|Forest Sangha Newsletter||January 1998|
A Slice of Life
Kathryn Guta, a close associate of Abhayagiri and the Sanghapala Foundation, worked as a nurse. Then one day, noticing some small marks on her arm, she went to see the doctor..."Take the valium, you'll feel a lot better."
Dr. Erhart dangled the vial of pills in front of my eyes. I felt a small pop in my chest like my heart was deflating from this well-meant offer. "Thank you, but I don't want the valium I want to know why I was never told of my malignancy nine years ago when I came into this office." I knew I sounded condemning using language like that yet I really did want to understand why. I had once been warned by a meditation teacher never to ask or answer `why questions' largely because they were unanswerable questions. "Why is the sky blue?" "Why was I born?" These questions tend to make the mind spin round and round without getting to the bigger issue of how blue the sky actually is and what is birth after all. I forgot this warning and all I could think of was "why, why, why" and who was to blame. The force of habit led me to blame myself. Someone had to be at fault.
Yes I was regressing spiritually. I was secretly happy of that. I hated anything that made people superior, and spirituality was sometimes worn as a badge of achievement separating rather than connecting people. I hated that, but couldn't deny that I had done it too. My body cried from every pore, from every soft surface and hard angle: "Please take care of me. Enough of your spirituality." I had spent nights up till dawn in meditation. I had awakened early with sleep still in my eyes. I had endured cold and heat and scorpions and insects. All, I supposed, to toughen me for this moment of a diagnosis, a cancer diagnosis. Being a nurse and knowing my family's cancer track record, I could hardly be surprised when the three tiny dark flecks that appeared on my arm. The three wise men I called them, when they stayed to impart a teaching. All great teachings are received with dread. I knew this. I had always wanted to bargain the great teachings out of my life and this was no different.
The point is to feel, to live life in the pores of the flesh and the marrow of the bone. Yet I hate it when its bad.
My arm pains me now as I write this. My fingers are stiff and difficult to
use. I wonder how I will work. How will I work when I need my hands to work?
How will I support myself? What will I do? I loved to swim, to dance and walk
around the Marin headlands all day. What would I do? I can't deny that
somehow behind the horror of this catastrophe, I wanted to die. How strange.
I understood then that my mind was excited by this new terrain yet my body
was kicking and screaming resisting every second. Bodies don't want to die.
You only have to observe an ant in trouble to realise that. Minds can look at
death as some different type of vacation. Club Death. Nothing to pay for an
eternity of bliss if you played your cards right in this lifetime. My body
was singing all the while a very different tune. It wanted to be hugged and
caressed and told everything would be all right. All right? Can things be all
right when you are dead? The body ceases to exist when it is abandoned by the
mind. Perhaps it is the ultimate abandonment. The mind can careen through
galaxies yet the body turns to dust in a matter of weeks or months. In the
Thai jungle, corpses explode into a gooey mass in just a few days.
"I was going to get my hair cut but why bother."
There again another 'why?' question. My mind amused me. The thoughts were cascading and ricocheting in its canyons. One moment I felt guilty that I didn't take better care of my body and then I remembered that I took better care of my body than anyone else I knew.
I was grabbing moments as they came to me. Walking down the street I noticed how blue the sky was. I didn't ask why. I grabbed that moment and realised that there was absolutely no problem right then. It was only in my mind that the chatter continued.
"Take the valium" the doctor had said. "Melanoma", the pathology report had read. I read the report thoroughly studying it like a lawyer with a brief reviewing it to find some flaw, something that did not fit. There it was: recurrent melanoma. If it was recurrent, why was I not told of it nine years ago when I had first gone to the doctor noting a change in a mole? Guilty! I requested and got the slides of my skin. I carried them home in a plastic case in a manilla envelope under my arm. Exhibit A. I wanted to see the slides for myself. Not that I doubted the diagnosis. It was just that the story did not fit. I was going about things in my usual logical manner. I was not calm. I was not unafraid. I was only gathering all my intelligence to apply it to the problem. Later I could afford to fall apart. Now I wanted to understand what had happened. I wanted to see the slides for myself.
My mind travelled to India to the cremation ghats at Benares. Rather, my
sense of smell remembered the acrid smell of human flesh burning. There's
nothing like it. One night I took a river boat out on the Ganges. Coloured
lights outlined the boat. It looked happy like a party boat only it took you
down the river for a visit to Club Death. As I passed each funeral pyre, I
pressed my hands into the railing and tried to continue to breathe as the
smoke filled my lungs. Some day this would be my fate. 'Know this now,' I
It always seemed to me fundamentally unfair that no matter how much spiritual practice I do, I still feel like hell a lot of the time. I guess I thought that practising and understanding something about the true nature of things would cushion me against life. This is not true. What is true is that I feel things more. I feel better and worse than I did before I undertook this path. I feel ripped off. I wish there were warning labels on these meditation practices. 'Caution, you may feel better or you may feel worse.' The point is to feel, to live life in the pores of the flesh and the marrow of the bone. Yet I hate it when its bad. I won't try to be philosophical about it.
I had one week of hell. Walls pressed in against me. Then I woke up on Friday morning and I was peaceful. I understood the fruits of practice. I cried in gratitude. I understood that cancer may be with this body to the grave but I could make friends with it. I could understand cancer. Cancer could have its place in my body. I always saw a clear distinction between cancer and not cancer, between those with cancer and those without. Now I only saw grey areas. I am the same person I was before cancer. In fact I may have had cancer a long time without knowing it. I am not different yet I am fundamentally changed by this news. I feel no escape yet I'm not unhappy either. I want to work it out with this demon cancer.
Two doctors said I had a poor prognosis. They seemed certain. The third said
he didn't know. How I grabbed onto those words. I wanted to unfurl a banner
and march through the streets yelling: "He doesn't know. He doesn't know."
People tell me how difficult it is not to know; how much better it is to know
even if it's bad news. Sure it's hard to live in uncertainty, but I'd take it
any day over being presented with a dire, hopeless. statistical prediction of
the timing of my demise. Of course we all know the death rate is 100%. For
those of us presented with a life-threatening diagnosis, this ceases to be a
concept. It is felt deeply in the pit of the stomach. It's hard to forget. To
remember then that one never really knows when one will die feels wonderfully
relaxing. Furthermore, it's the truth. Two years ago I bundled my perfectly
healthy brother, his wife and three kids onto a plane and they never got to
their destination. "Plane crash, Kathmandu, terribly sorry, all are dead,"
the man from the State Department said in an early morning phone call. 'Don't
know' is a gem holding within it the truth that life is uncertain. It leaves
room for magic to enter as well. I don't worry about retirement now. I had
feared I might die living on the streets as a bag lady. Now I feel the
support of my family and friends and I know I am alive right now only from
their generosity. I have become a receiver. This is a different role. I have
become a giant receiver, bigger than the radio tower on top of Twin Peaks,
because there is no other way to sustain my life. This is not logic speaking,
This is wisdom carried in my bones from the bones of my ancestors. The two
supporting wings I felt sprouting on my shoulders at the time of diagnosis
have been nurtured and tended to by many loving hands. I feel I am being
carried by kindness. I hope I never again doubt that I am loved.
My patient and friend Michael told me: "Don't think this melanoma has taken anything from you. It has given you something more. It has made you greater." I looked into his freckled face severely darkened with KS lesions and saw his eyes were as bright as a bluebell flower. I could not doubt that what he said was true.
Kathryn has subsequently recovered
from the diagnosed melanoma.