I am an artist walking the cancer path. Every time I say that I feel a tightening in my chest, like I’m about to fall off the edge of a steep traverse. Cancer is not an illness; it’s an attitude toward life and living. I do the treatments, I get pictures of my brain taken regularly, generally taken while the technicians are injecting me with contrast dyes. I interact with technology that I have to stare down every single time I have an appointment for an MRI or chemotherapy. I wait in waiting rooms with my wife and sister, alongside people I don’t know but who are in pretty bad shape. Some of them are clearly not going to make it, but then, am I? I’m pretty sure I’m going to celebrate my 100th birthday. Centenarians run in my family. But life can throw you topsy-turvy on your head in an eye blink.
Last June 2005 I thought I had a sinus infection, a headache and a nosebleed. My wife Andrea took me to urgent care as per the suggestion of my primary care physician and her nurse. The next thing I knew some young doctor was leaning over me in a strange bed in a strange room telling me, “you’re not suffering from a sinus infection. You have a tumor in your brain. We think its bleeding into your head” Right after that an elegant authoritative man—the surgeon of course-- came in. He had removed the tumor, telling me what would happen next. I don’t remember how I got to the hospital and in that recovery bed. I remember nothing of surgery, but somehow my loved ones and priest were around my bed with smiles and hearts open to me. Evidently I had been in surgery for hours. In the months ahead I won’t remember any of this except in little snapshots that flash up without intention on my part. That’s how it was for me. That’s how it is. No day is promised.
My response to this part of my life is to look for oak trees. When riding in the car I scan yards, shopping centers, parks, yards, and utility roads from a main road. I’ve met a neighbor who cleared away a pepper tree in her yard that had strangled the beautiful specimen oak in her yard. I left a note telling her how much I appreciated her work. She in turn invited me to dig up some seedlings from under the mother tree. It connected us to talk about her oak, her garden, and the loss of her beloved dog. Today the oak seedlings are thriving in containers in my back yard while I get them stronger and ready for permanent planting. The oaks and I seem inextricably linked. My daughter in law, Megan Williamson, knows about planting seeds, having worked for a commercial nursery outside Sacramento. When I gather acorns off the ground she instructs me to put them in water to see which ones float. Those won’t germinate. I look for the striations on the outside that mean the acorn has no moisture and is not viable.
More than the sunflowers that I grow for my upcoming grandbaby as his own yellow fort, the oaks mean that I will be here to celebrate my 100th birthday, the baby’s wedding, my son’s parenthood and grandparenthood, my parent’s 70th wedding anniversary, my sister’s grand motherhood.
All that I love about California is in these little oaks whose promise is a towering canopy where birds that we rarely see anymore can return. Who knows, maybe the moist roots will mean the return of the frogs that we saw all the time as children, all over San Diego.
It is a dry Santa Ana day, better than yesterday but still dry. Fire threatens if we are not careful with our cars and cigarettes. But fire is appropriate even if feared and unwelcome. It is the natural course of things here in southern California. The fire of the lasers and chemo has been burning away the cancer. It is a fearsome treatment and, as my priest says, a fearsome e blessing.
My mother sent this after my surgery:
“Let me look upward into the branches of the towering oak and know thwt it grew strong because it grew slowly and well. Slow me down, Lord, and inspire me to end my roots dwwp into the soil of dnduring values that I may grow toward my true destiny. Amen.
I look to see if friends and neighbors have acorns or seedlings that I can “liberate,” plant and restore to this micro canyon on which I live in urban San Diego, California. I do this to stay engaged in life at a time when so much around me is about illness, surgery, radiation, and sometimes death. I have long days when the members of the household go off to work and so it’s just me and the dog Sadie, a pit bull mutt whose chosen job is to watch me all day, lay down next to me when I rest, and pull me outside to the garden. It can get a little too easy to contemplate my mortality. Planning my next acorn raid gives me a sense of purpose and commits me to caring and nurturing life, not just my own.
Just recently I’ve gotten angry and snarled at death to “bring it on. I can say this because of the oaks for some strange reason.”
Yes, it’s whistling in the dark but it’s also the kind of defiant energy that focuses me on the goal of LIVING, and engaging a creative life. So I’m making art again that is more intimate and personal than the larger, civic art works that I’ve been known for. The foundation of this work is the garden, the oaks and other natives, and the canyon whose name I just discovered. My little canyon has a name! It is North Arroyo Canyon, or on some maps the Albatross Canyon. Somehow its having a name makes is even more important to restore it back to health. It somehow makes a difference to know it by its name—to make it healthy as I make myself healthy.
I’ve written before about the canyon, but until the cancer I had not put my full attention to the ecosystem except to note that there were no native plants in my little dead end canyon except two lonely toyons—one under a telephone pole and the other next to the Eucalyptus that sits in the middle of a sea of asphalt that is my driveway. Everything else in this little canyon is considered an “invasive exotic,” mainly eucalyptus, a few sad nopal cacti, jade plants, flowering apple ice plant which swallows everything, and a scattering of pepper trees and whatever Christmas trees that people have transplanted to their yards instead of composting them or sending them to the landfill at Miramar. When the winds and rains come they will topple like the eucalyptus. These orphaned Christmas trees have no deep roots to keep them in place when the weather turns nasty. I have already introduced deer grass, Cleveland sage, Pink Cat’s whiskers, Hummingbird bush, Cleveland sage, California poppy and other old friends, with many more to come.
Out of some unknowable and miraculous circumstances a couple of oaks survive in two of my neighbors’ yards. They are very old /California coast live oaks. They must be 100 years old because of their size and the time it takes for them to reach any kind of height. I’ve become deeply attached to the oaks, perhaps because of their links to my California heritage, perhaps because of their solidity and the incredibly deep taproot. I want to see myself in them. Perhaps it was the poem my mother sent me which was meant to bolster my spirits and remind me that the race doesn’t always go to the swift, and the oak grows well and strong because it grows slowly.
I used to be a multitasked—able to read, watch television, write a policy paper and answer my email all at the same time. Now I move slowly as I retrain the body, mind and spirit. With the aid of therapists, doctors, family and friends I am slowing down and savoring the jay that watches for me to emerge from the house, expecting the peanuts I throw out. I sit quietly with the dog Sadie. I watch a squirrel do acrobatics from the bird feeder. All this is gift to a woman who was given little chance to overcome the stage 4 geoblastoma.
I’m still here, just like the oak.
And I’m thriving just like the corn, the tomatoes, and the sunflowers.
Aida Mancillas, San Diego, CA