Monday, January 3, 2011
Church of Lost Hats Sample of Eire
Stanford Children's Hospital
Writing is like opening a vein, a special teacher once taught me. He taught American poetry at the
. Professor Duncan McNaughton taught me that teaching is holy, and the alphabet is the most precious of all gifts. Writing is about finding a vein and drawing forth yourself: the best and darkest part of who you are, the red and lively flow of new truth. University of California
To him the poem was part of the human body. Nature was true to the poem, not the other way around, when a true vein was found by the poet. Dr. McNaughton was a nut. He didn't lecture; he went into bloody battle, taking no prisoners. He walked around the campus with a limp and a cane, and he smoked unfiltered Camels incessantly. His office reeked of smoke. He prowled the classroom like a wounded lion with his vague, sometimes disappearing limp; he was a veteran of unspoken battles, scorched landscapes, and beautiful poems.
"Do you feel like you're fighting for something?" I once asked him in his office hours.
"Truth," he told me, with his alcoholic grey eyes twinkling at my question. "Truth keeps the world alive."
"The world or your world?"
"Yes," he said with a smile, as he lit another cigarette.
You never laughed when Dr. McNaughton uttered the refrains that drove him as a teacher and as a poet. McNaughton taught me that teaching at its heart is about human presence and love. Knowledge follows love, which is the presence of origin. It has been this way since the beginning of time.
Long after I became a divinity student and then an Episcopal priest and writer, McNaughton’s words would stay with me as I searched my own veins for the truth of who I was and what it really means to be a man. With his help and presence, I found the lost memories I could never bear before his class. Before Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams, and H.D all had their private tutorials with me. McNaughton gave me the alphabet, the sacred tools of the scribe and priest. I had survived childhood cancer nine years before I met my professor, though you would never hear a whisper of this from me. My cancer began in the bone marrow and moved outward from there. I would find out that my American Poetry teacher was a cancer survivor as well. We even had tumors in the same places, the familiar patterns of an ancient sorrow.
Theologians say original sin is bigger than any one of us; the deep stain of being human in a fallen world. I don't know if this is true—and I’ve never been a fan of Augustine, but I do know that the boy I was found his own pain to be much older than his years. It was like the problem in my marrow began long before I was born. Mine was a new discovery of a very old pain. A poetry class unearthed my forgotten memories of chemotherapy, and I first wrote the golden notes of remembrance in my journal for the class. For my teacher of American Poetry, I wrote of my chemotherapy memories from Stanford Children's Hospital in
. I would pour before him a tour of duty through a lost childhood. The place to start, as I found while studying American poets, is always the beginning. Palo Alto, California
I sat on the examining table wearing a white hospital robe tied in the back. My right leg was in a cast that went up to my knee, so I could still bend it while I sat there. Both of the bones had broken in a soccer game. It had been the fourth grade boys against the fifth, but the ambulance had stopped the game for good because of me. My head was bandaged where the first bump had been found. The tumor had been removed by my family doctor, but I had been sent to Stanford Children's Hospital. I remembered how quiet the doctor became when he opened the bump. I had cancer. The word dug into my body when I said it to myself. It stung like an evil insect, its stinger working deep beneath my skin, seeking my bloodstream.
There was a doctor at Stanford who was going to help me. That's what everyone said. The doctor was talking to the nurse as my mother tried to give me her smile. My mother's eyes were red, and I had pretended not to notice that she was crying as we drove to Stanford. I could tell my mother wanted to have a cigarette. Later on she said we were going to see the football stadium at
. She promised we would go to the stadium after my first treatment. Stanford University
The treatment was called chemotherapy, a word I would hate more than any other in my life. I was surrounded by women: the nurse, my mother, and Dr. Ellis. The doctor was short and pretty with red hair and freckles everywhere--some of them so small that they seemed to just grow together in a smooth gold surface on her arms. I have lots of freckles too; my mother calls them angel kisses. Some angel, I thought to myself: more like a demon. Why me? I had asked myself that question a hundred times since I found the bump on the back of my head. I didn't have an answer.
"How are you, Nicholas?" the doctor asked as she sat down next to me on the examining table. “Or would you like me to call you Nick?”
“How are you feeling?”
“Ok,” I said. My throat was dry, and I coughed. I sounded like a wimp, and I imagined what boys at school would say about me in my gown. I felt like a girl.
The doctor put her hand on my knee, and I felt her fingers through the thin paper robe.
"Nick, if you stand up for me, I'll give you your first shot."
I looked down at my skinny legs because I couldn’t look at any of the women in the room directly. The nurse started to arrange a needle on a small steel table, and I started to swing my legs under the table for the hop to the floor. I looked at my mother who was starting to cry again. Go have your cigarette and leave me alone. Jesus, I'm the one getting the shot. Not you.
I wanted to yell at everyone, but I knew I couldn’t. If I did that, I would get in trouble on my first day at Stanford. I'm not going to do this, I thought to myself. I don't have to do anything. I felt kind of crazy--lightheaded like when I’m going to get in trouble for something that I can’t stop myself from doing. My mother says that I make bad choices sometimes.
I jumped to the cold floor, and then I got down on the floor and crawled under the table. I turned and put my back against the wall with the cast on my leg out in front of me.
"Shit, Nicky," I heard my mother say, and I was happy I couldn’t see their faces anymore. I stared at the three sets of legs. My mother had a run in her stockings, and the nurse had the fattest ankles by far. The doctor's were skinny and freckled like mine. I could see the angel kisses under her nylon stockings.
"Mrs. Geary, she doesn't have time for this," the nurse said. I could tell that the nurse was irritated with me. I sat very still and pretended not to hear anything.
"Nicholas, come out," I heard my mother say. The run in her stockings seemed to be getting longer. I turned my head sideways to look at how long it was.
"It's ok," Dr. Ellis told them both.
The doctor bent down to the floor and looked at me under the table. I was glad to see that she was smiling. The doctor sighed and got down on all fours like I had been. Her white doctor's jacket fell open, and I could see her white skin, like milk, and all the freckles on her chest. Like me she could fit under the table without hitting her head. She was small, and I liked her smell. There wasn’t any perfume like my mother used to cover up her smoking. Her smell was fresh and clean, and I wanted her smell to stay with me. I’m pretty sure smell is just as important to humans as it is to animals.
"Mrs. Geary, let's get some coffee," the nurse said to my mother. They walked out of the room, and Dr. Ellis and I were alone.
"Nick, are you afraid of your treatment?"
I nodded. I looked at her eyes, deep into them, and she didn’t look away. I can usually make people nervous that way, but she seemed totally calm and peaceful. I wanted what she had.
"It's going to make you better, but we won't do it if you don't want to. It's up to you, Nick. It has to be your choice. Nobody is going to make you do anything."
I could hear my mother talking to someone in the hall.
"Does chemotherapy hurt?" I asked. I could tell she was smart. I liked how pretty she was and smart too.
"I will give you a shot right here," she touched the back of my hand lightly with her fingers. "It will sting, but it will help you get better. You will get sick afterwards. The bump on your head is still very serious. You have three other bumps like that one, they’re called tumors, but they're on the inside. It’s very good that you found the bump on your head."
Earlier that day Dr. Ellis and two other doctors had asked me to take off my stupid gown that barely covered anything anyway. She had talked to them quietly as she felt my neck and under my arms and my privates. I had a feeling that she would have to do that. Her hands were soft, and I was embarrassed.
"Will the shots get rid of the bumps?"
"Yes, but I'll only do it when you’re ready for me to help you."
She had been holding my hand after explaining the shots and where they went in. I pretended not to notice. I liked her touch, and she didn't seem like a doctor anymore. She was like no one I had ever met, and none of my teachers would have crawled under the table with me. They would have started yelling right away.
"Are you ready to try? We can come back here whenever you want to."
We both crawled out from under the examining table. The nurse with the fat ankles still looked mad in the doorway, but my mother was happy to see me come out with the doctor.
As I leaned against the examining table, Dr. Ellis rubbed the alcohol stuff on the back of my hand with a small, white cloth. The nurse handed her a long needle, the longest I had ever seen. I had never gotten a shot in the hand before. Dr. Ellis smiled as she held my hand and found the vein under the skin. Her red hair was a little messed up from crawling around, and I imagined smoothing her hair out as she arranged all of the equipment.
She held my hand with her left and pushed the needle down with her right. A clear liquid went into the back of my hand, and I shuddered at the weird feeling. There was a funny taste in my mouth, like metal, which I’ve never tasted before. The nurse had put a rubber band around my head; so I would keep my hair longer, she said.
Chemotherapy, I said to myself slowly, touching each syllable with hatred. Some words invade you. The pretty doctor with the red hair was going to help me, and I tried to smile at her as the room began to turn and swim like I was underwater. I tried to be strong. For her. I was underwater, and the three faces of the women seemed longer than before. The three women weaved together as I looked at them through the waves.
The doctor pulled the needle out of my hand. As I watched the needle, I thought of my bad dream with the bees on my hands in the garden. I wanted to leave that garden forever, but my nightmare was for real. I threw up my breakfast, and I couldn’t stop puking, even when my breakfast was gone. Some of it hit the floor until the nurse put a plastic bowl with a curve underneath my mouth.
I did not see the football stadium at Stanford University that day, and I didn’t even ask. My mother explained that it was too far away from the Children's Hospital to visit, and I didn’t argue with her.
It's strange how going back to the beginning takes no time at all, once you go back to the beginning for the first time. The same way retracing a hiking trail goes so much faster coming back than first going out into the unknown. You're back where you started in no time. I have gotten better at going back to my two years of chemotherapy and radiation treatment at Stanford Children’s Hospital, but retracing those steps backward is never easy.
I didn't talk about my cancer for nine years until I enrolled in American Poetry with a professor I had never heard of. Teachers can be doctors of the soul, and doctors can be teachers of the body. I ran as far from these memories as I could. I ran as far as
West Point to escape the skinny boy at Stanford Children's Hospital. Dr. Ellis let me play baseball, but I could never play football. It was too dangerous. Baseball was perfect because I hid my hair loss under my team hat. Nobody on my team ever took it off to tease me. It's good to have a hat at tough times.
I went into remission, a word I will always love, when I was years of chemotherapy and radiation treatment. My boy's body would become a man's with the years. And one spring day, with the smell of cut grass in the air and the sound of sprinklers moving in their dreamy arcs, I would slip into the office of my family doctor. He was the man who had sent me to Stanford and Dr. Ellis, the woman who changed my life by sitting with a frightened boy under the table. And I would give the family doctor a medical history for admission to
West Point with a significant two year omission in my history. He would sign it in the busy hallway without looking at the vital omission, and I would walk into the afternoon sunshine of my hometown in the Central Valley feeling like a new person. Like I could be anyone I wanted.
Death had not chosen me, but something, or someone, had.
My high school girlfriend Annie would drive me away from the doctor’s office with my memories closed like a book. I would cover up those memories until the day I could find a vein on my own. Even though I was in love with Annie, I never told her or anyone else about the changes I had made in my permanent medical record. I was not then initiated in the rites of sacred poetry and the divine liturgies of the human soul. Annie Taylor’s beauty was enough that spring day in feminine reflection, the spell of first love and the charm of spring upon us. I was beginning my life for the second time.
A special teacher would stir me with the words I had always known, one by one a golden remembrance would come to me. But on that spring day in the Central Valley of California, I was on my way to the
with a clean slate. A second chance to live was before me. I was ready to begin my life as a man. In the fields of memory, no stone was left to mark the burial of my childhood, that chest of fear and weakness. I thought I was free. United States Military Academy