distillation – The evaporation and subsequent collection of a liquid by means of condensation as a means of purification. – The American Heritage College Dictionary. Houghton Mifflin New York. 2000.
We sit in a cradled silence on the patio of my cousin’s home in Arizona. The air is of a warmth that dries our eyes and invites stillness. Soft sunlight caresses the lightly bowing bougainvillea. Hummingbirds buzz our heads: my cousin’s, his wife’s, and mine.
A vireo appears, his egg-shaped belly as grey as our hair. His short round beak is not slim enough to penetrate the tiny hole at the bottom of the hummingbird feeder. Undaunted, he dangles upside down, jamming his beak into the hole, again and again. At last he gets a rush of the clear, sweet liquid, flicks his tail in triumph, and is gone.
My eyes drift to my cousin’s face, so slender now, month 13 of stage 4 cancer. He walks across the yard to water the olive tree, his lanky gate as slow as a great blue heron stepping through thick water.
As the week unfolds, we revolve around a mysterious, unspoken stillness, orbiting in emotional extremes where even memory is dangerous. Any topic of tenderness ignites a grief so deep, my cousin’s body shivers in the expression of it. His eyes beg us to help him not go there. We comply. Better to laugh at politics, or land in the life boat of the ordinary: “all the fruit has ripened at once, however will we eat it all before it goes bad?
By day we count hummingbirds, pour over bird field guides: is the interloper a grey vireo or a Lucy’s warbler?? My cousin has no energy for walking, so we drive, ending up at bookshops, and video stores, in search of mirth.
In the evenings we watch comedies, those movies never so funny. We cook food, salmon with chipotle and honey, never so sweet. Whatever lies at the center of our extremes, we cannot speak of it, and yet we sense it is there: more than a mere avoidance of the prognosis, something else…
On the last morning of my visit, I clamor out of restless sleep and unremembered dreams to find my cousin greeting me with a child’s voice, as if we are children again, ready to raid my Grandpa’s chicken coup.
“I didn’t know if I would see you—“ he says. “It is so early.”
“I’m glad I got up in time,” I whisper, sliding my arm around his so slender frame.
His wife’s face is drawn, her fingers spilling the coffee grounds. They hurry off to the hospital, for a cat scan none of expects to go well. They won’t let me go with them. “It will be good to have you here when we come back,” she says.
On the patio the hummingbirds animate their shadows. I reach for the books that have come to me in this time of orbiting the unknown and the known. My Bright Abyss: Meditations of a Modern Believer by poet Christian Wiman, who walks his own cancer journey, and Marked by Fire: Stories of the Jungian Way, a bounteous compellation of analysts’ essays edited by Patricia Damery and Naomi Ruth Lewinski. In the latter I find my way to the section, “Dark Night of the Body”. It provides some of the nourishment – and the perspective – to understand and hold this terrible, vibrant journey.
Henry Abramovitch writes of the peeling away of persona as he descended into his own journey with cancer:
but one day after chemo, touching my chin
to see my beard fall like snow
I let myself remember two days ago, as I sat in the Barnes and Noble café with my cousin. I showed him the picture of Christian Wiman, also a slender man with little hair. “Reading it makes me feel I can walk this road with you,” I said. We wept, holding hands. “I can’t imagine what people do,” he whispered, “who have to walk this alone.” We allowed ourselves this moment, to feel united in the depth of our love. Then, we had to move apart, this touchstone in our emotional orbit simply too painful.
The hummingbirds hover close to my head, forming a winged shadow Chimera that pulses, then vanishes. In my mind I hear the voice of my father in the last year of his cancer, some 30 years ago, “How many people have walked this road, and I am still here?”
I fall into a gentle, restful sleep.
“Hi!” comes my cousin’s voice.
His wife is smiling, “Good news! The chemo is working. The cancer isn’t spreading!
We grow giddy, the air light, the sunshine bold.
We all know this is not a cure, but a reprieve. It doesn’t seem to matter. Not today.
We go for a walk, hope giving my cousin’s legs the agility of a brown skipper dancing over rocks. And, from this place we can talk about the fear, the despair, and oh darling irony, the promise of a spiritual continuity that holds us all. We don’t need to fly from mortality, or hide out in distraction or the mundane. There it is, our connection to the unity of all things, at the center of our emotional orbit all along, waiting for us to notice.