The air is so hot I feel like I’m wearing it, my shirt thick with sweat. I’ve been walking since day 10 after my bilateral mastectomy. Today marks four weeks. In that time of healing, I’ve built up a lot of steps – miles really – and I’ve finally made the plunge to walk a trail.
It feels so right and familiar to walk on uneven terrain even far from home. There’s an added difficulty in that I’ve been dropped off here, so have to trust that my body will handle this much time without my bed close at hand.
I’m at Lebanon Hills. It’s an island paradise of forest and prairie surrounded by suburban traffic and sprawl, preserved only because it’s far too glacially carved up to have ever been much use as developed land.
Paths circle “kettles,” depressions created when a block of ice breaks free from a retreating glacier and becomes buried with sediment. When the ice finally melts away, a lake is formed. The “hills” have nothing on Maine, but striking in this environment, steep and narrow as a catwalk winding through thickly verdant forest.
My aim in coming here is not for the exercise as much as it is for the company. It might be the dog days of summer, but birds feel none of that enervation and sing brazenly from high up in the canopy. The cheeky whistle of an Eastern Wood-Pewee (seemingly singing its own name) is answered by the high pitch whistle/laugh of the Eastern Towhee. I look hard but never see either, just flashes of flight from above.
I’m spurred on by a crick forming in my neck and just as I look down, I catch a Leopard Frog leaping across the trail. “Hey you, that was about four feet!” To which he replies by hopping another four feet into deep grass. He pauses and I get a good look at his handsome spots and bulging eyes. I wonder what those moist, black monoculars think of me?
Small fields open up filled with flowers – black-eyed yellow Rudbeckia, showy pink Joe-Pye-weed and a bride’s bouquet of white Oval-Leaf Milkweed. Monarchs, moths, honey- and bumble-bees lazily float from one bloom to the next. Near the water, cat-tails thick as bratwurst sway as a Goldfinch alights, tweeting and trilling from his tightly held perch.
first “backpack” trip
I use my walking sticks and, for the first time, I wear a backpack. Don’t worry, there’s only a drink and a towel inside. Thankfully, the straps don’t come into contact with anything in the surgery zone.
When I saw my doctor yesterday, she said it’s time to start practicing carrying things. But I’m still very swollen. While my right is flat to the bone as if someone took out an enormous erasure and removed any memory of a breast, my left looks like a poorly implanted pec on a body builder. It’s bulging and hard with clotted blood. The doctor stuck in a syringe to see if she might pull some of the thickness out, but not a chance. All she could do was assure me the body will absorb it in time.
A cricket lands near my shoe, brown as the sandy trail. I move ever so slightly and up he goes, flying into the air on frothy-fringed wings, then landing in a bush, camouflaged all over again.
Yesterday was a bit of a turning point. Before seeing my doctor, we needed to drive south away from the city where suburbs give way to farms, rolling forest to flat-as-my-new-chest prairie. I had an appointment at the Mayo Clinic to see a Genetic Counselor to determine which test I would take to discover if I had any other cancer risks.
I will tell you this: it is nigh near impossible to get an appointment at Mayo, but once you somehow manage to get one, you’ll receive a dozen “pre-screening” phone calls that don’t seem to serve any useful purpose. There was one particularly unhelpful one two days after my surgery. A nurse we’ll call Martha checked in on me and asked what I had hoped to gain from my surgery. ummm, my life perhaps?
The Genetic Counselor is a huge step up from Martha and we get the counseling we need to pick the test we need then get the blood drawn so we can head back to the cities. I’m amazed my stamina held and that there were even flashes of normalcy so delicious, I forget for a moment I’m still recovering.
my favorite place is here, now
I am stronger, strong enough to take a few yoga classes offered by the city in a park down the street from where I live. My poses are a bit cockeyed, but today I could stretch my arms in front of me for down dog and even balance on them in a straight-armed plank for a few seconds.
At the end of class, the teacher had us lay on our mats in Shavasana or corpse pose and think about a favorite place we love to be – “The ocean, a mountaintop,” she suggested. When I opened my eyes to see bright green grass surrounding me in the shade of a maple tree, the Mississippi River Valley below and wooly clouds hanging above steep bluffs in the distance, I knew my favorite place I love to be – at least right now – was right where I was.
Above me on the trail is a lively song from high above, cheerful, coloratura and clean. It’s an Indigo Bunting, less indigo and more of a dusty cornflower. He streaks through the air, a blue blur before landing in low shrubs.
Buntings love to sing and he certainly won’t go quiet on account of me. It’s only a few seconds before he begins again and my gasp at the beauty of his musical gifts flush him out to fly right past me, showing off his agility through the air as if riding waves.
the lucky one
Even with my swollen side and the time it will take for my body to get back to normal, I know I’m lucky. Lucky we caught my cancer early and in a cellular stage, lucky we cut all of it out, lucky I don’t have to have intensive treatments, lucky I’m improving quickly enough to be back to hiking with my amphibian, floral and aviary friends, a backpack on my shoulders.
I’m lucky, too that backpacking taught me about patience and living in the moment, to let the day unfold and that everything changes. The other day I was feeling so tired and unable to do anything productive. When I told Richard I only wanted to walk, he said to just do that and trust the rest will come.
Cancer sucks and I hate having to deal with it. But it’s yet another trail to walk where all the lessons are on offer. I don’t feel like a victim and I don’t feel bitter, only that it was not the trail I would have chosen.
Most definitely not.
But I can’t do a thing about that and the only way to get through is to go through, so I surrender to what’s required and get on with it.
The Bunting’s flown deeper into the forest and I walk on kicking up dust as I move from shadow to sunlight. Just then, a Red-spotted Purple butterfly flutters my way. His blue comes in four shades, brightening as they meet the edge of his wing. He lands on my shoe for a moment, giving me only enough time to take a mental picture before he flutters off.
Lucky. That’s me.