It is spring. The sun shines in the window and on good days bathes me in optimism. I sit lengthwise on my couch, my back propped against the armrest by an array of multicolored throw cushions, my legs extended and swaddled in the red, orange, purple, green, yellow quilt that begged me to take it with me when I passed it in the department store. I belong with you
, it screamed, and I had to agree that it could not possibly find such kinship in another home. Color. Color will help me find my way. My own red, orange, purple, green, yellow road back.
Its sequins glint at me as I sit with my notebook on my lap, pen in hand, spilling myself onto the lined pages, hour upon hour, day after day, searching for fragments of myself beyond grief, fear, worry. I used to belong to the world I see beyond my couch. There must be a void of specific size, exact Ruth volume, a void that
, if only I can find it
, I will be able to reoccupy. My rightful place.
These past seven months I have traveled to dark dark places. My journey in breast cancer has taken me beyond any borders I had previously known and deposited me here, here on the threadbare velvet, faded mustard yellow couch in the south-facing front window of my house. I am unrecognizable both to myself and to others. I have lost so much of myself along the way that when my young friend Rebecca comes to visit and I answer the door, she asks, “Where’s Roof?” I’m working on the answer.
Growing up in the age of macramé, batik, tie-dye and other hippie crafts, I remember making multicolored candles. We would cut off the top of a cardboard milk carton, fill it with ice cubes and pour in paraffin that we’d melted in one of my mother’s hijacked cooking pots. The hot wax would melt the ice cubes, leaving holes to be filled with another color of wax once the first color hardened. I am full of icy holes. I must make something hot to fill the holes. I don’t expect to be able to recreate the old me—I only hope to recover some of my previous solidity.
The postal carrier delivers the mail. I wonder what he thinks of the woman in the hat, sitting on her couch day after day. Sometimes I want to bang on the window and explain that I’ve been sick. I am not lazy. I have in the past contributed to society. I used to leave my couch, and I even had a job. I want him to understand that I am in recovery and that is the reason I sit on my couch all the time. Why do I care what the mailman thinks about me? I’m so caught up in myself that it doesn’t occur to me that he probably has no thoughts about me at all or what I’m doing on the couch.
I find the scratching of my fancy fountain pen on the paper of my dollar-store notebooks both soothing and amusing. The irony of how life catches up with one—every experience, every seemingly meaningless choice—is not lost on me. My pen, a special edition Montblanc, given to me by my father because I do not lose things, because I can be trusted to take care of such a ridiculously expensive object, glides along my pages with ease. And yet, while I still have this pen I was given many, many years ago, I have lost myself.
I write longhand because I cannot type. As a know-it-all teenager in need of a makeup credit, I registered for a night-school typing class. I justified my absence from all but the first and final classes by convincing myself that if I never learned to type, I would never have to suffer the presumed boredom of being a secretary. (Although, ironically I turned out to be such a fabulous waitress that employers were always reluctant to promote me for fear of losing my incomparable skills as a food schlepper.) Since a passing grade in typing did not require any degree of actual proficiency, I smugly believed that I had played the system to my advantage and dodged the secretarial bullet. I didn’t give much thought to the fact that, much like driving a car or doing the laundry, typing is a life skill. One I still don’t really have. Now, when I have to communicate using a keyboard, as in e-mail, I muddle through, but I’m certain that my hunt-and-peck two-finger dance on the keys significantly lowers my IQ. I am less stupid and faster with a pen and paper, so I sit and spend my time filling notebooks.
It feels as though I’m weaving an intricate tapestry with my ink, picking up loose threads and attaching new ones. I am trying desperately to make my recent journey fit; to draw upon the sum of my parts to recreate my whole. I am not looking for meaning or understanding necessarily, but for integration of the new me with the one that came before. I drive my couch slowly, carefully steering my pen through uncharted territory. It is not a strictly linear journey.
At night, after my children are asleep, I climb the stairs to my bedroom and settle myself under the covers next to my husband of more than twenty years. I do not want to be touched. I have not yet found peace in my body, which has betrayed me and been violated and brutalized by knives and needles and toxins. I cannot give away what I do not possess. Instead, I clutch my notebooks and read to Tommy, who patiently sits next to me in bed with his laptop and types my stories. Through my words, the words with which I am finding my way back to myself, I let him in. It is an act of the utmost intimacy.
As I read, I listen for the voice I once heard as mine. I work to steer clear of the overly sentimental, maudlin voice that I’m feeling and yet believe to be the epitome of weakness, sucky-ness, vulnerability. Be funny
, I think, as I read aloud to the clickety-clack of the keyboard—but I do not feel funny. Be bold
. Be confident.
But I am not. Sometimes, my memories emerge as though they belong to someone else; as though the stories are not mine to tell. Has my vision been altered permanently by recent events? Have I lost accurate hindsight, precise history? Could that be me free-floating in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean without fear or a sense of mortality? I recognize Tommy in my memory, long and lean and young and beautiful, a mane of hair snaking loose around his head as he floats belly-up to the sun. But the image beside him is blurred, unrecognizable. I cannot seem to conjure up the me that could act with sufficient abandon and confidence to trust that the water, and the world, would keep me safe.
I test out different voices hoping that they might remind me of what my own voice sounded like before it was dislodged. Like a drowning person, I search in vain for air with which to fill my lungs. I gasp and begin again in a different voice—perhaps this one my own.
As a gift for my father’s fiftieth birthday, my mother hired Mr. Ogaki the gardener to plant fifty rosebushes at the front of our house. Dad’s rose garden. Much was made of this as the gift for “the man who had everything.” And to be sure, he did have a great deal: a successful career in psychiatry, a beautiful home, three children of whom he could intermittently be proud, and a wife who was not only a respected family physician but also an outstanding homemaker and hostess. Everything
? I thought. Really
A birch tree with boughs that wept and vivid green seed pods that littered the flagstone walkway every July. A carefully thought-out Japanese garden of low-lying shrubs, glinting rocks and pebbles, and a sand pit that no one ever played in. And above it all, a vast, aging maple canopy with its floating helicopter pilots that drifted down to land in the crevices between the white quartz stones at its imposing base. White cylindrical pillars flanking the subdued yellow front door. To the far right, beyond the garden, the asphalt driveway, matte against the glossy black of the garage doors . . . Hardly everything
, I thought. Nice
, but not everything
Later, when I was older and less sheltered, I understood how not to be so literal. For most of the world there was no Mr. Ogaki, no gardens, no frivolity. Dirt was for growing food. My father had his own path leading up to his own door. Not one, but two trees. Stones and wood and asphalt, and sand to ignore in summer and snow to shovel in winter. A garage door that opened and closed with the press of a button. And a wife who might not have promised but indeed delivered a rose garden. Everything!
Tommy and I also have everything. We have grown up together. We met when he was fourteen and I was sixteen at socialist Zionist summer camp. We didn’t become a couple until some years later, but even that was more than two decades ago. We have history. I sometimes worry that according to some grand, cosmic plan we have exceeded our allotted time together in this life, having met so young. Perhaps there is only so much good life to go around and we have used up our quota, overdrawn on our happiness account, so to speak. Maybe that’s why I got sick. Maybe it is somebody else’s turn to have it easy, normal, uncomplicated.
But that is my cancer voice talking. It speaks from fear and apprehension, from sadness and grief. It is my fragile voice, not my resilient voice. I know I still have that one too. We all do. It’s what makes life possible. When things become difficult, abnormal, complicated, we must declare, proclaim, announce. Don’t whimper. Don’t whine. Don’t crumble.
In many ways, one would be hard-pressed to find a more conventional couple than the two of us. Both church and state—our church being a rabbi—legally married us. We have a house with a nice big mortgage, a car with a lot of years and mileage, three kids. But those are just the right-angles of the box that is our life together. To the outside eye we look settled in our average, “normal” world. We seem lucky. And in fact we do
Including cancer. Arrgh! There it is—that voice I’m trying to suppress. It pops up unexpectedly. Must I accept it as part of me, or can I reach down my own throat, pull it out and quash it?
It has been an evolution rather than a metamorphosis, this ordinary life we lead. As youngsters we were socialists, feminists, adventurers, risk takers. We would be different than our parents. We had no interest in average or normal or status quo. Armed with my degree in literature—a fierce weapon to be sure—and with Tommy schooled as a jazz musician, we moved across the world. After almost four years of living and working in Tel Aviv we traveled in the Far East for seven months before returning to Canada. We ventured off the beaten track with courage and abandon. Our thoughts were not of creature comforts, nor cushy beds, nor soft toilet paper, nor uncontaminated food or water. We were invincible, immortal. I want to find my immortality, but I fear that is lost forever.
While we were living abroad, my mother sent me a cartoon she had clipped from the newspaper. It was a drawing of a woman whispering into a telephone, and in the background, sitting on a couch in the next room, were a young woman and a long-haired, grubby looking young man. The caption read: “Help, Police! My daughter wants to marry a musician!” It was funny in part because my parents loved Tommy the musician from the get-go. He was talented, smart, kind and handsome, and posed a distinct possibility of introducing height into our vertically challenged gene pool. Nonetheless, they worried about us. They worried about us being so far away. They worried that we’d never earn a decent living. They worried about us because we are their children.
At the same time that Tommy and I moved to Israel, my younger brother David decided to put his college education in Japanese studies to the test and departed for a stint in Tokyo. My parents worried about him also. They worried for the same reasons. They worried for different reasons. They worried about him being far away. They worried about him being alone. They worried about him because he is their child. When after only three months he returned to Canada with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, I don’t know if they worried more or less about Tommy and me in Israel. And, despite David’s subsequent complete recovery, I believe they have never stopped worrying about him in a different way than they worried about us—until now. Cancer is not normal. Is worrying about cancer normal? I worry a lot these days. I hate the me who worries about cancer and dying. I hate the me who gets anxious about getting enough sleep so I don’t feel sick, so I don’t worry that maybe the cancer is back. I want to find the me who can tell the difference between tired and sick. Where’s Roof?
Our decision to leave Israel was not an easy one. I remember speaking with my father on the phone across the miles and lamenting the predictability and stability of Canada in comparison to the vitality, the excitement, the precariousness of Israel. “Perhaps one day you will be happy for stability, for normal,” he said.
After our return to Canada I changed careers like some people change hairstyles, never really finding anything I was passionate about. (I must remember not to look for myself in my résumé. I am unlikely to be there.)
Tommy went back to university to study computer science while playing in a rock band and waiting to be discovered. Then our first son, Micah, was born and just when it looked like we were finally settling down, off we went to California so Tommy could work for a dot-com think-tank. Then, back to Toronto, two more boys, Amit then Safi—and here we are at run-of-the-mill family of five.
My boys need me back. I used to be a real mother. I used to be the one who tucked them in at night and folded their socks and shouted at them to tidy their rooms and do their homework. I haven’t shouted at my children in such a long time. I don’t have the energy. I wonder if they remember what I sound like when I shout. Note to self: Shout at children more often.
Despite our days in the socialist youth movement, the hours spent debating equality and feminism and my relentless efforts to prove that I was physically up to any job a man could do, I have become a “domestic diva.” Though we sometimes took a round-about route to get here, “conventional” is more or less what we’ve become. We have adopted what can be called “traditional” roles in our relationship. Tommy helps, but I have always been responsible for home and family. Compared to most men of my father’s generation, Tommy is like a male Martha Stewart. He does dishes, makes beds, changed diapers, takes out the garbage and more. My favorite saying is “Tommy can do anything I set my mind to.” He is willing and able, as long as I am there to give instructions. “Can you make me a list of the things I need to do,” he says. And armed with said list he is unstoppable.
Since we met so young and I am two years his senior, I have often teased that I found Tommy when he was just tiny and grew him and grew him. Along the way, though, I forgot to teach him how to cook. This is funny because Tommy is six foot five. It’s not
funny because he really never learned to cook. He would no doubt take great offense at this claim and argue that it is not entirely true, but for the purposes of storytelling, it is essentially true. Who plans the meals, does the grocery shopping, and virtually all of the cooking? Me. And our traditional roles don’t stop there. Who makes social arrangements, doctors’ appointments and plans extracurricular activities? Who makes sure all family members have clean clothes that more or less fit and don’t have too many holes? Who makes sure our various schedules are coordinated with regard to arrivals, departures and mealtimes? Me, me, me.
Not wonderful me. Not powerful me. Just me, because over time it has become my job to run our family. Tommy’s contributions to our family are no less important, they are just different.
But I have not done any of these things for a long time now. Not since my journey in cancer began. I have not planned meals or grocery shopped or cooked. I have absolutely no idea what is in my fridge. I do not drop off children or pick them up and I have only a vague idea where they are supposed to be at any given time. These days I only go to my own doctors’ appointments. And I’m pretty sure all the boys are sharing socks and underwear, because the laundry hasn’t been properly sorted in months.
I grew up in a neck-up household. Cerebral pursuit, not physical, was the modus operandi of our family. For the most part, I was alone in my interest in athletics and outdoor activities and was practically accused of family treason for corporeal involvements. As Rakoffs, we sparred with our tongues, engaged in conversation, banter, repartee, not ball games or races. Our bodies were appendages, more apt to cause harm or accidents, at least in my father’s nervous perception. Whenever my brothers and I would get physical, as even Rakoff children were inclined to do on occasion—a game of tag or hide-and-seek considered the height of athleticism—my father’s refrain was, “That’s a recipe for disaster!” It was as though this brilliant man had absolutely no comprehension of running or jumping or moving swiftly. Ordinary childhood activity that didn’t involve books or art supplies frightened him. The notion of “a recipe for disaster” both intrigued and bewildered me. After all, a recipe was something one used to get things “just right.” Was there a way to get a disaster “just right”? Why would you bother with a recipe for something you didn’t even want? Okay, so maybe I wasn’t the sharpest Rakoff in the drawer.
But when faced with the prospect that my illness and treatment would put me out of commission for an extended period of time and Tommy would have to assume responsibility for all my usual territory, I had a rare jolt of insight. What we needed was a crisis plan, a management strategy—a recipe for disaster
. We needed to call upon all our collective resources, our friends, our families, our community, our past and our present to help us through.
And now, all these months later, having made it over the pinnacle of the crisis with the help of so, so many, I need to concoct a different kind of recipe. A recipe to grow myself and expand my world beyond this faded mustard yellow couch in my sunny window.
Excerpted from When My World Was Very Small by Ruth Rakoff. Copyright © 2010 by Ruth Rakoff. Excerpted by permission of Random House Canada, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.