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Life After

by Elizabeth Osta

I smile into the mirror as I pull hairs from my chin. Just a year ago there were no chin hairs to pull, all removed courtesy of chemotherapy. Now the blonde and white hairs work in gay alliance to form a fuzzy border, visible in the magnifying mirror. I remove them and breathe deeply, grateful to be alive, chin hairs and all.

I ask myself the question posed in Mary Oliver's poem, "The Summer Day."

      Tell me, what is it you plan to do,
      With your one wild and precious life?

I have been given life again, filled with all the same elements it had eighteen months ago when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Invasive ductal carcinoma.

As I think back, I feel tears that push at the boundaries, tears with which I have become so familiar. Tears, not of sorrow alone, but of joy at the abundance of life, its goodness and miracle moments.

Clouds float by. Out the window, I see the golden crown of the willow tree backed by a gentle blue sky. It's November with storm warnings and rain lurking about but right now clouds are dreamily moving by. Crows circle, dive and caw, their sound muffled by the glass window that protects me from the cold.

I know that cancer, like storm clouds, might be lurking still. But it's like the possibility of rain; its threat is something I choose not to give too much attention to. What purpose would it serve? It robs the present moment. "Live in the now," is what I'm advised to do by those who know, to savor, to taste, to remember.

I try.

I wrap myself in cozy clothes and stare out at life around me. I feel satisfied, filled with an abundance of love. I look out at the withering hornet's nest perched in the Hawthorne tree, its power diminished by time, its artistry a remaining wonder. I indulge in the luxury to reflect and remember other power that has diminished.

The call after two mammograms for the ultrasound. This can't be good, I thought. And it wasn't. Or was it? Can cancer ever be good? A case of hives accompanied the diagnosis and started visits to a round of doctors, all compassionate and caring. Katie, my chemo nurse, topped the list for bringing balance and a bit of insanity to what I had feared all of my life. Her own life story - a brother's suicide, a father's resulting alcoholism, a mother's murder, her own struggle with alcoholism - informs her work. She doesn't take anything for granted. Nor shall I.

When the possibility of this diagnosis arose only days after I returned from my ninth trip to Ireland, I immediately thought of breast cancer survivors: my sister-in-law, my cousin's wife, several friends, numerous acquaintances.

I chose not to remember Josephine, the aunt who died from breast cancer in 1947 at age forty-eight. Nor did I recall Aunt Betty who died on Christmas morning 1994, her breast cancer too progressed to consider treating. I did remember Aunt Veronica, who was treated with radiation and lived fully until age ninety.

Living fully, the sought after secret, the Rosetta Stone of life. Thoreau's Walden has taught me along with Victor Frankel's Man's Search for Meaning. Solzhenitsyn's images remain a life force from A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Literature full of hope and the overcoming of adversity fills me and guides me. It has always been so.

The chemo and radiation days spent nurturing myself were unusual for me. I was the designated giver, leaving no time for receiving, afraid of my unworthiness, unused to being doted on yet secretly craving it. After my diagnosis, my new job, I discovered, was to sleep and eat, to get iron levels high enough to avoid having to take the constipating supplement.

The Hallmark Channel brought me to tears that I needed to shed; books of inspiration given, afforded me the tools to retreat once again to the strength of words. I dropped out, stayed still. At times, I even felt privileged to endure discomfort and pain. Time to sink more deeply into the essence of life. To be refined in life's fire. Could I do it? Actually learn something from all the needles, medicines, sleepless nights, digestive discomfort, hairlessness, fear and dread?

New clouds chase across the blue sky. Sunshine lights up the wispy willow, black crows perch in the branches. As the sunlight shifts into shadows, I feel light and alive and oh, so grateful, and I wonder am I the same? Have I been refined? Renewed?

I don't know for sure.

Perhaps it's too soon to tell. Maybe I will never know. What I do know is what I will do with my one wild and precious life. Savor it. Absolutely savor it.

Elizabeth has been writing since she was a child. She has won numerous awards for essays and editorials. Her work with children and teachers around issues of special education gave her an early chance to look at life when it doesn't conform to what we call 'normal'. Her closest friend has been a cancer survivor for twenty-five years. Elizabeth is currently publishing a book on her great grandfather's survival of the Irish famine.