Finding a Way Back
Tell me, what do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
- Mary Oliver
"I know," I chagrined, "I told you it wouldn't rain." I tried to smile as I admitted my over-active sense of success to Deborah Stewart, brave soul who was watching her Survivor Weekend plans dissolve in the forecast. In the midst of a dry spring season, we met on a grey-cloud-filled sky afternoon, in the hour our first participants were to arrive. We were desperately revising our scheduled outdoor activities, humor and optimism spilling together as retreat leader, amateur naturalist and survivor-volunteers put five heads together to scrape a meaningful experience out of a weekend that threatened nothing but downpours, interspersed by showers and storms.
A year ago, as Debby and I planned this Nature Retreat for Breast Cancer Survivors, we envisioned blue skies, warmish temperatures with light winds that highlighted perfect sunsets. I saw us canoeing in calm waters, eating box lunches in the shade along the creek, sailing on just-enough wind and hiking on dry trails, neatly lined with singing spring migrants and decked in early wildflowers. Oh, yes, we had our plans. We planned for the weekend of Earth Day, a day of Love Your Mother, get back to the great womb of Mother Nature. We didn't plan on Mother crawling through an extended drought, and then breaking that with her own wet celebration for our region. Now we had to amend our plans, grateful for the sumptuous accommodations of the Vandiver Inn Bed & Breakfast, but determined to still meet our goal of nature-connection for each woman as she continued her healing.
The first evening activity had us walking a few blocks for homemade ice cream to be followed by a get-to-know each other sharing. Easily fixed: bring ice cream to the B & B, letting the sweet treat smooth us into sharing our stories. Ensconced in the Victorian sitting room, I listened quietly to the stories from all the women who circled in, who took one more challenge to be vulnerable after recently facing the diagnosis, surgery and various treatments for breast cancer. From Pennsylvania, Virginia and Maryland these women had come to experience two nights and days with strangers who each had received a gift bag, information packet and fine accommodations. Among their goodies was a journal, trusty book in which to capture all emotions and thoughts as they moved into the land of their newfound lives. Now they were clustered all around me: women with delicately re-growing heads of hair, some with thicker, glossier short styles that marked their progress, and others longer, marked with the fate of having avoided chemo. What they had in common was the fear, the hospital stays of those who have faced their body's own betrayal, the very vessel's leading one toward the cliff of mortality, and ultimately, hope. As Peggy said later, "When we got here Friday night we were a group of breast cancer survivors." Yes, this was the brave troupe before me; they had cancer in common but a list of other aspects as well: wife, widow, single, mother, grandmother, aunt, sister, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, world travelers, homebodies, botanists, nurses, Christmas tree decorators. But it would take us the whole rainy weekend to get to know these parts of each others' lives.
The next day was the biggest schedule challenge. Perhaps a bit ambitious, we had lined up a packed schedule of wildflower and birding walk, a river canoe trip, and finally, an evening Skipjack sail on the Bay. Saturday broke gray but only lightly dampish. Taking advantage of the light rain, we loaded up cars and headed for Susquehanna State Park. After a quick listen for frogs in the parking lot and scan of Trillium up a hillside, we formed a line of colorful rain gear, twisting along the single-track trail between Deer Creek and the Susquehanna River.
Now, I have to admit, I was worried. The words I had studied to match the shapes of flowers I saw here had long been sacred to me. I loved to whisper their names under my breath as I ran and biked this trail. But this was not a reverence I often found in many others. Still, I plunged in and began to extol the virtues of Jack-in-the-Pulpit, its purple and green varieties, its modest hidden stamen and perfect three-leaf structure that metamorphosizes into a woody stem holding a fist of brilliant red berries each autumn as the whole world goes brown. I knelt just off the path, lifting up Jack's hood. Women with wet shoes and rain-splattered pants began to exclaim and ask to "see closer." They began to move aside for others and draw my attention to other blossoms. Now other voices joined in. It seems this group had two trained botanists, Sharon and Susan, who were awakening little drawers in their memory to pull out Latin and common names. The shared joy right there in that spot made me realize that Debby had been right almost a year ago.
This amazing ball of energy and optimism, Debby Stewart, is an avid birder and reader of good books. She is a Registered Nurse, I knew, and eventually, I came to understand, herself a two-time Survivor of breast cancer. Twenty years apart, these battles were compounded by the loss of her sister to leukemia. Without her sister's support through the second of cancers, what Debby learned is that this great green world saved her. The birds she focused on after the death of her sister brought her out of solitary grief and into the cycle of risk, beauty, joy, heartbreak and full-throttle love that our time here can be. She learned to re-connect, to hear the songs of birds searching for mates, flowers seeking sun. Now serving as the Breast Health Educator for Johns Hopkins Breast Center, Debby thought perhaps her experience could be one repeated to help transition survivors recently released from medical treatment back into this life. They would never live the same life, but that could be a positive change. Sometimes, Debby knew, we needed a nudge back into the joys we may have lost along the way of growing up.
But back to that muddy trail. As the rain came down with more vigor, some participants decided to head back to the dry Inn. But a full three quarters plodded on with me, entranced with the promise of beaver. Their response was so enthusiastic I clarified so there would be no soggy disappointment. "We aren't going to see beaver, just evidence of beaver," I emphasized. Yes, that was enough for them. And before that gnawed trunk patch of wood, we encountered woodpecker holes, cut-leaf toothwort in bloom, May Apples, and many views of Great Blue Herons, Belted Kingfishers, Double Crested Cormorants and various terns and gulls. Much to Debby's great joy, a Pileated Woodpecker careened into a tree just off the trail, giving his call and proceeding to circle around the trunk as we all focused loaner-binoculars, learning to focus and identify all at once. But nothing could have prepared them for the force of a downed tree with careful chew marks. We held woodchips in the rain, as I tried to answer all their questions about beaver life. In the end, we realized the rain had been steadily increasing. We began to re-trace our steps, brushing by buds that promised leaves, the woods ringing with determined talk of remembering all the bird and flower names to write in journals.
The waters rose all morning so canoeing was out, but expert facilitator/volunteer Colleen Luzier directed us in a Mandela exercise that brought out much of the introspective part of this weekend. More Kleenex was used in this afternoon activity than any other. I was humbled to hear so many brave, beautiful women reveal their greatest fears and accomplishments, what they hoped to gain from the group, what gift they brought. Some feared their death, not for themselves, but for those children and family left in the wake of grief. Many feared passing on a genetic connection to children. Some feared not finding a love who accepted their cancer survivor status. But the gifts they brought this group were so beautiful: the gift of listening, of sharing, of supporting, of being open. Here around the dining tables, covered in colored pencils and magic markers, I came to realize the daily lives these women had left behind to join in what I saw as a celebration of this natural world. But all they had was part of that, too: mothers with Alzheimer's, boyfriends who left in the midst of treatment, children who did not understand or accept their mother's need for attention to self, communities who gathered around women who needed dinners for families, rides to chemo and radiation treatments. How could I not love Becky who said that she found good in her diagnosis and battle? "If I had died in a car accident," she told me, "how would I have ever known how many people around me loved me so much? What I went through was not easy, but it made me see that more people cared for me than I realized. That is a gift." Yes, a lot of Kleenex is needed, I learned, all weekend.
As the only non-Survivor of the weekend I had feared outsider status. Still I had my fears in this whole ordeal, too-not only do I live in a society in which 1 in 8 women will receive this diagnosis, but my mother, paternal aunt and grandmother have all survived breast cancer. What I fear most is what these women had already stared down. While I was introducing them to the growing world that sustains me, I was also doing spy work in the world I feared would cut me down. No words can ever be enough for the dear woman who told me, "You won't get it." Tears filled her eyes, and then she said, "and if you do, you will be fine." I know I will, because these women were more alive than most who crowd the streets, stores and parks. Nothing like the fear of death to make you love every drop of life.
And this is what this whole weekend was like. Tears, crazily drawn pictures of who we are, homemade chocolates, the call of a Gray Tree Frog as we sat on the porch, gourmet meals, chimney swifts chittering in the afternoon clearing as we walked the sidewalks of town. After a resplendent evening on the wide porch in the rain, discussing Terry Tempest Williams' Refuge, drinking wine and eating more ice cream, we crawled to bed, ready for our last morning.
Dry. Cloudy, but dry. After breakfast we headed for Havre de Grace's Promenade, a comeback story itself, having been rebuilt after the rage of Hurricane Isabel swept most of it away. In these three hours, women who had generously forgiven the weekend weather were treated to many of the delights this Bay and River walkway can afford. First we gathered to peer at Tydings Island, a dredge-created lump that now held a rookery of Great Blue Herons and Black Crowned Night Herons. One by one, each woman got a heron on nest in binocular-view. While this was clearly a high point, I cannot, again, find the words to tell of my own private joy later that week when I received photos via email of the weekend. One woman attached a photo of a distant run of green trees with a sharp point. First bird seen with binoculars, her caption read. And we had not even left the parking lot. From the promenade we saw a half dozen Red Breasted Mergansers, an immature and mature Bald Eagle, tree swallows, common mullein, and luck of all luck, mating snapping turtles in the flooded tidal wetland. How can anyone resist the charge of prehistoric grappling right there in front of you? We saw early arrowhead and arrow arum, and even found my season's first sighting of goslings near the lighthouse. It was all so much, so wonderful. But we had to come to some kind of closure.
A quick retreat to the Vandiver Inn and we tried to reign ourselves back in to return to families, work, lives outside this weekend. But we vowed to continue. We had moved away from fear and were ending on hopes-to live, to raise children, to marry, and even the hope that other women will get the experience of knowledgeable doctors and nurses and retreats such as this. Jeanie mused that she would forever remember that Great Blue Heron motionless, fishing in the rain. "I hope to have that focus and attention," she said.
Another uttered the words that told all of us, volunteers and participants alike, that this weekend had fulfilled our highest hopes. I quoted Peggy in the beginning of this essay. But I held back on her insight. "When we arrived here Friday night we were all Breast Cancer Survivors. When we were on the boardwalk this morning, we were just women looking at birds and turtles and flowers." Yes. That is what we all want to be. Women in this world again. Women who look, live, love and find their fit in this raucous celebration of going on.
Deborah Stewart and Colleen Webster are members of Harford Chapter of MOS.
Dennis Kirkwood, who loaned those binoculars courtesy of Harford Glen, is a member of Harford Chapter of MOS.