In March I had surgery on my foot. It was nothing surgery, doctor’s office surgery, bring your five-year-old and have her watch Madeline on your iPhone surgery. But then I developed an infection, and then that infection didn’t respond to antibiotics. Seven weeks have passed since the surgery, and my foot is nearly healed. But I am left with scar tissue and a lingering soreness, not to mention a wallet stuffed with receipts for co-pays and prescription refills, a bathroom cabinet cluttered with gauze and bandage boxes, and a ziploc bag of Chinese herbs called Four Marvels that my acupuncturist gave me and I kept forgetting to take.
The day before it became apparent that my infection was worsening, I met a friend for a sit. We were actually supposed to meet for a walk, but I wasn’t walking much then, so instead we sat on a blanket on the grounds of an old farm not far from my house. I complained about my foot and she listened. I told her that I was always in a bad mood, always tired and in pain, and always yelling at the girls.
“If I’m like this now,” I whined to her, “what will I be like when I get cancer?”
“Maybe getting cancer wouldn’t be that different,” she said.
“Except you can die from cancer,” I pointed out, feeling both guilty for my self-indulgent comparison and immensely grateful for my friend.
“But day-to-day,” she said. “Day-to-day it’s kind of the same. It’s unexpected, and exhausting, and you don’t know when it’s going to end.”
It was a luxury, and perhaps a foolish one, to think of my struggles in this way. But I would be lying if I denied that her words were the most consoling ones I’d heard in weeks.
* * *
This April was the warmest we’ve ever had in the hills. People rushed to their gardens with the unbridled enthusiasm of sea captains’ wives rushing to the wharf. Everyone I encountered was singular in focus: Can’t talk! I have to get home and turn dirt for potatoes. Someone arrived an hour late for my writing group and plopped down on the couch, breathless. “My peas are in!” Of course we all understood.
My peas were not in. As of this writing, they are still not in. I’m not even sure I am going to plant peas this year. Today I am not bothered by this fact in the least. But in April, when I was exhausted and in pain, all this precocious gardening was a rebuke to my disabled body. I could not join my friends in the garden, and so I did not want the early spring. I did not want greening grass and drying roads; I did not want to mark the end of mud and bare branches. Robert Frost tells us that nature’s first green is gold, but not for me, not this year. This year nature’s first green was taunt.
There are so many things I do not do with my girls. We don’t tend to chickens, and we don’t bake bread. We don’t knit; we don’t sew. We don’t have a horse, or even a dog. We have no tractor and no truck. But there is something we do, every single day. We go outside. And when we are outside, I let them do just about anything. I let them wade in knee-deep mud puddles and icy streams. I let them climb trees and crawl under bushes and follow paths we’ve never been on before. I let them pull leaves out of jammed culverts and scramble over stone walls. I will follow them just about anywhere they want to go. But when my foot was hurt I couldn’t follow them anywhere. I was in pain, it was hard to walk, and my fatigue was overwhelming. Every time we drove up to the house after picking up Grace from school my heart would fill with dread. I wanted only to get them inside so that I could rest. But they wanted to run. As soon as I unbuckled her car seat straps June would scoot out of her seat and into the driveway. And before I could pick her up she would run toward the beaver pond or the field and I would have to chase her and bring her back. I would yell her name and curse under my breath and feel my anger at her rise in my chest. I came to love the rainy days, the cold days when the girls wanted to run straight from the car to the porch and then into the mudroom where I helped them hang their coats and line up their boots before limping into the kitchen to see about dinner.
A few days after I started taking a new antibiotic, a thrice-daily horse pill that turned my stomach and drained my energy like an early pregnancy, the forsythia in our yard started to bloom. We have enormous unruly sea monster-like forsythia bushes all over our yard, and this year the blooms were bolder than they had been in years. They flamed against blue and grey skies, against greening grass, against the red of our picnic table where we ate dinners of peanut butter toast and carrot sticks and one warm night swirled eggs in juice glasses filled with dye. Right behind the house there are two bushes that have grown together into an enormous unkempt hedgerow. One afternoon their beauty was simply too much for any of us — even me — to resist. We walked around the house to investigate. I had an idea. “Wait right here,” I told the girls, and they did. I hobbled to the shed and came back with a pair of clippers. I clipped a small entryway between the two bushes and the girls crawled inside. They gathered the clipped and blooming branches and dragged them into their warren to use as fairy beds. I lay on the grass and watched them while they arranged beds for each other and for the fairies they were certain would be arriving after dark. I thought about my foot, and how much it hurt at the end of each day, and how I could not imagine that it would ever stop hurting. And I thought about that old Archibald MacLeish play, J.B., the story of a twentieth-century Job. In its final act, J.B’s wife returns to him bearing a forsythia branch. “I found it growing among the ashes,” she tells him, ” Gold as though it didn’t know.”
This is the truth: I didn’t have cancer. My life was not threatened; my body sustained no serious damage. I was in pain and I was tired, and I was disappointed in myself for the altogether lame job I did of keeping a positive outlook and visualizing my own healing. Perhaps I was too frightened by what my injury suggested: that someday — any day — serious illness or injury could come my way and leave me altered, could force me to find satisfaction and joy in a life that was also marked by compromise and pain.
But as J.B.’s wife tells us, the forsythia does not know about such things. And so that afternoon I rested on the lawn for a long time. I rested until the dropping sun began to light the blooms like a thousand yellow candles, my daughters’ faces bright in their glow.