Monday, September 29, 2014

Patmos, Mykonos and the Landscape of Cancer

It was hard, sometimes. In conversations aboard our ship with other passengers, talk would invariably come around to travel. Most of the people were retired and liked to travel. But when we told them of our cycling in France, etc., some would look at us askance and make well-meaning comments like, "What do you do for a living?" When first Mark, then me, said we are retired, it would be, "But you're way to young to be retired," or something similar.

There were many times when I wanted to say, "Look, we're retired for a reason. Mark has advanced stage prostate cancer, ok? We're doing a lot of traveling now because there will come a time - unbeknownst to us - when we will not be able to do this."

But I didn't.

Except a couple of times. Discreetly.

The first was after our incredible day in Patmos which I wrote about here. We were having an early dinner aboard ship that evening. Then, Nadia our cruise director told us there will be a "surprise." We surmised it would be Greek dancing, and Mark wasn't in the mood for that. We slipped away before dinner was over.

As we passed Nadia's desk, she importuned us to stay, saying we'd have time after dinner to go into town. Mark stepped outside. I leaned over to Nadia - whom we had grown fond of during the past few days - and said three words to her. Why, exactly, I said it, I don't know.

"Mark has cancer."

Her eyes found mine and she said, "Oh. Go. Go! I understand."

Why did she understand? What did she understand? That sometimes exuberance can assault the senses and almost mock someone who has a terminal illness? That sometimes, it's too much?

It didn't matter. She understood.

But those three words - "Mark has cancer" - unleashed a torrent of emotions in me as we walked off the pier and into the village. We saw Vera, our guide from earlier in the day. I had wanted to talk to her about something she had said in a quiet moment during our tour to both Mark and me, as well as privately to me. But she breezed by on a bicycle, saying that she was on her way to an appointment. Further deflation.

I tumbled into despair. I felt as if everything I had experienced that day, all the euphoria, was phony, a fake. We went back to our cabin where I proceeded to lose it. I don't remember a lot of what I said as Mark tried to comfort me, but I do remember saying, "It was like I experienced this euphoria, this happiness, then turned a corner and saw Death sitting there in a chair, smirking, blocking the sidewalk, not letting us pass." This has been a characteristic of so much of our life together since Mark was diagnosed: moments of euphoria, exquisite happiness and exhilaration with life and with each other contrasted with moments of sadness, angst and even terror over what we know awaits around some bend in the road that stretches before us.

Two days later, we were in Mykonos. The highlight of that day, believe or not, was seeing a pelican. We had been walking around "Little Venice" with its warren of tiny streets, and as we turned one of many, many corners, we saw a large pink pelican waddling its way towards us. Seemingly unperturbed by our presence as well as that of two other couples, it slowly wended its way into the tiny square where it began to preen itself, occasionally flapping its wings.

Mark was transfixed. He has long loved pelicans. When he took his first cycling trip to Europe five years ago and blogged about it, he named his blog Pelicanus Maximus. When he got his Serotta bike prior to going on this trip, he named it Pelicanus. We have a watercolor print of a pelican that we bought several years ago in Mendocino, California. But Mark had never seen a pelican up close and personal ... until that afternoon in Mykonos.

He was powerfully moved by the experience. For him, it was almost spiritual. An omen. A good one.

That evening, we had gone back to the ship for a quiet evening. We thought almost everyone else was in town. As we watched the fading sunset on the sun deck, George, the chief steward, approached us and asked us if we'd like to join a group of ladies for dinner. They were all older and single and had elected to eat on board (as part of their tour package) rather than go into Mykonos.

The dinner ended up being a delightful experience. Lots of good conversation and laughter.

One of the ladies was a very interesting woman named Kassia. She had intrigued me for the past several days. An American, she has lived in Florence, Italy for many years. I would guess her age to be around 75-80. She was always one of the first to go swimming in the ocean when we had that opportunity, and she always went barefoot around the ship. I also detected a sharp wit. I didn't formally meet her until a couple of days into the cruise, but once I did, I felt something toward her that I guess could be described as a "connection."


As we were sitting at dinner that evening, Mark told the story of meeting the pelican that afternoon. Of course, he didn't explain what a profoundly spiritual experience it had been for him. For some inexplicable reason, however, I got up and whispered in Kassia's ear that Mark has advanced stage prostate cancer. She looked up at me, nodded ever so slightly, then I went back to my seat.

The next morning, Kassia, along with others, sat at our breakfast table. Everyone was talking about what they had done the previous day in Mykonos. Mark briefly retold his pelican story and mentioned at the end that he saw it as an omen. At that point, Kassia leaned over to me and said, "Yes, it was an omen."

After breakfast, Kassia drew me aside and asked if I could spare a few minutes. We sat down and she proceeded to tell me that a little over 25 years ago she had a metastasis and was given six months to live. She decided, however, that she wasn't ready to die. But she would not "fight" her cancer. Rather, she began a program of alternative medicine and meditation in which she imagined herself holding and loving her cancer, this part of her that was diseased and injured. 

Kassia determined that she would love her cancer, much as she would hold and comfort a beloved injured child, rather than seeking to "defeat" it. "We," she added, "tend to say, 'I have cancer.' That's not correct. Each cancer is individual, personalized. I have *my* cancer and you have *your* cancer. Mine is a part of me and yours is a part of you. It is personal, not some generic thing 'out there' that needs to be fought and defeated."

"I would say this to Mark," Kassia added," but you are the one who shared this with me. But please feel free to tell Mark, and I'm happy to repeat my story." When I told Mark, he smiled and said, "Before every yoga class, I sit in meditation and imagine myself loving my cancer. That is always the intention for every yoga class." He had never told me that before.

I choose to believe that it wasn't an accident that we saw that pelican in Mykonos. I choose to believe it wasn't an accident that I decided to open up to Kassia and she in turn to me. I choose to believe it wasn't by chance that Vera was our guide that morning in Patmos. And I choose to believe that, in the landscape of cancer, one is sometimes led to sources of inspiration and knowledge, to teachers and healers. I choose to believe, because I know how I have felt in my heart when such serendipities occur.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, what a beautiful, tender, and touching post. Thank you so much for sharing it.

    Love, always.