The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac

Tonight Alicia and I drove to Des Moines to have dinner with Dr. Deming. He is a radiation oncologist at Mercy Cancer Center in Des Moines. Dr. Deming has never been my actual doctor. We met back in 2010 when I was speaking at a fundraiser for the Hope Lodge in Iowa City. A few months later he invited me to join him and a group of cancer survivors on a trek to Mount Everest Base Camp. Soon after our journey to Nepal I helped Dr. D and others begin Above + Beyond Cancer. Dr. Deming has been a huge part of my life since, and I am blessed to be able to call him one of my best friends.

Me, Dr. Deming, Alicia, and Teresa hiking in Peru (2014).

Dr. D’s outlook on life is wildly infectious. After finding out that I may be dealing with cancer again, Alicia and I were both really looking forward to spending time with him. We began our dinner with a toast to Kathy Wennihan, who died last night in her sleep after years of dealing with cancer. I had the pleasure of hiking to Mount Everest Base Camp with Kathy back in 2011. My friend Brian wrote this beautiful blog post about Kathy’s story. I miss her and I am tired of cancer killing my friends. I wonder in the back of my head if I am the next 2011 Everest Base Camp team member that departs for the ultimate journey. I don’t say it out loud because I know it hurts the ones I love, and it makes me cringe knowing this thought would even cross my mind when I should be celebrating Kathy.

I know I need to stay positive for myself and those around me, but for some reason I’m having a very difficult time faced with the realization that this cancer truly may be something I have to deal with for the rest of my life. That’s where people like Dr. Deming come in. After our cheers to Kathy, we spent the night laughing and enjoying each other’s company – just as Kathy would have liked. I remind myself that Kathy and Dick have been a part of my life not in spite of cancer, but because of cancer.

And then, we read poetry! I read the dark, emotional Blessing for a Friend on the Arrival of Illness by John O’Donohue. In response, Dr. D read me this poem by Mary Oliver:

Why should I have been surprised?
Hunters walk the forest
without a sound.
The hunter, strapped to his rifle,
the fox on his feet of silk,
the serpent on his empire of muscles—
all move in a stillness,
hungry, careful, intent.
Just as the cancer
entered the forest of my body,
without a sound.

The question is,
what will it be like
after the last day?
Will I float
into the sky
or will I fray
within the earth or a river—
remembering nothing?
How desperate I would be
if I couldn’t remember
the sun rising, if I couldn’t
remember trees, rivers; if I couldn’t
even remember, beloved,
your beloved name.

I know, you never intended to be in this world.
But you’re in it all the same.
so why not get started immediately.
I mean, belonging to it.
There is so much to admire, to weep over.
And to write music or poems about.
Bless the feet that take you to and fro.
Bless the eyes and the listening ears.
Bless the tongue, the marvel of taste.
Bless touching.
You could live a hundred years, it’s happened.
Or not.
I am speaking from the fortunate platform
of many years,
none of which, I think, I ever wasted.
Do you need a prod?
Do you need a little darkness to get you going?
Let me be urgent as a knife, then,
and remind you of Keats,
so single of purpose and thinking, for a while,
he had a lifetime.

Late yesterday afternoon, in the heat,
all the fragile blue flowers in bloom
in the shrubs in the yard next door had
tumbled from the shrubs and lay
wrinkled and fading in the grass. But
this morning the shrubs were full of
the blue flowers again. There wasn’t
a single one on the grass. How, I
wondered, did they roll back up to
the branches, that fiercely wanting,
as we all do, just a little more of
life?

Mary Oliver (The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac)

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