I bought a portable stand up desk last week, part of a series of actions I’ve taken to manage the bouts of pain associated with my damaged tailbone. It came, as so many of our household accessories do today, in several pieces, along with various sized screws, bolts, a small (highly ineffective) screwdriver and a set of instructions. Instructions I tried my best to follow, since I tend toward the “plug and play” mentality and have, on numerous occasions, put together various sections of Ieka furniture backwards before reading those instructions with a more careful eye.
Although compact, the desk took longer to assemble than it probably should have. I made several trips to the garage to find other tools to help me put it together, since the small disposable screw driver was only minimally functional. But I finally succeeded, and the desk sits in my home office, providing me with a way to vary and relieve the pressure of sitting while continuing to work.
Unlike “assemble-it-yourself” furniture, life doesn’t come with a set of instructions. I remember devouring Benjamin Spock’s books on child-rearing when my first child was born, but a year later, quickly discovered that what worked with one baby didn’t necessarily have the same results with the younger one. Several years later, as I was “getting” the hang of marriage (or so I thought), my marital status changed so quickly from “married” to “separated” to “widow” introducing an entirely new set of life circumstances, the best I could do was “play it by ear.” It all worked out, of course, but then my daughters’ adolescence turned my apple cart upside down again, and I discovered life rarely remained neat and tidy for long. Fast forward another ten years, and a diagnosis of early stage breast cancer did more than interrupt life; it changed mine forever.
In her poem, “There’s Not a Book On How To Do This,” Sharon Doyle reminds us that a cancer diagnosis, like so many of life’s difficult chapters, does not come with a set of instructions. Sure, there’s treatment, but our lives are entirely disrupted and forever altered. We are left to figure out things ourselves, hopefully with a little help from our friends and family, just what to do with this changed life. Doyle uses the act of sketching the composition of her fall garden as a metaphor for creating new life and beauty after cancer:
There’s not a book on how to do this,
but there is an emphasis on composition.
The trucks that slug by under our window
hold trombones, mirrors, dictionaries.
It’s not my fault they invade
the calm of trees like cancer. I
don’t have cancer anymore…
…I rarely remember the
uterus I don’t have. One of my sons said,
“You were done with it right away, right, Mom?”
I guessed so…
Doyle plans her garden, but in the process, lets us see how loving gifts –family, birdsong and flowers–offered hope, recovery and are symbolized in the design for her garden. As the poem concludes, the design is completed, but among the flowers and colors, she leaves space to celebrate life:
I left vacant fourteen
trellis lightscapes for
(from The Cancer Poetry Project, p. 52)
This week, think about your cancer—or another difficult and challenging–experience. It’s unlikely you were handed a book of instructions for any of it. What helped you navigate an altered body, a changed life? Where did you find the resources, the knowledge, that offered you hope and new life?