fly off on its own small shuttle of air. In and out, in and out, breath fills you with light. Below that, the heaviness, the dark interiors. But the lung—it reaches up, and out, as though it knew more than the body’s horizons.
In my dream, I can move easily. I get out of the car and walk around to the other side where I pick up two packages to take inside the house. I do this over and over, all night long. It feels so natural, lugging the packages, walking around the car, again and again. This is something I cannot do now in daylight. So at night I must long for the ordinary. That, or else it’s the drug that turns my dreams on its spit, round and round and round, basting memory into those moments I wake to the dream that spins itself out in what seems like real time. I slip back into sleep, and there I am, once more, lifting and lugging myself into the house.
What do I love of this world? I mean, besides the people who populate my life, my dream of the people I love. I surround myself with objects, and I love them, in part, for what they say about what I want to love. But suppose I were asked to list ten things. Only ten. What would I want to pack in my bag and take with me? The final two paragraphs of Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It; Robert Frost’s “The Oven Bird”; one red Fiestaware pitcher, with its radioactive isotope; Benjamin Britten’s way with Wilfred Owen’s poems, the music so carefully orchestrated you almost miss it, almost forget that it’s there; one painting by William—I’ll take the one where the water glazes over, rainslick on the canvas; one reel on the fiddle by Matthew, fast, and then faster; odd little cedar bark basket made by June Ward of Neah Bay, given to me by Stan, its orange-tipped canoe a flash on gray water; a turquoise necklace I once owned, and lost, though my fingers can still feel its heft; and, oh the cards and drawings—Benjamin, Simon, Ian—creatures of their infinite minds; maybe those small blue irises in the planter on the deck or the scent of garlic lingering on my fingers, but those are transient, more air than stone, more mood than bone, and should they count? There are other things, there must be, but wouldn’t these few be sufficient, and why worry? These are the shapes of certainty. I will have to learn to give them up.
The sights of my morning:
out of the fog, a bird glides, wings spread, up and into the tree outside my window;
rain, plink, plink, landing on the bamboo leaves, trickle, flicker, each leaf unloads its burden—dip, release, shiver; like breath on a winter morning, smoke from the neighbor’s chimney rises into the fog and soon the question: how can we tell one thing from another; blue glass goblet, red glass bird, pink swirl of flower in the paperweight, window lit with what it lights; gray sky, flat and sulky, silken skein of weather, whether it will turn blue later, later will not be soon enough.
Lost enough weight that I can justify new underwear. Now my mother’s nightmare might not come true: white cotton, stretched sloppy at the waistband and a bit stained, a couple of holes, a tear in the fabric, defining me in the emergency room. Now I might arrive, newly sized, still white cotton, but white as in still new, buttressing my idea of myself. I’ve never been lace. Not even in dreams. Never been silk, or black, or silvery lilac. Clouds of steam. Clouds of wishful, papery words. My mother drifts away, like snow.
Who knew air could feel so heavy? Could weigh you down? You measure it, pushing, pushing it back at the world. Make it go out, you think, make it make its impression.
Who knew words could fly in the face of their origins? Could confuse and obfuscate merely by using their science against you? I read and I read and still I cannot fathom what “oxidation” means that I should so want to resist it. I read and I read and fact becomes my enemy. Fact: I have always loved fact. Fact: I want to embrace fact. Fact: I want my own sense of reality here, and this is not learning to live with uncertainty, though it may be one step along the way.
Step. That is what I cannot do. Step on out into the world. Not without the heaviness—tons of it—that settles into the knees and won’t let go. It’s the weight of air, the extreme heaviness of its reduced volumes, coiling its bulk at my knees.
You are never the patient. Even when you empathize with the patient, you are imagining what is happening to the patient, and that is not what is happening to you. You think about how you would like to handle the situation—if you were the patient. But you are not the patient, and you can’t know how you would respond. Until one day you are the patient, and then you think about whether you are being the one you imagined, or someone wholly else, someone who can’t quite believe this is happening at all.
All night, the body rumbling through the dark, the locomotives of my childhood, chuffa chuffa chuffa chuffa, up and out of the valley, away, away, streaking past the sleeping village, its lone light prying open the darkness. Up and away, the dream of the child rising, too, following the tracks into what might never be known. Chuffa, chuffa, chuffa, chuffa, out into the places found in her books: Scotland, Brazil, moors, and a deep blue sea. Out into places that settle, like salt, into the blood. Recall them now, as the body hustles its air in and out, raise them up in memory: stone cottage huddled into the hillside, lone piper pumping air into air until the whole spit shivers under its plaintive wail; white walls shimmering under relentless sun, the urubus, strange, distant vultures, riding the thermals as though they were toying with air.
There are hard, tough questions. And I ask them—of myself, of others. There are hard, tough decisions I want to be able to make. There are hard, tough places I will need to return to, need to hold on to as the soft tissues harden and the soft air comes and goes.
Here is the CT scan. I carry my lungs on a silver disk, carry the stiff, white spots that line my lungs in such exquisite symmetry. She will “read” my lungs, will show me the perfect black hole where the air goes in, the places it somehow cannot move through. She will tell me I must learn to live with uncertainty, even as we decide on the certain pills I will take, the certain plans I must make, the certain directions of this uncertain terrain I have entered.
Over the phone, people comment on how well I sound. I do sound well, especially when I laugh, and I look well, too. Well, except when I walk, and you can see how unsteady I am. Well, except for the chipmunk cheeks that let slip my telltale medicine.
Should I order those new clothes I like from the catalog?
Should I keep on designing and redesigning a new kitchen—one where I will actually make meals, mess up, clean up, make meals again?
Should I accept that invitation for next fall? Should I? Can I? Will I?
All the questions that rise like yeast in future tense seem fraught with contingency. But a question mark implies uncertainty, and I use the question mark all the time. Did I already know how to live with uncertainty? Or has it shed new light on my now-cautious days?
Candled egg. Lit from within. Lung-shaped, lit from within. My candled future, what it used to be, what it is becoming.
Who are you to make something beautiful of your own condition? To romanticize what is, essentially, something more important than your writing? Who are you to reduce yourself in that way? Or elevate yourself in that way? To make yourself the center of your own attention? How dare you rob your husband of wife, your children of mother, your grandchildren of someone they still need to know? How dare you sit underneath this window and look out at a flat white sky and imagine yourself gone on into its limitlessness?
Limit yourself, then. Limit yourself to the books that you love, the words you have written—the ones you still own. Limit yourself to the letters that came to you, filed in your left-hand drawer. To the gifts you’ve been given—the boxes and baskets and stones from the beach, and the faded, ethereal flowers. Limit yourself to the tangible. Touch the wrinkle of skin on your arm where the lost weight has turned you into your grandmother. Touch your face, as though it were unfamiliar. Learn what it is that you are, now that you’ve made yourself up.
Today nineteen is my favorite Roman numeral: x-i-x, its symmetry somehow perfected, two unknowns flanking the “I.”
My specialist clearly never learned cursive. She takes four minutes to print out my instructions. She writes notes in one-word increments, slantwise, across any sheet of paper she can find. One word. Printed. Cursory. Not enough to spark the research I hope she would like to do. Not enough to remind her that this is complicated, and exacting. I want to tell her my “affairs” are in order, my drawers are all clean, my books are in alphabetical order on my shelves. I want to tell her she is too young for me. She takes forever to laboriously sign her name on the prescription—the only cursive in sight.
If, as I don’t believe, we are sometimes punished in this life, then I am being punished for being judgmental. I will admit to judgment, sharp and sometimes not too kind. Can’t help it though. I judge. I find people guilty. I hope that I also find myself guilty—but I know that I don’t do that all that often. I don’t forgive lying, or laziness, or what I think of as willed lack of knowledge. I don’t forgive inadequacy, not when it seems to me deliberate, rationalized, or somehow excused. What is the excuse for doing a bad job of something—especially in thinking about how you want your own life to be lived?
The rain on the needles of the lodgepole pine across the street shines in the sun so that the whole tree is backlit, a tippling swirl of light that shakes itself loose and drops toward the ground. It might be metaphor for something, but for the life of me I can’t think of what. It’s simply morning rain on a suddenly windswept day, the sun showing its face, and my window just happening to face its brief appearance. From this angle, I do not see the road, the houses, the telephone wires. I see only a perimeter of hectic branches, briefly glittering. And inside, ringing the window: my grandfather, my father, my mother, my Aunt Margaret, my brother, my husband, my sons, my daughters-in-law, my grandsons, even myself as a curious girl, staring back at me.
I have been given prayers, floating in cyberspace. Prayers and prayer flags and healing circles and a homeopath and support groups and herbs too numerous to mention. My name has been shouted out at someone’s Rock Shabbat. Listen, I want to shout. I want respect for my own beliefs: science, hard thought, cold fact.
Three months, January to April, and now it looks as though these lungs will turn me back to the breathing. One uncertainty seems less uncertain. Out my window, I notice evening’s slow encroachment. The sky is dimming, perceptibly, and I know that behind me, at the back of the house, the sun will soon sink below the hill, maybe in a blaze of red and pink, more likely simply painting the clouds with an opaque silver underlining. Down at the Strait, the sunset will be strident on the water and the waves will catch its color as they roll in, and in, and in. But what I am seeing, now, here, this day, this moment, is the sky going darker and, on the tips of the trees, a shivering glance of light before it disappears. In the yard across from me, three deer try their hardest to reach through mesh to nibble the sapling willow. Later they will wander through our yard on the way to our neighbor’s apple trees. They will bound up the hillside, fluid and unafraid. The clouds will turn pewter, dark as an impending storm, and the trees will begin their frenzy in a gust that is portrayed on our TV as a furious mix of arrows, as though wind itself were military. If I wait patiently here at my window, I will see at least one crow—the color of night—sweep across my horizon. I will wish he would make his presence known, but he will be silent and swift, and capricious.