Updated: Mar 22
It has been four years since my cancer diagnosis. In 2019 I published Bird's Eye View, my book about my cancer patient experience (among other things).
Since then, I have been contacted by many women who are awash with fear waiting for their own mammograms or breast biopsies, or the unlucky ones who have received a breast cancer diagnosis. I welcome these connections and I hope that I have been able to listen more than I have offered platitudes. It is important to find soft spots to land.
Just this past year, a family member, a work colleague and a former colleague all were diagnosed with breast cancer. I purchased Kyo Maclear's brilliant book Birds Art Life and mailed it to them. It is my go-to book when things get hard.
Here is an essay about Birds Art Life that I wrote pre-pandemic when I was waiting for my own cancer treatment to begin. We are all waiting now for the pandemic to end. I wrote it before I knew I would write a book about cancer, too...and yes, my book has the word 'bird' in too.
Birds Art Life is about healing. We all need to start thinking about how we are going to heal from this pandemic, even though it is not yet over. Birds Art Life might offer you some peace and comfort in the meantime, to survive this awful limbo that we live in now.
My husband, son and I live in an eight story condo and have a hummingbird feeder on our terrace. We are also the only unit that gets the papers delivered every weekend. In those papers, I read all book reviews. Naturally (check out my last name), I was drawn to a review of a book called Birds Art Life by Kyo Maclear. I fed my online book shopping addiction and this memoir appeared in my mail slot a few days later.
This is not a review but a testimonial. I have accumulated many cancer books over the past long weeks, but they are piling up on my nightstand, none having caught my fancy. Many talk about fighting, battling and conquering and I’m not feeling that all that aggressive right now. I’m just quietly waiting.
This tale about birds is not about cancer, but it is the medicine I need right now. Maclear’s themes are: Waiting. Lulls. Not Working. Time. Noticing. Motherhood. Learning. And of course, Birds.
The other day I went to look for birds, which are plentiful now at Burnaby Lake, about ten minutes away from home. I drove past the film studios, deep into a typically-Burnaby industrial area before turning onto Piper Avenue towards the lake.
The usual human suspects were there: a young dad rounding up kids, shouting, ‘Don’t get too close to the lake! You’ll fall in!,’ serious bird watchers (the Tilley hats give them away), the retirees lugging hefty cameras and some young adults with faces like my son’s – maybe from a day program or group home. All people like me who were not at work in the middle of a Monday.
There were a lot of ducks: colourful Mallards & Wood Ducks, the mean Canada Geese and the funny American Coots with their white-tipped beaks. But my favourite bird of all was the Red-Winged Blackbird that hides in the trees, singing the soundtrack of the lake. As they sing, their tails fan out in song. You can only see the males’ red wings when they take flight, but they flitted around so fast that I couldn’t get a decent picture. These are birds that meant to be listened to, not photographed.
The premise of Kyo Maclear’s book is bird watching around Toronto with an unnamed musician. Her prose is so beautiful that I dare not paraphrase her words.
Here are some direct quotes:
I realized – it is sometimes painful to wait. But it is also painful to always be in a hurry on someone else’s behalf, to cram into as much into a day as a day allows.
Waiting slows down time. Since my diagnosis I have been waiting. My mind is scrambled like cheesy eggs. I waited for surgery. Now I’m waiting to heal. I waited for my pathology report from my surgeon. Now I’m now waiting for my appointment with my oncologist. I know the cancer hasn’t spread but I am uncertain of my treatment plan ahead. I’m waiting for that too.
My days are unscheduled and some might say luxurious. (But would you rather have cancer and unscheduled days, or no cancer and scheduled days? That's what I thought). Since I’ve been healing, I’ve increased my activities from doing one thing a day to three or four. I met a friend for lunch in Gastown, where I picked at my sandwich, dunking the top piece of bread into my shrimp bisque. I was forgetful and jumpy.
"I’m a space cadet," I admitted. She was gracious, inviting me to be as unhinged as I needed to be. I disappeared into an afternoon matinee to view a disintegrating rom-com and emerged into the grey of Vancouver two hours later, successfully passing the afternoon. I picked up pho for our family dinner on the way home and a taro coconut bubble tea for myself.
Yesterday I drove across town to specifically buy my favourite brand of umbrella, having left my old umbrella in an unknown umbrella stand somewhere in the city, as thousands of coast dwellers have done before me. I popped by the children’s hospital where I used to work to meet a friend for tea. She gifted me a sparkly homemade bag with a thoughtful trio of presents: a pink boa, a pretty journal and a coffee card. (I will write one day about the many beautiful gifts and cards I’ve received. A handmade quilt. Homemade meals. Gift baskets. Books. Flowers. Handwritten notes). I met my husband for lunch at the Whole Foods food court where we talked through his challenging day amongst the clamour of the lunch crowd. I bought overpriced burgers for dinner and drove thirty minutes home for a ninety minute nap.
This is all terribly ordinary, but then life is mostly made up of ordinary moments. I’m trying to forget that we are supposed to be in Melbourne right now. I’m trying not to think cancer, cancer, cancer all the time.
As Kyo Maclear says, I am in the lull. What if we could imagine the lull as neither fatal nor glorious? What if a lull is just a lull? she asks.
Birds Art Life is not only about birds. For sure, there are lovely bird illustrations and vivid descriptions of bird behaviours. But this is also a book about paying attention while you are waiting.
Kyo Maclear manages to relay a passage just for me: Eve Sedgwick, in therapy for depression after cancer treatment, has a moment of realization. ‘I figured out what it means when I complain to you about things,’ she tells her therapist. ‘Or to anybody. When I tell you how bad it is, how hard I’ve worked at something, how much I’ve been through, there’s only one phrase I want to hear. Which is: that’s enough. You can stop now.'
I pine for the time I can stop now. I’m already tired of listening to myself talk and think about cancer. Some days I feel like crawling out of my skin, wishing this was all over. Alas, I am only at the beginning and this time in between is my lull to bear.
There’s one final quote from this tiny, perfect book: Strong one moment, vulnerable the next, we falter because we are alive, and with any luck we recover. My knobby scar marring my cleavage reminds me that I’m at my most vulnerable right now (so far). My crooked little line also reminds me - as my eldest son used to text me in the middle of the night when I inquired where the hell he was - that I’m not dead yet. With any luck I recover. With any luck we will all recover.