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Fighting breast cancer; A Native woman's journal; REBUILDING THE SPIRIT

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Lucy is an old friend. She used to come to my house and make soup for me.

Standing in my little Portland kitchen, Lucia de la Luz, as she is properly
called, would stir a pot filled with chicken, spinach and carrots. She
would fold in a good dose of laughter and a dash of misery. She'd ask to
borrow my money; I'd give it to her.

I always figured a cure for cancer would someday be found, and my money was
on it being found in her soup.

Now I'm making soup of my own. And I am counting on its nutritional powers
to help prevent cancer from reoccurring in my body. It's cooking in my
grandmother's crock pot in my family cabin on Spirit Lake in North Idaho. I
am sitting outside, letting the arid breeze off the lake breeze caress my
skin and watching a bald eagle watch me from a sky-touching Douglas fir.

Eagle isn't used to me sitting on my stairs 50 feet below him. I am close
enough to differentiate among his feathers. A downy white one floats away
as he shakes and turns his face. Pale green eyes inspect me. He's at first
surprised, then irritated - not by the little birds whistling warnings to
each other of his presence, but by my cell phone ringing.

I am in a familial sacred place, in the heart of North Idaho and Eastern
Washington where I grew up. This is a land full of paradox: it's a pine
tree desert, where blue mountains feed lakes and rivers. The sun shines
without stopping in the summer, except for the odd thunderstorm. Although I
now live a seven hours' drive away in the Pacific rain shadow, I come each
summer to let the heat dry my bones.

I have the company of three good dogs and one ancient tabby. My little
white cat, Hope, a gift from Lucy, disappeared the day after my last chemo.
While my husband stays in Portland to work and look for the cat, I am at
this lake; a little heartsick, yet waiting for visitors. Some are winged,
others are carried as light on water; still others inhabit memory, both
remembered and yet to come.

I have retreated to this lake, my spiritual home since I was 4, to ready
myself for surgery next month that will remove my right breast.

The doctors say I must rebuild my blood from six months of chemotherapy
tearing it down. I say I must rebuild my spirit from six months of being
cooped up in the city, of doctors inspecting my body's sacred spaces, of
machinery peering at the secrets under my skin.

I have long believed that every sickness has both physical and spiritual
components. Healing has the same. I have also known since my diagnosis that
cancer is a transformational experience, a guise that change wears.

For some, the transformation is into another plane of existence. For me and
others, it's to another way of being on the earth.

I hear stories and read books about ancient ones who went through spiritual
periods of dormancy that led to great change. Some were thought to be dead;
others quested into the animal world. Still others had waking dreams.

For six months before my diagnosis, already feeling weak from the disease
in my breast, I heard the words: you're going offline. Off-line in the
technological generation to which I belong means being disconnected, shut
down and hidden from view.

I tried to turn back the prophecy. But I couldn't stop the change from
coming. The hardest part was stepping back from the busy-ness which I
mistook for life. If I wanted to live, I had to accept the generous offer
of medical leave, and rest.

The Coeur D'Alenes rested at this lake on their regular journeys from the
great falls of the Spokane River to the lake that now bears their name. On
weekends the seven-mile-long lake buzzes with speedboats and Jet Skis. On
weekdays the sky, water and forest are my quiet sanctuary.

Yet I am very busy with company that comes unannounced daily.

Hummingbird was the first. Alerted by the helicopter buzz of her tiny
wings, I turned to find her tiny, beaked face looking into mine. As though
in love, we gazed at each other for a while.

Later my husband spotted her nest, vacant since her babies left in the
spring. It's dried moss spun with silvery spider web, a tiny pinecone
affixed to one side.

An artist we met at a pow wow told us that if you talk Indian to
Hummingbird when she's looking in your face, she'll answer back. I'm saving
up some good words for her next visit.

Another day I found one of Eagle's feathers while clearing brush below my
family's cabin. Minutes later I touched my foot to what I thought was a
white mushroom. It was hard. My husband told me to pull, and I drew out of
the soft, dry soil a five-point deer antler.

Tonight I will gently wash the pine sap from the feather and soil from the
antler. Later we'll use the feather to bless the land, and hang the antler
in our cabin to remember how we share this lake's edge with so many
creatures.

Last night I went kayaking with an old friend on a nearby small river,
which I've paddled with her many times for fun.

Approaching River, I was different this time. Water's crystal clarity
showed off tiny granite rocks six feet deep, even while River's surface was
a long, broad mirror. River spirited me downstream over small rapids, past
downed trees, beneath random patterns that cedar waxwings traced in the
sky.

I was still floating in my dreams. I looked with X-ray vision at the deep
parts of myself. I can't tell what I saw, but I know that healing requires
knowing yourself and changes in your body before any technology possibly
can. It also requires taking medicines that the pharmaceutical companies
don't know how to bottle.

Now, as you prepare for your journey and I for mine, would you say a prayer
for Hope ... and hope for us all.

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 biweekly series. She is a former
president of the Native American Journalists Association and winner of the
2004 Award for Investigative Journalism. Contact her by e-mail at
briggskm@gmail.com.