Yahrzeit Recitation

A few weeks ago, I missed the one-year anniversary of a surgery that both saved and changed my life. I’m not sure what it means that the day passed me by unawares. Some reckonings must happen on their own timeline. There is much to say about those who came alongside during a season of compounding unknowns, and I was raised to write thank-you notes for the smallest of gestures. But expressions of gratitude can be daunting, especially when kindness gifted reveals things that become more real in their naming and claiming. Since this time last year, when some of my bits and pieces ran amok at the cellular level, my world keeps rearranging itself. My body is begging for patience even as my mind is made up. It’s time to give thanks. But how do we honor those who show up? And when is an unexpected, unfolding journey ready for its accounting?

It takes time to speak from a core that is rebuilding itself muscle by muscle, breath by breath. On the inhale, I find myself searching for words that don’t always surface. With each exhale, meaning itself becomes a memory. 365+ days later, I may know some things anew. Other lessons will be lifelong companions, as will the beloved community that bore generous witness to a diagnosis so rare that I claimed unicorn status for myself and all sojourners. I am still learning to speak cancer. Its harsh consonants betray the gentle learning that has me reaching for an underbelly that just keeps growing. Before speaking, though, there is so much to hear. I am still learning to quiet enough of me to honor what my body has to say. Perhaps the listing of Team Unicorn’s improbable mercies will give voice to a resurrection journey that hopes to take nothing for granted. Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? This liturgy of thanksgiving is both recitation and remembrance. I name these generosities to claim the power they twice bestow— first in the giving, then in the naming. May these memories be a blessing.

Was it you who packaged love in take-away meals and late-afternoon pours? Mothering takes many forms and the overflowing box of my favorite treats you sent home fed body and soul. The way you share pieces of yourself in each plate of food you prepare is the stuff of communion. When we become one another’s keepers, wine-shop counters become holy altars. For the bread and the wine, I give thanks.

I get that this might be part of the job description, but it didn’t feel like work when you sat with me on the porch while I grappled with the gospel of life and death. Waiting together for scan results, you brought to mind the women of faith who raised me. You are not my grandmother’s baptists, but she would have loved that you showed up with the full armor of God and a lemon bundt cake. I give thanks for preachers who know when to pray and when to bake. May you be blessed.

Years had passed since we last communicated beyond Facebook and annual Christmas cards, but you responded to my message immediately. The hour we spent on a call, when you listened to my panicked rehearsal of things beyond my control, was initiation and rite of passage. Sharing your own impossible journey, you helped me to hear what I could not yet articulate. But it was your tears that brought me to my senses and gave me license to feel. Thank you for modeling how to play a shitty hand and for loving me enough to say the hard things. I wish for us both the gift of time and the wisdom to keep living this life, day by majestic day.

Sometimes our newest family members arrive at just the right time. Not everyone is for every season, but you have been a sister since our fortuitous pairing as mountaintop roommates. Your willingness to celebrate and grieve in equal measure makes so much blessed room for our full humanity. When healing feels particularly circuitous, yours is the number I dial. I will cross counties with you any day. This grace of turning to one another in both pain and possibility? It is fellowship.

You were among the first to come over after my diagnosis, showing up for dinner with a unicorn-ready casserole and proclaiming a resounding “Fuck cancer!” as we settled into our meal. That might have been the first four-letter pronouncement of this journey, and it gave me both pause and permission to experience in full color. Ours is a chosen family that sings together around a shared table: Praise God, friends, from whom all blessings flow—in four-part harmonies and four-letter words alike.

We showed up on your doorstep after sending cryptic messages about heading to the city for some medical appointments. We arrived before you got home and got to work in your kitchen, losing ourselves in the familiar tasks of chopping, stirring, and marinating. It didn’t take long for you to piece our story together, but your quiet hospitality met us right where we needed to be. I like to think that our weekend of home-cooked meals and heart-led conversations shows up in each tune we play together. Music, then, carries us from cradle to the grave with melodies that circle us round and round until we become one.

Yours was the second household to take unsettling news in stride. Responding from wells that run deep, you showered me in stickers, kept the red wine flowing, and gifted presence for the trying on of a new season. We never know why our paths cross with those who become both tell and teller. When I attempt awakening (to) each and every day, I remember a magical weekend of truth-telling and table-setting. To the ever loving unicorn within, indeed.

Some friends show up for the long-haul. Beginning our journey together in the crucible of a doctoral program, it feels like we have already weathered much that life might send our way: three kids, multiple moves, career transitions, and now cancer. How grateful I am for friends who birth more than the godchildren I love so dearly. For those whose vocations also call us back to center, I give thanks. Your family, and prayers, and witness—and a truly epic introduction to the art and science of all things green tea—journey with me always.  

We met in a Yoga class taught by your daughter who weaves community across love, light, and breath. There is no good time to get cancer, but any season can be enriched by sitting with those who share their wisdom. After enjoying a meal on the porch, you read for me a powerful story about this year in my life and the patterns I might seek to understand. When you spoke, it was medicine. May we be open to receiving that which is not ours to know. May we always honor those who speak in tongues both foreign and sacred.

It takes a special friend to intuit that what I really needed was to hold the things I was about to lose in my hands. The bright pink uterus that arrived by mail was both heart-wrenching and hilarious. I can’t wait to feature this festive piñata at a Team Unicorn gathering. I am imagining all kinds of closure raining down as we tear apart this physical manifestation of loss itself. Until then, I am proud owner of a very large papier-mâché friend that makes its home on a shelf in my closet. Tucked between unicorn paraphernalia and my doctoral hood, it makes me laugh. There is so much learning—and healing—in the sound of laughter.

When we met to design my tattoo, you had the perfect touch. Together, we imagined and mapped the majestic itself onto my forearm. I have never aspired to body art and my family does not necessarily celebrate this particular mode of expression. But your theology of pain proclaimed a baptism by thousand pin pricks and my body said “Amen.” I might have had a panic attack the night I wore myself home, but that was the balance of forever seeping below the surface. When I woke up with my commitments right before my eyes, I caught up with something. It might have been me.

You are not really supposed to befriend your therapist. It gets in the way of boundaries. But I have long suspected that we would be close in a different way if I hadn’t first shown up in your office while I was finishing a dissertation that made clearer—word by word—that I did not, in fact, want the prize far-from-guaranteed by the three letters I could hardly bear to earn. In the realm of the hard things we’ve tackled, cancer hardly registers. But I am grateful that our practice was in place when this diagnosis came calling. Our post-op session on the front porch of the home you helped me be brave enough to wish for and purchase made clear that some of the best healing happens when we can reflect deep truths back to one another. You are the hand that holds the mirror through which I can see myself clearly. Sometimes you are the mirror. For the reflections through which we find our way, I give thanks.

I don’t remember why my husband couldn’t come to my first oncology appointment, but you were the right person for the job. We had just moved to our new home within walking distance of the university where you had stopped me in my tracks a few years earlier. “Slow down,” you said, as I tried to first steer and then save a sinking ship. This invitation to not kill myself on the altar of something sacrificed long-ago still resonates as we live into this Thelma and Louise sequel I didn’t know we would star in together. It’s not just your mind that reminds me of all things science that bear on many things survival. It’s that you showed up in your convertible with the top down and helped me remember the questions I wanted to ask. And then you kept answering them again and again in texts I keep sending. Let’s keep driving off cliffs together.

We met in the most impossible of circumstances. Who hires a 37 year-old dean anyway? And when it was my time to go, you took my place and carried an unforgiving cross. And then you brought gluten-free cookies to the porch and we held court together—because we survived. Friend. For the laughter and the learning and for leaving it all behind. Onward.

There is something comforting about a marriage older than I am. I love sharing time with those who answer each other’s sentences and whose movements betray a choreography decades in the making. When death looms large, it’s good to take stock of what a partnership might hold. I remember being a bit nervous adding you to my meal train, but you showed up with soup and bread and salad and recipes. And when you blessed the food and the hands that prepared it? You spoke healing over us all.

Sometimes, a friend prepares a salad that meets each and every dietary restriction only to happily steal you away for ice cream. Ours was my first post-surgical joy ride and I am still grateful for your willingness to break the rules. Salad matters, but sprinkles are always worth it. Life is short. Let’s keep eating dessert first.

We didn’t invite many folks to join us at the hospital, because not everyone has a healing touch. But you came into the room and made yourself comfortable on my bed. You cut right to the heart of things when you took my feet into your hands. There’s a reason foot-washing is a Holy Week practice. Thank you for getting close enough to hold my pain, and for bringing the perfect socks to carry me through.

After reaching out for meal support, I remember the intention with which you showered each of your delicious offerings in prayer. The literal taking-in of the gifts we prepare for one another is both sating and sobering. We are one another’s keepers. And the wild rice salad you shared as a special treat? It has become a family favorite. Dishing it up, I am reminded of love both measured and freely given.

We met years ago in your Yoga studio where I finally caught my breath after struggling through a long sprint I couldn’t figure out how to pace. I don’t make as much space for my body these days—some healing is still too fresh—but the invitation you keep extending reminds me of the possibility of a sure return. Even as this long arc of recovery withholds both roadmap and timeline, I am grateful for the learning that keeps me apprenticed to the here and now.

Some people bring intimate knowledge of this cancer word and its many meanings. You were a familiar voice on the other end of the phone lifting up love and prayers, neither holds nor bullshit barred. What if all oncology nurses prayed and protested as fiercely as you? I love the unicorn popsicle mold you brought for our porch visit, but I love you more. Because you, too, were never shy to name this season for what it is: a mindfuck and mystery all at once.

Lady. Who do you call when you’re trying to negotiate a job offer while navigating a touch of cancer? You were out-of-town for the weekend when you got my message. Time is precious, but you shared yours anyway. We spent about 45 minutes on the phone, talking through the impossibility of timing and imagining all the priorities that change on a dime. You gave me courage to hold space for my many truths, however tender, however emergent. Your witness is part of how I claim just as much of this fallacious “everything” as I can stand. May we keep learning that we are always already enough.

Ours is a friendship born of a masters program that taught us to sit at one another’s feet and drink in wisdom too easily dismissed by systems and powers that be. We have crafted and storied and baked and walked and talked our way to a place where presence is optional. We couldn’t get our schedules to align in the thick of all the healing, but we didn’t need to. Your artwork that hangs on our walls keeps you close—each piece is a world in the making. Thank you.

I don’t know how to honor the hands that opened me up and took out something that proved to be so much more than we hoped for. I am living proof of the gifts you bring to the operating room, and to your teaching. Sometimes, we plant seeds of ourselves in others and watch our impact grow. You would have been more than enough, but you come with a posse of residents. Every time I interacted with someone you trained, they were there. Fully present. From the hourlong conversation about a surgery I didn’t understand to the practice of taking a knee to look me in the eye while I was in a hospital bed, I saw your heart at work. For knowing your own craft so well that you are tending to the next generation of those living into their calling, I give thanks.

There is nothing pleasant about an extended diagnostic period, but your office showed grace and love and kindness. And on the day of my surgery, when my chosen coping mechanism was a series of unicorn-themed shenanigans, you joined the party. I hope to not need your surgical skills again, but if I do, I will be in good hands that give in the taking. Sometimes it takes magic to make magic, and you showed up for morning rounds wearing a unicorn horn. Let’s keep this winning streak alive!

Y’all are way too experienced in all things cancer. I hate that you knew to make our first round of post-diagnostic gin and tonics super-human strong. When we sat on the porch and felt the world grow brighter and dimmer all at once, you said, “I wish this wasn’t a club you were joining.” But how grateful I was—and am—to find myself in good company. It has long been my truth that we won some kind of lottery to find ourselves as family. Your son is my greatest treasure. And y’all have my heart.

We met on an island several years ago and found ourselves in adjacent rooms, sharing a hall, a bathroom, and the stuff of life itself. I was recovering from another surgery at that time—foreshadowing is something else—and you were gentle and caring and kind. When I called to talk shop about all this diagnosis was requiring, you gently reminded me of some of my favorite things. Along the way, we remembered what is too easily forgotten: that we get to choose ourselves over and over again. This idea that we are the bread of life? A celebration.

They say that this is why you take vows and commit to the better and the worse, to sickness and to health. This has been a private reckoning, and you have partnered with curiosity and generosity. While the core of who I am and strive to be is testing what we know to be true, you are holding steady. This season wears on each of us differently, and I am grateful for a partnership that dances and sings. We have long known how to hold for a downbeat and to lean into harmonies that grate before they resolve. Yesterday, today, and tomorrow, then, is our solemn vow.

This was not the first time I didn’t tell you about a surgery until after the fact, but there you have it. Family is complicated and some things require more trust than we can muster. And so, you stayed in the dark for a while. And when the time came to walk together, you honored your place without complaint. There is wisdom in knowing what we can and cannot be to one another. Ours, then, is a work in progress. When so many of my beloveds were sitting in the thick of it with me, I am grateful that there was place and purpose set aside for life before death. In the many ways we are learning to be with and for one another, there is hope and healing.

This list keeps growing as gifts keep giving, some anticipated and announced, others unexpected and emergent. Even if this memorial recitation isn’t complete, I am letting go of the exhaustive in favor of the intentional. I am remembering enough to find my rest. I don’t always achieve the breath or balance that I seek, but this year has held more learning and unlearning than most. For love freely given, I name gratitude. For private revolutions paving the way to new commitments—to myself, to others—I claim victory over the grave.

July 30, 2020