THE FREEDOM TO FALL APART
Charlene was diagnosed six months after I was: ductal carcinoma in situ, a collection of abnormal cells that might or might not aggress into a disease that can kill you. Fingertips cannot feel the presence of DCIS nor can the cells be seen by radiography. But DCIS leaves a trace — microcalcifications, which look like tiny stars on mammograms when you hold the dark film up to the light. Your own private milky way. For years after your diagnosis, when you look up at a night sky, you see breast disease. The presence of microcalcifications, however, does not in itself mean you have DCIS, only that you might if you happen to fall into the unfortunate twenty percentile. “It’s probably nothing,” your friends reassure you, and they tell you of women they know who had biopsies for the exact same thing and turned out to be fine, fine.
The technicians go in with needles, remove sufficient tissue for the cells to be examined under a microscope, and say, “Come back, we need more.” You sit on a padded chair in a windowless room with metal clamps flattening your breast. You stare at a poster of a sunflower in full bloom. X-rays are shot over and over again, the technicians fleeing the room to shelter behind lead walls, an eerie beep informing you each time the deed is done. Long, fat needles you imagine best suited for pachyderms are inserted deep into your flesh. If you do not have cancer now, you are thinking, you will surely develop it from the countless blasts of radiation. You follow your breath: in, out. You tell yourself not to get angry at the technicians, the doctors, the nurses, the people sitting behind desks, even though they have all transformed into trolls; this is not their fault. You breathe: in, out. You try to find the cause: The pesticides sprayed from low-flying airplanes to eradicate mosquitoes when you were eleven, your heartbreak over a man better avoided whom you still miss, your mother’s genes, the cigarettes you used to smoke, the caipirinhas you drank in São Paolo while breathing fouled air, a past life you’re not sure you believe in? And then you remember you have no diagnosis yet, you are probably fine, fine. You’ve meditated for years, you do yoga regularly, you eat organic carrots, seaweed and brown rice, you hike, take vitamins, write poetry; you are an unlikely candidate for breast cancer.
Days later, the phone rings. The oncology surgeon says the findings are not clear, come back for further testing. This time you are anesthetized and she goes in with a scalpel. Afterwards, you sit in the recovery room on a big soft chair covered in Naugahyde that leans back like a La-Z-Boy. You’re woozy but not unhappy; the anesthetic was laced with a drug that cheers you up. You are in fact quite content until the effect wears off, and then you are wondering why they didn’t warn you how much it would hurt afterwards.
When the bruising is nearly over and you’ve tossed the frozen peas you were using as an ice pack into the compost, you get the news. You have DCIS, a vague disease known by its initials. The lesion has been graded and sized.
Charlene’s lesion was small. She chose to have a mastectomy immediately, not a lumpectomy. She had a five-year-old daughter, she would take no risks. Wanting to save my breast, I had asked for time. I had gone to England for therapies not provided here—intravenously delivered extract of Venus flytrap, ozone pumped into the bloodstream. I had swallowed mountains of supplements, lain tranquilized under heat lamps until my internal body temperature spiked into the hundreds, prayed, visualized, refrained from sugar, wheat and wine. Charlene’s new breast, made from muscle and fat removed from her back and carried around to her chest wall (the nipple made like a doll’s, stitched into place) was lopsided. She declined further refinements. I, too, finally succumbed to the knife. My right breast tissue was removed and the skin refilled with belly fat, the areola tattooed.
I was making tea one afternoon when Charlene called. A year had passed since her mastectomy, a year since mine.
“Bad news,” she said.
I sat down on one of the kilim chairs Charlene had admired when I bought them. Red, her favorite color.
“I found a lump in my other breast. I’ve had the biopsy, it’s aggressive and in my lymph nodes.”
The teakettle whined on the stove. I did not get up. I cradled my head in my hand. Her chemotherapy was scheduled to begin in two days. I insisted on accompanying her. My hands shook as I hung up the phone. I should examine my breast. The remaining one. I should lift my arm and with the other hand walk my fingers across the flesh with soft pressure in a spiral of concentric circles. But my hands hung by my sides, refusing to conduct the investigation lest they encounter a pea-sized nodule that would set in motion a future I was unready to pursue. Tomorrow, I promised myself, when I shower.
I had met Charlene ten years before at a meditation retreat when, after twenty-one days of sitting and walking in mausoleum-like silence, we sat in a circle of fifty and introduced ourselves. I had noticed her across the room on the first day, her dark hair falling to her shoulders in thick waves, her skin pale and luminous, her aquiline profile perfect; had noticed the way she slipped her bare feet into red shoes when we left the hall to walk outside, pacing for an hour back and forth across the cement quad of the nunnery the Buddhists borrowed for seasonal asylum. I imagined everyone noticed Charlene because beauty, no matter the intention of the bearer, attracts attention.
“I am a painter,” she said in the circle, her voice tinged with an untraceable accent. French? German? “Abstract. When I meditate, I do not see what I will paint but I see how things are other than they seem and this informs my art.”
That night we sat side by side in the dining hall drinking chamomile tea, a stream of words cascading from our mouths despite the teacher’s advice we return to speech gradually so as not to be overwhelmed by the complexity of human interaction. We sat with our shoulders touching and laughed, the words themselves amusing, a kind of miracle.
The chemo lounge was a large room with plastic high-backed chairs flanked by IV poles and served by a retinue of soft-shoed attendants. The nurse wrapped a tourniquet above Charlene’s elbow as he talked about art (having dabbled himself, he knew the way colors change when next to each other), patted her forearm until a vein swelled (was keen to know where her show was opening), slid a slender needle with an expert’s ease into the unsuspecting blood vessel. Unable to witness the pierce of flesh, I averted my eyes at the last second (the television suspended from the ceiling was tuned to a soap opera), but Charlene steadied her gaze on the action and watched the shiny needle enter her vein, noting the red of blood sucked up into the base of the syringe. Bob adjusted the clamp on a clear tube that hung like a slender vine from the IV bag and drop by drop, a second of suspension between each, a cherry-red liquid made its steady way into Charlene’s blue vein. The television was now broadcasting warnings about rolling blackouts—undisclosed geographical areas to be turned off one at a time without warning, a checkerboard of darkness crossing the state. Have matches handy, candles with clean wicks, flashlights by the door, fresh batteries. We did not know yet that the power shortage was a fiction, did not predict the front-page photos of CEOs in handcuffs, the disappearance of nest eggs. We sat back and propped up our feet on plastic stools and wondered if the blackout would roll by the hospital.
Charlene reached for her purse and handed me a fat envelope of photos: Her daughter, Emma, black hair in braids, chubby cheeks and slanted eyes, sitting on the floor in rainbow-striped trousers, legs akimbo. Emma, running on the beach in a red dress, her hair loose and flying. Kenneth, his face as round as Emma’s and bespectacled, leaning over his daughter as she blows out the six flaming candles on her cake. And a photo of models of Charlene’s new work, an installation for a hospital in Seattle. The series of filigreed metal works based on the discovery of DNA were to hang from the eighteen-foot ceiling and reach to the floor of the hospital foyer.
Was it the chemicals, she mused, that make yellow paint so yellow, red so red, that had caused her cells to mutate? The fumes? She no longer worked in oil and remembered these days to turn on the fan in the studio she and Kenneth had just purchased in the Berkeley flats, his space in the back, hers by the storefront windows covered in rice paper.
I called Charlene the morning after chemo. Her voice was weak and slurred. The day before she had been lively, free of symptoms, the cancer in her body discreet, unobtrusive. Now discomfort invaded every cell. She had spent the entire night on her knees vomiting into the toilet. A friend had given her a small bag of marijuana to ease the pain and nausea. Being prone to paranoia, Charlene had not indulged. Kenneth, however, sitting beside her on the edge of the bathtub in the wee hours of the still dark morning finally rolled a slender joint and lit up.
For weeks Kenneth had been drawing a future with Charlene—which school to enroll Emma in, what color to paint the new building, his show at the University Art Gallery, her retrospective in Walnut Creek. Charlene had leaned on his optimism like a tree whose heavy limbs grown weak are propped with wooden staves. The pot made its way swiftly to Kenneth’s head, the tendrils of smoke unlacing his composure. He swallowed hard to still himself, but the grief too long refused eluded his control.
“He fell apart,” Charlene told me on the phone. “We huddled on the floor together, me throwing up and Kenneth weeping. It was fantastic. We had not let ourselves be so intimate for a very long time.”
They had given up any attempt to be who each imagined the other wanted. Neither had the strength. They could only surrender to what had overtaken them: horror. And there on the bathroom floor, the grout loose, the room smelling of vomit, diarrhea and marijuana, they recognized what they had always known resided in the heart of their marriage but these days had rarely glimpsed — a raw unfettered passion for life, for life together.
“We fell in love again,” Charlene said.
A few years ago, I attended a retreat with Tsoknyi Rinpoche. My father had died only weeks before of a sudden heart attack, and, despite Tsoknyi’s masterful skill at guiding us to rest in unbounded luminous awareness, I was unable to shake a debilitating sadness and despair. At the end of the retreat, I finally mustered the strength to ask Tsoknyi about grief.
“You do not try to overcome grief or dissolve it into luminosity,” Tsoknyi advised me. “You grieve.” He explained that the word satva means “courage” and in the case of a bodhisattva, it means “the courage to suffer.” “A bodhisattva suffers a lot,” he said, “but willingly.”
I did not allow myself to fall apart as I guided Charlene down hospital corridors on her way to one treatment or another or took notes as doctors rattled off statistics or wrote down the precise instructions she dictated to me for her funeral as we lounged in the shade of an old oak tree in her backyard. “Put a red rose petal on every chair,” she said, staring at the sky mottled with clouds. “Do not buy the flowers since we only need the petals. Get the ones the florists are throwing away.”
Her belly was distended, her gait weak, her liver riddled with tumors. I followed her inside to listen to the music she had chosen for the ceremony — a Spanish ballad, the singer’s voice fluid and sultry. Perched on the arm of the red leather chairs she had brought back from Switzerland, I closed my eyes and listened to the lilt of lyrics, the harmonies, and struggled to hold back the tears that flooded my eyes. I would remain calm through this, steady, for Charlene. I glanced at her. A tear glistened as it fell down her cheek.
“I’m crying at my own funeral,” she said with a sheepish grin, and we both burst into sudden laughter, the tears now unstoppable.
When I began to practice Buddhism, I learned that the Buddha presented a methodology for freedom from suffering. I imagined this meant I could manage life’s myriad challenges in a state of steady, unmediated bliss. As my practice deepened, I grew to understand that freedom is not about resting in sublime equanimity despite the suffering of loved ones and strangers. Freedom is about the willingness to feel deeply. Freedom is about the willingness to fall apart. Freedom is about holding onto nothing. And at the heart of that letting go, that dissolution, that surrender, you discover something sublime and unspeakably, heartbreakingly raw. Call it love. Call it compassion. Call it kindness. Call it redemption.
“A bodhisattva suffers willingly,” Tsoknyi had said. “And with the willingness to suffer emerges a profound joy.”
Freedom that embraces what is acceptable and rejects what is not is not freedom. Freedom is wholly democratic. Freedom includes everything.