Neighbors of Fire

“We are amazing beings,
Geryon is thinking. We are neighbors of fire.
And now time is rushing towards them
where they stand side by side with arms touching, immortality on their faces,
night at their back.” (Ann Carson, Autobiography of Red)

The above quote is from the short novel in verse on which I wrote my Master’s thesis (and it’s a lovely, lovely book — and I recommend it to everyone). When I was first diagnosed back in late March, these words came to me almost immediately — and again, this week, I heard them over and over again in my head.

9:00pm Sunday finds my roommates and me parking on the edge of World’s End and the wind just high enough that we wish we had brought warmer clothes. We grabbed the beers we had brought from home (and anyone who knows me knows I don’t really drink beer, so that alone proves what a special occasion this was) and set out under an almost full moon and into the woods. World’s End is a state park in Hingham and I have still never been there in the daytime. What I know about it is limited to night light and the barely visible silhouettes of deers against the backdrop of the water, the city, and the sky.

I spent a lot of time outside at night growing up. And so, Sunday night, my head suffused with anxiety and panic, I took to the road and ended up on the edge of a small peninsula that sits in the Massachusetts Bay. The wide path that slid into the trees was almost invisible 10 feet in, but the moon kept catching the shadows of branches and wildlife on our right, where a field opened up to the bay. As I walked, I kept glancing to the meadows and watching for the reflection of light on the water. The deer we passed didn’t move. It was unbelievably quiet.

We walked for about 30 minutes with beers in hand and finally reached an end of the park, which opens up — we think — to the water and Boston. We were far enough from the city that we could see both its lights and the stars, and because my roommates and I don’t believe in coincidences, we lay on our backs and stared at the sky. “I haven’t seen a shooting star yet,” Lauren remarked about 10 minutes in. And despite that, the sky was dotted with hundreds of stars — no Milky Way to be seen but enough constellations to keep us busy for a time. I remembered the last time I watched for shooting stars and compared the weather then to the weather now. Two different points on a map — one balmy and warm, and then here — brisk and chill. I am not a New England girl and I wonder if feeling always a little out of place up here lent itself to the independent solidity I felt Sunday night lying on my back in the grass in Hingham, Massachusetts. I was not quite comfortable and not quite warm, but solid and present.

I bridge that evening to yesterday, when I went to the hospital early in the morning (9am is early for me) to sit with a friend from college who’s partner is in her last days of stage iv ovarian. My infusion wasn’t until 3pm and so I sat with her and her partner’s family in the hospital room through the afternoon. When she greeted me as I walked off the elevator on the 7th floor of the Connors Center we both started crying immediately. I had no words other than, to her, “I am so, so sorry. This is such crap. This is so awful,” and, to me, this is coming.

I know what is coming. I do not fear death.

For the first hour we sat in the family waiting room and slid so naturally and so quickly between laughing and crying that I forgot the difference between them. We were surrounded by sticky pastries and coffee, family members of other in-patients, and bags of clothes and shampoo. She had been there for a few days, dutifully watching over her partner, insisting on the right kind of medication to keep her comfortable, holding her hand when she wakes up confused and scared. I doubt she had slept more more hours than days had passed. She had already spent months being a repository for pain, anger, sadness, and fear and here she was again — those experiences condensed and magnified. (It is frightening how similar the initial days after diagnoses and the final days are.) She remembered how, when on 15 mg of incredibly intense steroids that fuel the most primal of rages at the beginning of chemo this summer, her partner had thrown a cell phone toward her head (but purposely missed) and her retelling found us both doubled over in laughter. “Strong women respond with rage,” she remarked, smiling, and I nodded. My own reaction to cancer was — is, in large part, rage. It was more comforting than I know how to communicate to hear the similarities between my own experience in the  handful of insane months that comes after diagnosis and their own — all the anger, all the sadness, all the laughter. All the rough, angry, tense moments that have no reconciliation, no explanation beyond “well, that’s what cancer is.”

This is cancer, I thought. Meals of breakfast pastries from Au Bon Pain, greasy hair and tired eyes, charging cell phones in waiting rooms, and standing stoic and afraid, all at once, without choice. Because there is no choice.

A series of gritty, small details that barely contain the alien, out of body fear and sadness that hovers in between waiting rooms, in the hallways, in the eyes of those who walk out of loved one’s rooms. There are no words — or rather, there are words, but their excess mocks reality. All of this is more textured, nuanced, and subtle than language is capable of expressing.

While we sat in the hospital room later, I watched as my friend responded to every move, every breath, every shift with a steadiness and grace I felt blessed to be around. Her partner’s parents and sister too — human beings who are not impossibly together but moving through each moment with a quiet deliberation that can grow only from the depths of solid, lasting love. This is not an easy path. It is not a steady path. It is a path that is more than difficult, more than unhappy, for everyone. But it is also one that, from the right angles, has its moments of joy. And I wonder if the deepest joy is not to be found in the worst of it: that this family, having already gone through the worst and now facing it again in a more awful form, with fear but without backing away from that fear, is helping someone die. I looked at my friend at one point and said to her, “You are doing one of the greatest things that humans are capable of. You are helping someone die well.”

We are capable of an extraordinary love, I thought.

At one moment her partner’s sister turned to me after her partner had woken up uncomfortable and the nurses had sedated her back to sleep and said in a voice noted by what I can only call bewilderment “You’re very brave.” I started crying immediately and shook my head no as I went to hug her. I don’t know if it’s bravery or strength that maintains us in these moments. I think closer to the truth is that time keeps passing, and we do not leave. Everything passes, everything begins and ends, sadness passes, anger passes, happiness passes, but we are still there. Or — our love is still there.

We are capable of extraordinary love.

And now, I remember standing at the edge of World’s End at the end of our night on Sunday — close to 11, Boston faint in the distance and the stars somehow brighter but farther overhead — three ordinary women forced into extraordinary circumstances, wide awake, cold, bonded by time: We are amazing beings. I think of all the times I have snapped at my roommates or friends in the unmoored, thick rage of illness that permeates through every moment and every occasion, or cried for hours with my head buried in their arms, unsure of what I’m sad about but knowing it is something dark and deeply rooted, or laughed too loud or too long because I’m desperate to have a moment take me away from the reminders of my lost hair and port scar — and received, on each and every occasion, nothing but love. And, somehow the same, the image I have of my friend, her partner’s mother and sister curled together on the cot next to her partner’s bed at the hospital, waiting and patient, frightened and full of love.

We stand, at the edge of the path, looking over the bay and under the sky, fearful and hurt in the horrifying reality of everyday, but unmoving — We are neighbors of fire

And now time is rushing towards them
where they stand side by side with arms touching, immortality on their faces,
night at their back.

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4 thoughts on “Neighbors of Fire

  1. Kiara, this is stunning. The fire in your words is exceeded only by the all-surpassing warmth of your generosity and your spirit, the depths of what you are capable of giving to others, even during your own heart-wrenching struggle.

    Bless those roommates; they are true angels incarnate.

    And just as you are there for your friend and her partner and family, your family is here for you, sweetheart. Always, through everything, and beyond, with undying love.

  2. Kiara, you do not know me, and I only know your Mom through a mutual friend, but your words through your blog have made me love you. You will forever be in my heart. Thank you for sharing. Peace.

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