Holding Emily’s Hope

Dear Reader, bear with me as I meander through this.

I admire physical therapists.  They spend time in colleges learning to heal people. With their hands and minds they teach you to go beyond your limits of physical pain saying, you can do this. This is your body, push just a little harder. They take your limb and joints into their hands and move them reminding your muscles, the sinew, lymph glands, blood vessels which direction they are supposed go. ‘You’re muscles want to remember how to work”.

It is painful. At least from my perspective, shoulder rehab hurts worse than cancer treatment. Really. No joke. Stop for a minute, pay attention — where is your shoulder? What is it doing? Now imagine the worst tooth-ache you can remember in the middle of that ball and socket joint. Now, move, reach for a pen and that ache burst into the feeling of a million paper cuts being drenched with lemon juice. It takes your breath. You know how you hit your funny bone and it’s not funny, multiply that by a bazillion.

The reason I say it’s worse than the cancer pain I dealt with is that shoulder pain is transient before surgery. Cancer pain came with plans and management. If this happens then do this. If that happens try the next. The docs at M.D Anderson understood my treatment plan so they knew the percentages of side-effects and meds to counter, even small suggestions of care to make basic bodily needs possible.

Recovering, healing, coping with my second and last shoulder surgery has been a private journey. It came fast with an opening in the surgeon’s schedule and I had time. Doing it before the year ended gave me 100% insurance coverage so no out of pocket costs to me for this.  My first shoulder surgery was before cancer, friends came by. I had time to put things in order, in order to be laid up for a month. Then there were friends who drove me to PT and called.

Nine weeks go by from this surgery, I find out I have rectal cancer. Cancer scares people.  Let me say this about that long road:  people did what they could, when they could and when it was done I was supposed to be me again. But I wasn’t. And then my left shoulder went wonky, no direct injury but I knew the first time I felt that particular pain while dressing that I was developing shoulder impingement. A few months of conservative treatment and two cortisone shots, which never have lasting effects  . . lots of tylenol because I can’t take NSAIDS or steroids.  . .and well, surgery.

And I do this surgery, not telling the entire community because people get sick of sick people. They want a new person to care for. They know your story and at this point they look at you like, ‘what the fuck is wrong with you?’ Our culture has little compassion for chronic illness. Mine is not chronic just bad timing. I knew this before scheduling the surgery because I’ve felt it.

My mother, from 1992 until she died in 2006, had a Whipple, lumpectomy for breast cancer followed by radiation, intestinal obstructions, adhesions in the pancreatic duct causing pain. I was her main person as my siblings lived far away. After a number of years of her needs, I was drained. . . she got a house person to help and this allowed me out of the caretaker role and more of good daughter. I was an OK daughter, no standing ovations.

This surgery, took away the energy I had for the outside world. It took my brave face. It left me, not with self-pity so much, but a bottle-up edginess that says, I don’t want to hurt any more.  Recovery takes everything even my poetry. I haven’t written a poem in what feels like months. I miss my poetry. My private internal voice. I miss my friends. I have a hard time driving and won’t drive on strong meds. I don’t remember when someone called and asked me to lunch. I’ve asked people. I’m recovering, spinning in a world that I had not choice but to make.

I’ve replaced my own poems with small poems I know by heart, the one I hear most often is Emily Dickinson’s hope is a thing with feathers . (I’d like to note that Miss Dickinson did not title her poems, she numbered them. This is the first line of poem #32 in some older collections.) In October last year I got to be outside her home in Amherst, MA. I’ve been inside but the museum wasn’t open. I photographed her window. The backdoor to the kitchen where she did the family baking. I touched the doorknob and collected small pine cones.

Emily has always seemed a whole person to me. As a girl I was given “The Belle of Amherst”,  the one woman show of her early life. First produced in 1976 staring Julie Harris, I memorized the book, I had been doing theatre by then.  The play was revised, I believe in 1999, and I got to see Miss Harris play Dickinson in an updated, age appropriate revival.  It was a childhood wish come true.

Now here I am with this body that hurts and I hold in my mind a thing with feathers for what is hope after all? Love is patient. Love is kind. Love does not love that alters when alteration finds. Some around me are saying ‘love’ but not kind, not patient. . .they want me altered back to who or what they think I was. “Faith without works is dead”, the book of James tells us. I’m working my faith because I believe in these people. But the quote being  of the New Testament makes me wonder how or if this sentiment is in Judaism or Islam. The saying comes to me when I do my meditation. . .faith that my sitting and envisioning compassion is the work. It is the work I can do just now with the body I have.

Hope, feathers. A thing light within me. Perching and singing a tune without words. Ah the poet has hope with sans language. And a dear friend’s birthday looms and I take out my paints and pots and papers. My collection of oddments like trading cards with birds and the hawk feather a friend gave me. I sit Sunday alone with my craft and fingers and feeling the hope this art will make. I have no words that feel authentic but I have Emily’s feather. I have butterfly wings from after they have set their eggs. I have a brilliant tiger lily and this memory of this friend with me in Amherst. This friend is distant for reasons I know, she doesn’t know I understand. And for her, for every laugh during that long ride to Houston, for every time she needed a place to come to cry and my door was open, for each stupid piece of junk we planned a plan for, for each and every stitch she made in my grandson’s quilt. . . I worked with the feather.

With this healing-hurting body. This fractured heart. This feeling of inescapable gaping hole in my days. I have hope. I have my thing with feathers. I have memories. I have a future. I have the tune and do not need the words. I may want, but I do not need.


That evening, the gift delivered and opened somewhere where I was not, I received an email. A different friend, from the writer part of my life ,said this after I sent her a photo of sunflower: “I can’t stop looking at this. Your eye is amazing. When I look at this I feel life.”

3 thoughts on “Holding Emily’s Hope

  1. Mary March 31, 2011 / 6:00 PMMar

    I’ll stand and give you an ovation… Is that the correct way to say it??? You are an amazing person, chick!

  2. melissa Shook January 28, 2011 / 6:00 PMJan

    damnation, I can’t believe that they took you apart again and left you in this level of pain….the rats…I won’t even hear that it was necessary and you will recover…damnation…I’m really sorry….nothing I can do at all, but send you a magnum of wishes that you do another painting, and another, and another and wait until the poems come back..
    much love…

  3. Christina Fajardo January 27, 2011 / 6:00 PMJan

    You are beautiful. I am honored to have you as a friend because I know that you get me as a strong woman, as an artist and as a human with faults. Enjoy your journey, sing to your new grandchild in turn teaching the secrets of the Universe to your offspring.
    I googled “The Myth of the Strong Woman” and found
    “The Myth of the Strong Black Woman” By Wambui Mwangi
    “It is really terrifyingly, astonishingly and ineffably well-crafted, this myth. Insofar as, so long as we are kept either desiring, or believing ourselves actually to be, Strong Black Women, there is no amount of pure nonsense, abuse, overwork, ingratitude, exploitation, underappreciation, and just plain shit that we will not put up with.”

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