I begin my school year with active lessons and immediate responsibility.
My freshmen, eager and shy, respond to my idea of improvisation by presenting scenes from their summer reading. My juniors, reserved and curious, share "me-bags," each containing at least five important items from their lives. I participate too: a photo of my family, a book I've been reading, a small sculptured bicycle, my journal, and my Scrabble set. My journalism students divide into groups and brainstorm articles for the first issue of the school newspaper.
My classes and I begin to share a common breath. We move onto in-depth units. My freshmen read Of Mice and Men and we put George Milton on trial for the death of Lennie Small. My juniors study immigration by creating family trees, sharing ethnic foods, and reading selections from The Jungle. My journalism classes conduct interviews and gather opinions, take pictures and write articles.
Like a fruit smoothie, September blends into October: satisfying flavors, easy to digest.
The autumn faces of my students emerge: scarlet-brilliance from the sturdy oaks, steadfastness from the evergreens, yellow-sunshine from the maples, and motley-mixes from the sycamores. I feel like an American elm, hardy and hale, unaware that my leaves are about to fall and scatter.
January crashes into me with the force of an avalanche.
The doctors say I have breast cancer; I need surgery to remove the tumor, then chemotherapy, followed by radiation. My breath freezes; ice seeps into my lungs. My students listen with winter faces as I explain how I had found the lump, met with a surgeon and then an oncologist, and planned a course of action. I'll be out for a few weeks, I tell them, and when I return, I may not look the same. I try to reassure them while bolstering myself against the unknown. The mighty tree is shorn of its leaves and shivers in the cold, but is not alone. Cards and letters, flowers and food flow into my home, warming me, and helping to melt my fear.
On the first day of spring, the daffodils arrive. Proud green stems sprout yellow trumpets, which blossom and cheer me on. But I notice as they die that they cry yellow on my kitchen counter. And as I throw them away their stems snap hollow. And I think about daffodils, the American Cancer Society's symbol of hope; then I think about being hollow. The surgeon hollowed out a portion of my breast. Nothing remained, and I hope that is true. I wonder about that place, that empty space in my chest. Music is made through hollow instruments. And a squirrel finds refuge in a hollow. When we see two majestic mountains and the land between, that too is a hollow, a place of peace and safety. I think about the cards I have received and the kindnesses bestowed, the phone calls and the emails and the visits and the poetry. And I know that my hollow is being refilled with music and bells and chocolate and chimes.
An oxymoron: April and chemotherapy. When I am able, I go into school and work with my students. Spring faces: sun-nurtured and nature-kissed. Their energy channels through my veins displacing the Cytoxan and the Adriamycin that have infiltrated my body. Like a budding tree, I awaken to new life. Amazed, I smile through my day, thankful to feel complete and whole, a part of something grand. The compassion of my students and colleagues sustains me through June.
"I admire your courage and ability to face each day with a positive attitude," my student Suzi writes. "You have taught me so much, not just grammar and literature, but to have a strong will and always try my hardest," writes Sara. And Greg says, "I've learned to stay strong and tough through every challenge in life and never give up."
In July, I receive radiation. To keep my positive energies flowing, I learn pranayama, a breathing exercise. I practice until prana (power) fills my body. I feel my chest expand and my world enlarge. I slow down and live through each breath, not because of each breath.
August I claim as mine. My treatments have ended and school is weeks away. I surround myself with those who share my joy: my husband, my children, my family, my friends. I attend a writing retreat where a colleague includes me in her poem: "You are what life is about and life renewed." I throw off my scarves and my wig and dive bald-headed into Duxbury Bay, then sit invigorated on a dock and watch the sun tease the water. Pedaling down unpaved paths and up steep hills, I explore Block Island by bike from the Mohegan Cliffs to the Northern Light. I spend a fortnight at the ocean. Strolling the crescent beach, I write my fears in the sand and see them sweep out to sea. Soon, I will re-immerse myself into school, but for now, the air breathes through me, and I turn my face up to the sky.
Five years have passed and I remain strong. My chest x-ray no longer reveals scar tissue. My blood is not anemic and my platelets range normal. Even though my breast looks as if maniacal scissors have ravaged it, it is still a part of me. My scar jags deep along my cleavage so that I can no longer wear low-cut dresses, bathing suits or tank tops. Perhaps, as time goes by, I might consider the assaulted area as dimpled. But I must be grateful. A decade ago, my breast would have been lopped off. Years from now, a laser beam will have pinpointed the aberrant cells and destroyed them.
My right arm still tingles from the operation that removed and tested 19 lymph nodes (all negative), so I do weight-bearing exercises to increase muscle mass. When I bike or workout, I wear padded gloves to absorb the pain. What's amazing to me is how many people poke or stroke my arm, just matter-of-factly. I've learned to endure that joy-buzzer vibration without jumping out of my skin.
I also remember to breathe. Like when I'm twelfth in line at a traffic light, or when a student asks for a bathroom pass at a critical point in class discussion, or when I've shared my thoughts and received hard-to-swallow criticism.
At first, my hair grew back dark and curly. When it was at the crew-cut stage, I rue that I didn't have the wherewithal to streak it pink or spike it yellow. Perhaps, as my sister-in-law Donna says, I was preoccupied.
Taste has taken its time to resume. My favorites, Junior Mints, so creamy and smooth, make me gag -- even when I see the box. Tuna fish, once a necessity, causes nausea. Discomfort foods are what I call them now.
Many students who saw me through my ordeal still keep in touch. Whenever I see them, their faces smile as if their team had won the football game or their dance company had scored gold. They are thankful that I am alive (as am I), and every time Kevin or Mike or Zach chats with me about his future plans, or my sweet coterie of girls shares her goals and dreams, I am infused with youthful energy.
My family and friends both forget and remember. They too have met mountains and have climbed them, or have tumbled and slid, fallen and soared.
Last September, I bought 100 daffodils from the garden club and planted 75 (25 wait in reserve). Today they line my picture window, surround my mailbox and like Jericho, trumpet proudly around my yard. When I walk among them, I hear their birth song, how they had struggled upward, mixing with the earth, connecting with the air, gulping life, then emerging whole.
When a florist handed out daffodils recently, I accepted one. And to my astonishment I said out loud, "Thank you. I am a cancer survivor." I have preserved that flower. Every day it reminds me of who I am, where I have been and where I am going. "Ruth," it says. "Carpe diem: stay alert, live determined, be stout."
My hollows have filled with hope and light, and I have become a daffodil woman.
Ruth Weiner, a recently retired teacher of English, lives in Massachusetts with her husband of 37 years. She enjoys writing, bicycling, and babysitting her grandchildren.