Last Saturday morning I participated in a breast cancer walk. The night before, I leafed through my poem stash to pick out a few to take with me, and it was then that I realized that a blog post on breast cancer should include my own health history.
I felt uneasy about that for a few reasons.
First because I’ve never mentioned on this blog that I’ve had breast cancer (ten years ago last fall). Okay, way back in a post about a William Henry Davies’ poem, I did mention that I have no breasts, but I tend to wear my “survivor” status like I wear my underwear–hidden from view unless you are my husband or doctor, but always there, close to the skin, a foundation, necessary to me if undesirable.
The other reason I was hesitant to do a breast cancer post was because the day was about my friend, the woman I walked to support, not about my own bad memories. I wanted to choose poems to celebrate her strength, acknowledge her ordeal, boost her confidence in her own good health. But the poems I picked were personal to me and I can’t hide that.
The funny thing was, out of our group of ten walkers, I discovered that four of us have had cancer and (mostly) didn’t know the others did. So as much as the day was about Lisa, it ended up being about all of us, the survivors and the friends who helped, the women who didn’t survive and broke our hearts, the women and men whose hearts were broken, the strangers we met along the way. (Hello, Deb from Delaware with your chic post-chemo hair!) We walked in solidarity and friendship. I hope the poems reflect our shared experience more than just my own.
That said, the first poem I left was the most personal of all. When I arrived at the walk, I had a moment alone. My heart was full of friends I’ve lost to cancer. I left a poem to honor them: “Jewels in My Hand” by Sasha Moorsom which I taped to a lamppost by the entrance to the zoo, where the walk was held.
To Beth and Christine (breast cancer), to Barb, (lung cancer), and to Kim, (jaw cancer), you are my jewels, as precious to me now as you were when I was lucky enough to know you on this earth.
All the ravages of time they can withstand
Like talismans their grace keeps me from harm
At the walk starting point I left “New Every Morning” by Susan Coolidge.
This wonderful little poem is almost a prayer, and one I turned to many times during treatment and post-treatment anxiety. Maybe someone who needed a little hope took the poem home. For everyone else, it’s a great one to memorize, because how often do we need to hear this:
Take heart with the new day and begin again.
On the railing of the penguin house I left Rita Dove’s “Pastoral.”
I left it in celebration of breasts, how beautiful, how wonderful they are, giving food and pleasure to others.
I love this description of a nursing baby:
Like an otter, but warm,
she latched onto the shadowy tip
and I watched, diminished
by those amazing gulps.
For women who have had breasts “diminished” in ways much worse than breastfeeding, I brought an excerpt from an Afanasy Fet poem. I left it near a peacock. My picture doesn’t capture the beauty of this bird, but I hope the poem reminds women of the beauty they have, no matter what surgery has done to their bodies.
Losing breast tissue doesn’t make you less whole or less beautiful, or as Fet puts it,
All, all that once was mine is mine forever.
(Sorry I can’t provide a link to the complete poem. I found it in a little book of Russian poetry my sister gave to me. It doesn’t seem to be anywhere online.)
Near a flock of flamingoes, some of them skittering along in a kind of flying run, I left a famous couplet of Andrew Marvell’s:
This one is for everyone, to make use of the precious little time we have.
Finally, I left “For Friendship” by Robert Creeley on a trashcan and asked Lisa’s group, “The Pink Honeybees,” to link arms as they passed by the poem.
This, the gift of suffering, any suffering:
to be bound to
others, two by two
When I was rushing to take this picture, I whacked my shin on a park bench, and came home with a bruise the size of my old breasts. (They weren’t very big for breasts, but the bruise was big for a bruise.) So here I am, bruised but glad to be bruised, like so many of the people at the walk that day.
Cheers to Lisa!
Cheers to Joi, Patty, Deb from Delaware.
Cheers to all the survivors who walked that day.
And a special cheers to those who walked beside, to those who form the chain that holds.