I just finished a novel where one of the main characters survived the loss of a breast to cancer.
One day her granddaughter happened upon her in the bath, seeing the “still angry and red puckered flesh” where her breast had been.
“You notice that something’s different about me,” my grandmother said.
I nodded. I did not have the words, at that age, to explain what I wasn’t seeing, but I understood that it was not what should have been. I pointed to the wound. “It’s missing,” I said.
My grandmother smiled, and that was all it took for me to stop seeing the scar, and to recognize her again.
“Yes,” she said. “But see how much of me is left?” (1)
I’ve been trying to come to terms with what I believe is the reality of Bill McKibben’s assertion that “the chance that we will in fact leave to the future a world at least as rich in possibilities as the world that was left to us is nil. As in, not going to happen.”(2) That the world has changed in ways that can never be recovered. And that there’s actually nothing I can do about it. I have to accept it; I have to let it go.
Yes, says Grandmother. But look how much of me is left.
But I can’t let it go. It’s unacceptable. It’s unbearable. All I can see is the scar. To see otherwise feels like a betrayal, giving in. Giving up. Yet, is it a betrayal to let go of something that’s gone? Should it be mourned? Yes. Should it be remembered? Absolutely, in intricate detail, so our future generations will know what they aren’t seeing.
But what about that which is still left and which is still rapidly disappearing? How do I stop seeing only the scar and recognize my grandmother again? “Once something’s spoiled, it’s easier to throw up your hands and walk away, which will be the great temptation for us,” says McKibben.(3) Indeed, I have been so tempted. So tempted.
But I remember a quote by Julia Butterfly Hill that went like this:
“If you’re the only person left, as long as your hope is committed in action, then hope is alive in the world.” As long as any of us keep love, compassion, beauty, peace, the sacred…alive in our hearts and we do not walk away from that which is “damaged”, then these will remain alive in the world. And if enough of us can do this, maybe the cancer will stop spreading.
This is a poster of Deena Metzger whose work I often cite. It is available for purchase on her web site. She transformed her scar into a winding branch with leaves, grapes, and a bird. Photo is by Hella Hammid.
¹Jodi Picoult – “The Storyteller” pg. 365
²Bill McKibben – Essay “Something Braver Than Trying to Save the World” in Moral Ground – Ethical Action For a Planet in Peril, pg.175. Kathleen Dean Moore & Michael P. Nelson,eds.
³Ibid. Also see his book “eaarth – Making a Life on a Tough New Planet”