2014 Winter Contest Finalist
by Julie Goodale
As the Arusha traffic falls away, we become a steady stream of safari vehicles, shades of khaki and tan. I have left behind the slopes of Kilimanjaro and my thirty-nine companions, all dressed in red, to head off to my solitary adventure. We drive on roads of red dirt, through vegetation in variations of green, toward our destination. Serengeti. A dream of adventure. A dream of the wild. A dream of Africa.
School uniforms—maroon and white, green, orange and blue— filled with waving arms dot the side of the road. The mothers, and their mothers, flash red, orange, purple, green. Maasai grace by, draped in red and purple. A morning flurry of bee-eaters and sunbirds writ large upon the African landscape.
We were forty on the mountain, plus a hundred porters. Cancer survivors and cancer caregivers. Unlike most of my climbing companions, I have become an old hand at cancer. I am beginning my eleventh year of surviving. They are more recent members of our flock, some less than a year.
I recognized the greenness of their fears and pain. I remember navigating the new landscape of a freshly-scarred body: the clothes that no longer fit, the muscles that no longer move the way we expect, the unrelenting fear that this might be the day cancer comes back. But the scars fade. Like just-picked flowers, the vividness of the color fades with the passage of time. They do not go away, but they are no longer bright red.
My scars are grey. They are the color of weariness—the weariness I sometimes feel after a decade of survival. I cherish the beauty of the colors that fill my life, but of late I feel the pull of the losses.
Kilimanjaro was not my first climb. I started rock climbing years ago with my father. We were on vacation, just father and daughter. He wanted to try climbing. He remembered climbing once as a young man and thought it would be fun. I was afraid, but I would not say no. At first, it made no sense to me: knots, rope that became spaghetti in my hands, the jigsaw puzzle of my body moving over the rock. Then, after two days, a new world appeared in those rocks. The ropes did not bind me; they led me up a path most could not follow. They connected me to a world where body parts became chess pieces on a Precambrian board; where I could look down upon the back of a Red-tailed Hawk soaring below, calling to its mate. Two years later, ropes fluid in my hands, tethering me to my companions, I ventured into the barren, glacial world of high-altitude mountains. We climbed through the Cimmerian hues of pre-dawn, the only sounds the growling of the wind and rhythmic crunching of our crampons on ice. I glanced behind me. The clouds lay like silvered pillows below us. Above in the midnight blue, stars shimmered. The sky was just beginning to lighten to a deep cerulean in the east, silhouetting the crater rim. I turned back into the wind and continued climbing, tears stinging my face in the cold.
The last day with my Kilimanjaro friends is spent visiting schools in Moshi, then an orphanage run by a young Maasai teacher and an expat retired doctor from northern California. It is here that I peer into the eyes of my loss. Brown eyes so dark as to be almost black stare at me as a coffee-colored hand reaches out to grab mine from an aqua gingham dress. Esther is ten, the same age my daughter would have been had cancer not changed my plans.
I had put off having children although I had always wanted them. In college I could more easily imagine myself with a child than married. And I imagined myself with a daughter. A rocky career path and rocky relationships made it easy to put her off. Then it became easier to wait until after the next adventure. There were always exciting things to do first, and there always seemed to be more time.
Through all the adventures, all the relationships, she would whisper to me from the back of my dreams. Softly calling. Finally, it was time; we would try for our child. After just one more adventure.
The Atacama was summoning me to Chile, to Ojo del Salado, the Eye of Salt. I was still in the midst of planning—pouring over maps, estimating how many loads of food and water would be needed while climbing in the driest desert on the planet. But the subtlest change in the topography of my body interrupted the calculations.
The children at the orphanage sing a song about a doctor to the tune of “My Darling Clementine” as they act out a skit for us. Call the doctor. Call the doctor, call the doctor right now. Call the doctor. Call the doctor, call the doctor right now. Doctor’s coming. Doctor’s coming, doctor’s coming right now.
My diagnosis, the first one, was non-invasive breast cancer. Stage zero. Ten hours of surgery would transform my body into a patchwork quilt of scars, but I could still go to the Atacama in January, and I could still have my child.
A week after leaving the hospital my plans were interrupted once again. At my first post-surgery check, my surgeon was on vacation, so I saw her sub—a surgeon, not my surgeon.
This surgeon gingerly removed my bandages, revealing wounds like a map of highways and subsidiary roads leading nowhere. My pathology report was delayed. There was yelling, more delays, more yelling. Finally, the light on the fax machine began to twinkle as it spit out pages. The surgeon, not my surgeon, talked as he read the report. He stared at the floor. His words swirled about my head. Tumors, poor margins, necrosis, lymph nodes, sorry. There would be no climbing in January. This surgeon—a father, picture on his desk of his son rock climbing—asked me if I had children. Well, at least you won’t have to figure out how to explain this to them.
My plastic surgeon came in. He had left his art-filled office with the vases of fresh-cut flowers to check on me here, where battles are fought, where lives are saved and lost, where old magazines piled up and posters hung slightly crooked. He gave me a long, gentle hug.
An oncologist came up to meet me. An oncologist—he was not yet my oncologist. I did not yet feel possessive of him. He was not yet what he would become—the most trusted man in my life. I stared at the buttons on his white shirt as he asked if I had children. At least you won’t have to deal with caring for small kids while going through this.
The fourth day on Kilimanjaro I became sick. It was too early, too low on the mountain to be altitude. It was either food or the flu. I spent much time outside my tent during the night in the rocks, throwing up. Between heaving, I looked out at the lightening illuminating distant clouds. Above me the sky was clear.
While in my first round of chemotherapy, my sister-in-law—then pregnant with her second child, my niece—invited me to accompany her to her ultrasound, knowing that because of my chemo there was a very good chance I would never experience my own baby’s ultrasound. I sat in the exam room with her and my brother. The doctor spread the bluish gel on her belly. I held my breath as we waited for a heartbeat. I sucked it in deeper when the heartbeat wasn’t there. And then it was. The room exhaled. I listened to that heartbeat, to the tiny, rhythmic whoosh. I listened to the breath of my brother and his wife. The room was pulsing and rhythmic. I smiled.
The sound of that heartbeat, from a child who was not mine, rose in my ears. My chest tightened. Salty tears slipped into my mouth, and dripped off my face, leaving dark, expanding circles on my shirt. I took in more breaths because I could no longer get any air, as though the grey blood pressure cuff beside me had wrapped itself around my chest. I fled the exam room—the doctor’s office and my sister-in-law with her unborn daughter. I escaped into the hallway, but still there was no air, the cuff ever inflating. My chest heaved, but my lungs could not supply enough oxygen to my brain. The hallway began to darken and move; I could hear footsteps—rhythmic clicks—echoing down the hall as I reached for support. Still my lungs could not provide the needed oxygen. Until the sobs came. Then, with soft moans, my breathing regulated.
In the mountains, when I was too tired to have any sense of time, I would play mental games with myself to keep moving up the mountain. Walk until your steps fall out of rhythm. Climb to that rock where the raven sits. Don’t think about quitting until you get to that next crevasse. When my will failed even with those games, I would listen to the crunch of my footfalls and count my steps. I’ll just climb eight more steps, then decide if I’ll quit. And then, I had always gone on.
One, two, three, four…That was what ran through my mind as I sat on the side of the bathtub, crying yet again. In the third week of radiation I was too exhausted to continue, too tired to face another morning in a cold room, lying in my awkward plastic mold. Each night for more than a week I had cried, sure that this would be the time that I could not continue. Each night I was sure that in the morning I could not return to the sad, dark room where children lay like corpses, where parents cowered in the hallway, where fear was tattooed on our bodies as they roasted from the inside out. Each night, tears burned my face. Then, each morning, I would decide to go just one more day. One, two, three, four….
I was forbidden to climb during treatment. Instead, I would hike in the hills near my house. The sun would shine through the trees, creating a dappled pattern on the leaf-covered trails. I would stop frequently to catch my breath as I struggled up to the bare rocks atop a ridge, and feel the texture of the sun-warmed stone. I would feel the sun toast my bald head in spite of the cool autumn breeze. I found a small piece of quartz, white with sharp edges tinged in black, which scratched slightly but did not hurt. I liked the way it felt in my hand. I put it in my pocket. I felt happy.
After my initial cancer treatments, I could have tried to get pregnant. Chemo had not thrown me permanently into premature menopause. Later rounds of chemo did not either. Nor did attempts to chemically shut down my ovaries, or a new trial drug. I had been in and out of sudden but temporary menopause more times than I could remember, each time filled with glimpses of my face changed to purple and clothes darkened with the swamp of sweat pouring from my body. But each time faded with a return to normalcy, my body asserting its natural function.
On a hike, just a week before leaving for Africa, I discovered a stone deep in the pocket of the pants I had dug out from the back of my closet. A small piece of quartz, white with sharp edges tinged in black.
Most of my Kilimanjaro teammates were new to high places. They had never climbed before, but had come to climb Africa’s highest mountain. They, like me, had come here with Above and Beyond Cancer for their own reasons: to test themselves, to prove they could, to overcome fears and discover new strengths, to reclaim their lives. In doing so, they discovered the difficulties of life in thin air. They retched, they gasped. They cried, and they moaned. But they, like me, continued up the mountain.
After enough healthy years had passed, at an age when many people are sending their children off to college or welcoming their first grandchildren to the world, I found myself finally comfortable enough with my cancer to try to get pregnant. Without success. Or rather, with only partial success. It seemed that getting pregnant at my age, after so many years of so many cancer drugs, was not as difficult as staying pregnant.
This group of cancer survivors, my Kilimanjaro companions, was full of life. Charlie’s wife was about to give birth back home. He carried a card from his four-year-old declaring him World’s Best Father. It was laminated. Jed carried a stuffed animal from each of his three daughters up the mountain. They hung on his belt. Kerri carried her three-year-old daughter in her eyes. It was her first time away. Stories of children and grandchildren abounded.
Esther, in her aqua gingham dress with the pink and orange buttons, has a strong voice. She is 10.
As the children at the orphanage sing us their songs, the colors of their dresses and shorts fade from my view. I see only the grey gravel of the playground. Their voices echo in my ears as the air grows thin. My lungs cannot get what my body requires, despite my gasping. I try to leave, but the gate is shut. And where would I go? Instead, I hide in the corner—grey gravel, brown gate, tan walls—out of view, until the sobbing subsides.
On this mountain, on Kilimanjaro, where life was stripped down to its most essential elements, there was no moment of crystalline clarity for me. I knew already that I was strong. I knew already that I would always continue. I knew already that unspeakable beauty and unbearable pain could exist in the same moment. On this climb, the truth played out for me in ways more subtle: the father, whose replaced joints were not as strong as his will, being helped up the mountain by his son; a pack being retrieved for a teammate as he stumbled into camp after dark, too tired to find it himself; a hand reaching out to steady me as I retched in the rocks; the eyes of someone whose thoughts were on her joy, half a world away.
When the children finish singing and introducing themselves, they invade our ranks, spreading like a flock of Red-winged Blackbirds through a field. They show us their rooms, play some version of Ring Around the Rosie, reach out for a hug. Esther makes a direct line through the crowd toward me, never taking her eyes off me. She leads me to the swings. I push her; she laughs. She wants to go higher; I start to feel nervous. She swings higher than all the other children, laughing. When I accidentally step in the way of another swing and am struck in the leg, she looks worried. These are not flimsy, lightweight swings; these are two-inch thick planks. A purplish bruise immediately begins to show. I tell her it’s fine, knowing that the hurt will stay with me for days. We trade places, Esther pushing me. She is strong. I swing high. I soar above walls painted with blue waves.
As long as I can remember, when the reality of my life became difficult, my escape hatch—my fantasy—has been running off to Africa to care for hungry children. When rocky relationships ended, when injury delayed my career, when doubt arose, I dreamed of Africa. I suppose most people have an escape fantasy. I suppose most people leave their fantasies firmly in place as fantasy, never confronting the reality. It is fantasy, after all, and the reality of a fantasy is often dirty, ugly, and scary.
But here in this country, with its dirt and poverty, its pit latrines and lack of clean water; in this place of need, with its walls of blue waves and multi-colored flags, I look into the brown eyes of both my loss and my fantasy. And far from frightening me, the reality of my fantasy pulls me in. A hand reaches for mine and invites me to play. It is small and soft, fitting easily in my hand. Rough nails scratch me slightly, but do not hurt.
Part of me longs to stay, to don bright colors and walk barefoot in red dirt. I long to flee the dung-colored hills of a snowless mid-winter back home. For now though, I’ll continue to wear shades of khaki and tan, and head further west into the Serengeti in our tan jeep, and then home as planned. But I’ll continue to dream in color—the colors of bee-eaters and sunbirds.
Julie Goodale is a professional violist living in the woods north of New York City. She is also a passionate advocate and fitness trainer in the cancer community; her work in this arena can be found at www.Life-Cise.com. Julie is often found outdoors, running trails, climbing, hiking, or windsurfing. And although she is sometimes one of the slower skiers on a mountain, she likes to think that she’s just searching for the perfect turn.