Cancer patient. The phrase brings to mind a bald head and a frail body, chilly in a thin hospital gown. The loss of hair, strength and tissue can reduce anyone to the basics of skin and bone, as the body undergoes war at the cellular level, invasive surgeries and waves of radiation and harsh chemicals.
But while the framework is generally the same -- diagnosis, acceptance, treatment, survival or death -- the stories of cancer are unique to the people affected. Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, poet laureate of Kansas, shares hers in The Sky Begins at Your Feet: A Memoir on Cancer, Community and Coming Home to the Body (Ice Cube Books, 229 pages, $19.95).
Although obviously an accomplished poet, in this volume Mirriam-Goldberg uses prose to describe breast cancer's affect on her body, soul and family. Her writing style is straightforward and conversational, glittering occasionally with poetic images as the "bright green spread of swaying trees." Nature is a powerful symbol for Mirriam-Goldberg, who lives on an acreage near Lawrence.
An environmentalist before cancer, she is actively protesting highway development that would displace people and encroach on native species when she's diagnosed. Mirriam-Goldberg soon begins to view her own body like the earth -- threatened and so very mortal, a home that she's taken for granted most of her life. Cancer reminds her of the usual facts about life (it's short) and what's important (family and friends) as she undergoes treatment. But the writer's analytical and creative mind helps her also draw connections between herself and the world outside.
High on the list of body parts that Mirriam-Goldberg took for granted
are her breasts. As she considers life without them -- and, ultimately,
without the reproductive organs inside her -- Mirriam-Goldberg must
redefine her own sense of femininity and sexuality. This concept is
complicated by her adamant refusal to have her breasts reconstructed.
Through this choice Mirriam-Goldberg's attitude toward conservation
manifests at the personal level. Not only would more surgery tax her
already weary body, but she views the construction of new breasts to be
somewhat wasteful (although she supports other women who do
opt for reconstructions), like the department of roads proposing to
build a new highway when widening the current one would work.
Although her husband Ken does come off almost unbelievably angelic,
Mirriam-Goldberg doesn't seem to whitewash herself. She shares in
sometimes uncomfortable detail her anxieties about her body, her messy
house (with the corner in the basement where the dog keeps peeing), her
children's diet, the awkwardness of being touched by a stranger in a
white coat. In the tone of a woman trading stories with her
girlfriends, Mirriam-Goldberg also explains what sex is like before and
after surgery and the emptiness of the realization that she'd had her
There are joyful moments in the memoir, as well -- although most of
them are bittersweet: the temporary tattoos with which Mirriam-Goldberg
bedecks her newly hairless head, a Conehead greeting between
her and another bald cancer patient, the endless questions of the
author's youngest son, who asks real doozies like "Did God see God
Clearly, Momma's not the only creative mind in the family.