I bought myself a small silver charm last fall as I approached the end of chemotherapy. I wasn’t sure exactly what I was looking for as I searched through the tokens at the local bead store, but I finally settled on a bird just taking off, its wings only beginning to spread. I thought of it as the bird that flew away from trouble.
But I didn’t add it to my necklace after my last chemo in November. I discovered I wasn’t ready to celebrate, not while I still felt lousy and only slowly came back to myself over the next weeks. It wasn’t a stopping point after all, just a hesitation: in December, I was to start seven weeks of daily radiation treatments. The worst was behind me, but I wasn’t done.
But early in February, I was elated to finish radiation on a bright Friday morning. That night, I drove to Northampton with one of my closest friends to hear the singer Neko Case. Neko’s clarion voice swooped and soared, a “drowning dive and back to the chorus.” “Maybe Sparrow,” she sang:
Oh, my sparrow, it’s too late / Your body limp beneath my feet / Your dusty eyes cold as clay / You didn’t hear my warning
A gorgeous but ominous song, it’s laced with danger and foreboding. The sparrow knows that there is risk in every undertaking, but she can’t not fly—she has to take the chance that she will evade the hawk, this time, this night.
The morning after the concert I brought out the bird charm, nestled in its little envelope, and my older daughter added it to the other tokens on my chain. Since I started wearing the bird, I’ve come to think of it as my “Maybe Sparrow,” for how can I say that I’m forever done with all this? The sparrow doesn’t know if the hawk is watching.
The data says that I have a one in ten chance of recurrence. Many days I am blithely confident that I will never have cancer again. But on other days—fewer days— I am absolutely convinced that it will be back—that it is already back, growing unnoticed, cells dividing madly and recklessly, one after another after another. I fear it will elude detection until one day it spills out of its hiding spot, betraying its presence like laughing kids playing a game of sardines.
I am trying to find a way to be at peace with the uncertainty of that ten-percent chance, and most of the time I succeed. Only occasionally does the weight of dread settle in to my gut, its gravity pulling me earthward.
Meanwhile, I use my slim arsenal of weapons to protect myself: checkups and self-exams, exercise and diet, my little white disk of Tamoxifen. I find I don’t even have confidence in my self-exams anymore. Not only did I miss the lump last year, but after surgery and radiation, my own flesh has become dense and unfamiliar. There is resistance where there used to be pliancy. I wonder: would I feel a tiny, deadly change in the face of these larger alterations?
I know we all live a Damoclean existence, with our doom hovering somewhere on the periphery of our imagination. My sword—my hawk—has a name now and a new, tangible form. Still, although there is risk in every undertaking, even in living each day, what choice is there but to fly on with eyes wide open?
I’m not a superstitious person, but the charms I wear have become my amulets to ward off evil, my reminders of those who have been lost, and my hard-earned medals. They’re just little symbols, but they are laden with power; words have power, too. The words we use not only explain what we feel but also shape those very perceptions. Last spring, when I was first telling people I had cancer, I couldn’t bring myself to say those particular words. I said, instead, “I’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer.” Later, I would say, “I’m being treated for cancer.” Now, I hear myself tell people, “last year, I was treated for breast cancer.”
I think eventually, when more time has passed and when last year becomes years ago, and the sparrow flies and the sword hangs undisturbed, I will say instead, “I had cancer.”
I had cancer.