Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Musical Healing

Round 1 Day 10
I had run out of gas and headed up to my room, pulled my 'day' sheet over me, and curled up into nap position. Mom brought up the mail and offered me Poetry magazine, The New Yorker, or a 6x9 white envelope with unmistakable handwriting and a return label from Penn Arts & Sciences. "I'll take that one!" I said and plucked out the envelope, squeezing it to feel a hard case. Hm!? Music from Natalie. Mom turned to pull the door. "Mom, before you go would you mind grabbing me that canvas bag by the bookcase? Thanks." 

I drew the "chemo bag" (a gift from Joanne) toward me and pulled out the CD player and headphones. Then I opened the envelope and the CD - Live from WXPN's The World Cafe with David Dye. I love the World Cafe. Always wanted to go. I took out Disc 1 and put it in the player. Then I read the note: "...tucked in liner notes is a CD of Dylan tunes performed by an amazing gospel choir..."  So I fished it out, "Dylan's Gospel" by the Brothers and Sisters. I switched up the CDs, imagining Dylan's gravelly voice singing, "But you're gonna have to serve somebody." I put a pillow behind my neck, and hit play.  Organ, piano, tambourine. Within 3 seconds of  the lead singing "The Times They Are A-Changing"  -- the tears started flowing out of me. Fast. I reached for the canvas bag again, knowing there would be - Yes! - tissues. Bless you Joanne. Then I wept. My shoulders shook. I was smiling, and crying.

Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’
There was an underlay of Dylan and high school memories and my best friend Natalie, and the overlay of everything accumulated from the past 10 days of the first round of chemo, during which I had not cried. Everything now released. For a moment I hoped my mother wasn't watching me through the crack in the door. For a moment I saw myself in some Big Chill type of movie. Let everyone see. I kept up the tears right through "I Shall Be Released." I remembered yelling out the window of my room in Soule Hall sophomore year, into the spring air after final exams, these same words:
...I see my light come shining
From the west unto the east
Any day now, any day now
I shall be released!
And here I was. Seeing my light. Bawling my eyes out. Healing from music. I may as well call it a "self-authenticating religious experience" (to borrow a phrase from Frederick Buechner). My shaking subsided, my tears slowed down, and I listened to the rest of the entire CD in gratitude, flooded with a sense of love coming at me from everywhere all at once.

Thank you Natalie for this gift of music. Thank you Joanne for my "chemo bag" with just the right ingredients. Everyone: check it out. Great music.

Monday, June 9, 2014


Most people, thankfully, are "chemo-naive" and will always be. Technically "chemo-naive" means you have not had chemotherapy. It's a clinical research term, for classifying subjects. You are chemo-naive, until you aren't.

But that first time, Round 1 Day 1, you still don't know how it's actually going to feel for you. Because "everyone is different" and may or may not experience some or all of the side effects. I called it Stepping Into The Void. You come home...not knowing. You sit, waiting for the other shoe to drop, waiting for the hammer blow. Cowering, basically. But I did write everything down, as was advised by a colleague who'd been through it before, so I'd at least know what to expect the next time. I even made a little data-table of side effects (I made a passing acquaintance with almost all the side effects), with Consumer Reports-like circles indicating severity. Overall, the best description I can come up with of what chemo feels like inside is "unbidden storm" -- some strange weather that presents itself in your bloodstream, clouding up ang giving a waterlogged feeling especially in your abdomen, chest, neck and throat.

I'm not naive anymore. My eyes are wide open. My friend Natalie passed along this etymology: "In Greek the word for poison and medicine is the same: pharmakon. Also related to sorcery and sacrifice. A heady stew of the most elemental human stuff and all working their magic." With the help of my Quaker Guides, and a book by Stephen Levine entitled Healing Into Life and Death, I practiced reframing my attitude towards the chemotherapy from "poison" to "healing medicine" which I openly invite into my body so it can be conveyed into the areas of need (See Meditation on Taking Medicine Within). I also have a nickname for my "port" (medical device inserted under my skin above my right breast, into which infusion needle is placed to deliver the medicine). I like to call it the portal. And, I worked with my friend Marilyn, who recorded a guided imagery meditation for me to listen to while getting the infusion (and any other time I want to listen to it). It incorporates images from my favorite places and associations, and carries me safely along while the medicine is coursing through my body.