Walking through a cemetery for exercise wasn't my idea.
Since January - when I learned that I was suffering from a life-threatening
disease, breast cancer - I have been rather circumspect about places the
body goes to after the spirit has passed over. But when my friend Janet
suggested an after-dinner stroll near her apartment, I didn't think to ask
The century-old cemetery is three blocks from Janet's apartment and holds
more than a thousand of the dearly departed, who enjoy easy Interstate
access and views of glacier-capped Mount Hood. And they enjoy something
even more surprising to me: the living.
For a Tuesday evening, the place was packed. Minivans parked along the
curving lanes. Children ran playfully among the graves looking for
relatives' names. More graves than not were decorated, mostly with the
season's first roses and peonies.
I was feeling in step with spring, myself. My long black tresses, lost to
the first round of chemotherapy, were resprouting. Just shy of one-quarter
inch in length, my hair was longer than that of singer Sinead O'Connor's
when she sprang bare-headed from the Emerald Isle in the 1980s and shorter
than that of a buzz-cut Marine.
Under the warmth of the setting sun, I was ready to bare my scalp, if not
"Take off that hat, missy," Janet called out, "and everyone will know you
are from the Pleiades."
Please, this was coming from the woman who has a Star Trek communicator
painted on her hand drum. I ripped off my hat.
Living - for almost six months now - with cancer and its many treatments is
putting me in touch with elemental parts of myself. They are what Cayuga
actor Gary Farmer calls the "clown within."
Farmer is famous for his 1989 film "Powwow Highway." Last year he played a
tribal leader in NBC's "West Wing." But before he was one of our
better-known First Nations actors, Farmer studied the European tradition of
Being a clown, a fool, a joker is among the oldest of human roles. Yet
Farmer told me that a surprising number of people say clowns scare them.
"I think it's because the work comes from such a deep level," he said.
One of the exercises Farmer had in clown school involved acting out the
emotions of taking a lover to catch a train, knowing that he or she is
going away forever. By going to the depth of human experience, clowns learn
to strip their emotions down to the innocent core.
I wonder if all cancer survivors are secretly enrolled in clown school.
Cancer, or any other life-threatening disease, knocks us back a few pegs,
maybe to the innocent who faces death like a child: "If I die before I wake
A woman at chemotherapy cheers me up after a bad medicine reaction by
telling me how the drugs swell and contort her face in the morning. I can't
tell you now why I laughed, but her jokes detoxified the room.
Comedians like Dick Gregory or Charlie Hill also start from a base of
tragedy, and spin from it laughter.
"You get a bunch of Indians together, they're always laughing," Farmer
said. "I go back to my rez, and I'm burying my friends every week. Everyone
is sick with cancer, with heart disease, with diabetes. But you go home and
everyone is happy and laughing like hell."
I tell Farmer that I lost my humor about chemotherapy when I started
calling it napalm. He laughs. He says that's a deep vein to mine. The veins
in my left arm, the ones that take the chemo IV, ache.
During a checkup, the surgeon is on autopilot, talking about mastectomies.
I want her to hear my fears. I fumble for her attention.
"I'm not going to be on CNN, am I? Like uh, Terri Schiavo?"
The surgeon laughs nervously. Am I the fool, or the professional
interviewer with more than 15 years of experience in getting people to
In traffic, I pantomime to my aunt that I'm rolling down the window. I say,
"Excuse me, I have cancer and I need to be in that lane." Amazingly, the
other driver, though he couldn't have heard me, drops back to let us in.
On the elevator to my sixth chemotherapy, a woman admires my hat. "They're
great for bad hair days," she says. "And for no-hair days, too," I say,
surprising myself with a new willingness to face my hair loss publicly.
A Tlingit friend, who just learned that his bone cancer has metastasized,
opens the door of his Anchorage apartment to the Federal Express man. My
friend isn't sure who sent him the box. It contains a Hawaiian lei. In an
e-mail he tells me the tropical fragrance is permeating his apartment, and
he is eating strawberries to complete the reverie.
My mother's generation grew up learning to play the clown with the solitary
tear painted above a frown. If then were now, our cancers would be secret.
Spasms coursing through our organs would go tearlessly. We wouldn't remind
doctors that, like cats, they're no longer considered gods.
Now we are painting our own clown faces, using original designs and finding
our own voices. My design involves a glittery, green butterfly. My voice,
I'm still finding.
New York illustrator Marisa Acocella Marchetto, who calls herself "Cancer
Vixen," published in Glamour a six-page cartoon about her diagnosis and
treatment for breast cancer. She dubs her mother "Smother," and draws
biopsy needles in their actual size. She recently told The New York Times,
"It's all about laughing in the face of death."
I don't always laugh. But during my MRIs, after all the technicians leave
the room, I sing, and not particularly well. That's the job of the clown,
"The clown has the ability to give way, to allow the world to come to you.
The clown says, if you open yourself to it, the world is a happy place."
Kara Briggs is a Yakama journalist from Portland, Ore., where she is
currently on medical leave from her job at The Oregonian. She chronicles
her battle with breast cancer in this bimonthly series. She is a former
president of the Native American Journalists Association and winner of the
2004 Richard LaCourse Award for Investigative Journalism. She is interested
in the experiences of readers who have had cancer and also remedies,
cultural practices or unusual treatments that have helped them. Contact her
by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by mail through Indian Country