This Mother’s Day, I think about all the ordinary women doing extraordinary things for their family and themselves. For me, it is a time to acknowledge firsts: the first being divorced, the first with all cancer treatments done, the first pandemic, the first home schooling, the first time using my new name, the first where I feel most myself. And, poetry has helped me get here.*
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2017, and many times thereafter, I wondered where I had gone… where my life had gone. The changes were radical, sudden, and permanent. Traumatic illnesses, like cancer, leave us with a deeply felt sense of impermanence and brokenness: our bodies, our relationships, our mortality. I was cut, stitched, poisoned, and burned. The various endocrine medicines caused chronic fatigue, pain and extreme depression. My dad had died of brain cancer three days after diagnosis, and I divorced my partner of twenty-two years, right after my oophorectomy in early 2020. These were tough years, for my daughter and me.
Poetry may make it easier. Particularly suited to emotional expression, Poetry looks at painful experiences, too threatening to approach directly. Metaphor and imagery give voice to emotional undertones hard to put into words. And rhythm taps nonverbal responses, like music. Poetry may make it easier.**
Ten weeks ago, I completed a preventative double mastectomy with flat closure. I now feel most myself. But sometimes, I still wonder who I am, where I am going, when will I know. When I am not sure, I turn to poetry, or poetry finds me. I pour words onto paper, into the computer. In journals, on hand lettered drawings and collages. For me, poetry makes life through cancer and motherhood easier. Bearable. Breathable.
This Mother’s Day, I want to share realizations I came to about living through cancer while writing poetry. Now, I am listening to my body and embracing its response to my experiences.
Reflection: All my feelings are okay.
Trembling hands, I am afraid. Smiling eyes, I am brave. Spilling tears, I am angry. Breathing belly, I am hopeful. There's room for all of it. I walk around doing the day to day: The dishes, the laundry, so normal. I want to tuck myself into a ball-- Relinquish my bravery. Give in to sadness. I want to run miles, insistent on hope. I want to tell everyone what I am carrying. I want to be silent and not tell a soul. There's room for all of it.
Reflection: I can rest and let others help me.
Where did she go? The cool, crisp breeze spun her curls As she rode into the sun Into smiles of clouds She had energy for days Bent legs stretching, she looked at the hair on her toes She waved her wings and laughed Energy for days Where did she go? You are new Mommy, old Mommy My eleven year old tells me. Bruised breast, stitched and swollen Unsettled, unfamiliar exhaustion I ache for days Where did she go? My daughter looks in my eyes, Smooshes my lips with a kiss I am right here: new mommy, old mommy. (she is full of smiling clouds and waving wings) I ache. She knows what’s true.
Reflection: It is time to breathe.
The shower runs over my body, Water falling over five tattooed wounds where the biopsy needles punctured me. droplets wash away my fears, leave me with blame: childhood fear aluminum in my deodorant non-organic foods teenage cases of Diet Coke worry for my baby growing up in the madness of an unjust world. blaming myself for all of it. What did I take in? What caused these cells to grow? My body shivers under the warm water I try to wash it all away. (What good does it do feel guilty about past?) Water falls over my breast and its hidden cancer, Tempting me to fall apart. I watch droplets run along the curves of my body and breathe, and breathe again.
Reflection: I am beautiful.
I don't want to be angry about my head. It is mine. It seems possible to embrace its lack of hair as beautiful. It seems possible. But my gender is on display (the weakness of femininity) in the daily suggestions that I put on a hat, that my head must be cold, (just temporarily, don't worry--it will grow back) So much good will and kindness toward the poor, sick woman. Have you counted how many men have shaved heads because they are losing hair or lost it already, because they choose to remove it all? Have you counted how many people do not ask them if they are cold in 50 degree weather? Men without hair walking around with confidence without worry without compulsively covering their heads to ease someone else’s discomfort. Every time I am asked to put on a hat, to cover up, to hide my cancer I am reminded that chances are, you believe my beauty was lost (just temporarily, don't worry--it will grow back) I want to tell you: I can decide if I need a hat, thank you very much. This body is my own, I embrace my head without hair. It is possible to believe I am beautiful. I will try the next time I am asked to put on a hat.
Call to Action (We are Creative)
Wherever we locate ourselves in the cancer journey, in the mothering journey, we are creative. And our creativity is power. There are so many mediums: drawing, paint, movement, words, song. Let’s find something new in ourselves. I am here for you. Let’s create together. I am inspired by the words of Sharon Wylie when I need to know I am in community, in this new body, in this old Mommy/ new Mommy life.
May we comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. We are all afflicted, and we are all comfortable. May we be a comfort and a confrontation. May we find peace and invite tumult. May we invite tumult into lives of peace. May we find calm in times of restlessness; May we allow restlessness to evolve into action. Let this be the place you consider what you’ve never considered; Let this be the place you imagine for yourself something new and unthinkable. May life bring dreams of new ways of being in the world. (May we be unafraid to disrupt our own lives.)
*This blog was written originally for the Young Survival Coalition this Mother’s Day, but due to the COVID-19 budget, YSC is not publishing new blogs right now. Thank you, Jamie Larson for believing in my work and for the offer to publish it early on.
**Based on Will a Poem a Day Keep the Doctor Away? by Linda Wasmer Andrew, 2011
- Reading of Wet Wings: Poetry through Breast Cancer, Sharon Frances (formerly Chappell)
- National Poetry Therapy Association
- Found Poetry: Create with a Word Mover. Writing Found Poetry. Make a magnetic poetry set.
- List Poetry and Senses in Poetry
Featured blog image, Me by Sharon Sharon Frances (formerly Chappell).
Mental health is important. If you need support, contact MentalHealth.gov. You can also visit your local 211 website (in Orange County, CA ours is www.211oc.org). If you are in crisis, please dial 911.
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Sharon Frances (formerly Chappell), PhD, is the Executive and Artistic Director of Well Beings Studio. She is a teacher, breast cancer survivor, parent and artist.