The only way out is through.
The sea smelled of sadness. As we dodged broken bits of clam, scallop, whelk and conch shells, the damp sand made me sad. The whoosh of waves made me sad. The cries of seagulls made me sad. This was the last Florida sunset we’d see for a while.
Ahead I noticed four women. They sat on a blanket, sipping drinks, chatting, laughing. It was March 2005. On the west coast, sunsets invite an extended cocktail hour. This group was enjoying the show. As we passed, I watched them, glad I had worn sunglasses so as not to seem rude. I envied their carefree ease, the fun they were having. I wondered who they were, where they came from. We passed them and kept walking. As the sun dipped closer to the blue horizon, Burton and I turned back toward our rented beach house on Longboat Key. The foursome remained where they were, still chatting and laughing.
On an impulse, I said, “I’m going to talk to them.”
Burton frowned. “They look like they’re enjoying their privacy.”
I would not normally barge up to strangers on a beach. Especially when they seem to be having a good time without me. Especially when wearing a frayed old jacket, no make-up and a chemo cap. Most especially when my husband discourages me. But occasionally I become stubborn. And cancer gets rid of inhibitions.
“They’ll want to talk to me,” I said. I let go of my husband’s hand, climbed over a mound of drier, softer sand and strode up to the foursome.
“Where are we going for dinner?” I asked, pleased to have come up with a clever opener when cleverness had forsaken me in recent months.
“Right there,” one said. She pointed to the high-rise apartment building behind them. “Nobody wants to be a designated driver.”
Another lifted a bottle of champagne from a hole in the sand. “Join us,” she said. “We have an extra glass.”
I smiled, happy to be invited. I am happy to be invited most places. I like feeling included. But I shook my head. “Thanks anyway. What’s the occasion?”
They were celebrating, they said. They had all turned fifty. They came from Wilton, Connecticut, had attended high school together and had been best friends ever since.
“Enjoy it,” I said. Then, as if I hadn’t sufficiently trodden on their cocktail gaiety, I added, “You don’t know how much time you have. I turned sixty this year and came down with cancer.” I patted my grey cotton cap.
They did not roll their eyes in a get-this-woman-out-of-here manner. They actually nodded and murmured sympathetically. One of them, with light blue eyes and no make-up, gazed at me with particular understanding. She pressed her hands to the navy sweatshirt over her chest. In a quiet voice, she said, “Fourteen years ago, I had cervical cancer. After I finished chemo, every day I’d ask my husband, ‘Can I go without my hat yet?’ He’d say, ‘Not today, dear.’ The four of us live in different parts of the country. We hadn’t been together for ages. After I got sick, we realized we missed each other. That’s when we started getting together. Now we do it every year.”
She had short, streaked brown hair—about the color of mine, when I had it. Her cheeks were pink. She looked as healthy as a teenager. Before I had cancer, I had pretty much considered the disease a death sentence. Now each encounter I had with a real, honest-to-goodness survivor gave me hope.
The past three weeks had sped by. Three weeks without doctors or hospitals or toxic chemicals or burned flesh. We were scheduled to fly home to Michigan the next day. I had survived six months of treatment for stage-four uterine cancer. I faced one more hurdle. I needed another needle biopsy of my thyroid. If the tumor remained, I would require more surgery and radiation. Radiation had fried my vagina. I dreaded what it might do to my throat. As our freedom in Florida wound to a close, so did my spirits—up to that moment.
A wave of encouragement rolled through me. “Fourteen years,” I said. “Good for you. I need to give you a hug.”
She jumped up and wrapped her arms around me. I felt the press of her hands on my back, her chest against mine for three or four seconds, about as long as seemed appropriate for physical contact with a stranger on a beach.
Burton waited by the water. I rejoined him and took his arm. We resumed walking toward home, though I fairly floated.
I said, “I never even learned her name.”
Early that evening, Burton dropped me off at the China Pavillion. (As a seventh-grade spelling bee champion, I abhor misspelled words, but it was their sign, and that was how it read.) Diners occupied almost every table of the small restaurant in Sarasota’s St. Armand’s Circle. The one free table was a drafty two-top near the door. Normally, with the outside temperature hovering in the low sixties, I’d have waited for another table or sought somewhere else to eat. Burton likes elbow room and dislikes two-tops. But we were running late for the theater; we liked the food here; and I knew we’d be served fast. I slipped on the sweater tied around my waist—I’m always prepared with an extra layer—and sat down.
At the table next to ours, an older couple was finishing their dinners. He had thin, white hair and wore a large hearing aid; she had a broad nose with deep pores. A clear plastic cane leaned against the wall behind her.
Still feeling sociable, I asked what they had eaten. Egg rolls and chicken chow mein, they said. Delicious, they agreed. Burton joined me. I ordered our usual: hot and sour soup for each of us and moo shu chicken to share.
I continued to buzz with the unexpected gift of my beach encounter. Within minutes, as we chatted with our fellow diners, I was rewarded again. The people beside us were Albert and Ida. They owned an apartment a few steps from our rented beach house. They had raised their children in Huntington Woods, Michigan, as we had. Albert had been a pilot in World War II. My father’s name was Albert; he was a navigator in World War II. Their youngest daughter, Suzy, spelled the same, also has two sons. She suffered cancer in her mid-forties. And She Survived.
At some point in the conversation, we must have eaten our dinners. Burton must have rolled his helping into the flat cakes that came with the moo shu chicken. I must have combined mine with steamed brown rice. We both must have added hoisin sauce the way we always do. As much as I love to eat, I was too caught up in our conversation to pay attention to what I was chewing.
Burton is very polite. Usually he lets me choose my fortune cookie and takes the other one. This time he picked first. I opened the cellophane of the remaining cookie expecting something special, the way I’d bite into a truffle. I broke the cookie in half and unfolded the little white slip of paper. I caught my breath. You will maintain good health and enjoy life.
Burton and I had dined at the China Pavillion dozens of times. Albert and Ida had lived on Longboat Key longer than we had. They had never been there before.
Heading for the Florida Studio Theater in downtown Sarasota, I felt elated from my earlier encounters. We had tickets that night for Metamorphosis. Second row. Our subscription seats. This small theater had squeaky, hard chairs squeezed into narrow aisles and often ran out of bottled water. But they mounted intelligent productions with talented actors, and displayed posters with background on the theme of the play, and during intermission you could stand outside in balmy air.
I was surprised to see that a shallow pool of water took up most of the stage. Towels were draped over the backs of chairs in the first two rows. With my former curling-ironed and sprayed actual hair, or with Gertrude (my real-hair wig) aloft, I might have worried about being splashed. But that night I was wearing Frenchie, my synthetic wig. No problem.
The lights dimmed. The play held me captive.
Metamorphosis is a modern interpretation of ancient mythology, a subject I’d studied in high school but mostly forgotten. The water on stage symbolizes a swimming pool, a mirror, an ocean, a river, depending on the myth depicted. Near the end, Orpheus travels to the underworld, to the River Styx, to plead for the return of Eurydice, his late wife. Hades takes pity on him. Hermes may escort Eurydice out, Hades says, with one condition. He warns Orpheus not to turn around, to trust that Eurydice will follow. Orpheus marches straight ahead, resolute, looking forward. At the last second—he’s out, she isn’t—he glances behind. Eurydice falls back, leaving him forever.
I normally wait for someone else to initiate a standing ovation. That night, tears streaming down my face, I jumped up from my seat and applauded until my arms ached. The play beamed a message straight into my soul. I, too, had to keep forging ahead. No matter how hard the journey, I couldn’t waiver as Orpheus had. I, too, had to trust, to march on without knowing the outcome. To believe in the possibility of recovery and in my doctors. And in the agonizingly long medical process into which dark river I would again wade the next day.
Burton and I drove back across the Ringling Causeway, the lights of Bird Key and Longboat Key twinkling ahead. Stars in the velvet sky rose and fell as we ascended and descended the new bridge. In our previous years of vacationing in Sarasota, a drawbridge lifted to let large boats pass underneath, causing frequent traffic backups. Now a permanent replacement curved over the bay. Underneath, graceful arches danced reflections in the water. Like the nearby tall sculpture, Unconditional Surrender, a sailor kissing a nurse, inspired by a famous Life magazine photograph marking the end of World War II, the bridge had become a Sarasota landmark.
My skin tingled. I felt as buoyant as the boats bobbing in the water below. I thought about how fearful I’d been earlier and about the events that had come together in the past few hours to lighten my attitude. The survivor on the beach. Albert, Ida and their daughter Suzy. My fortune cookie. Orpheus’ challenge.
A thought popped into my brain, a thought so improbable that I pushed it back under the neat, tucked-in covers in my head. It poked its way out again. Ridiculous, I told myself, pushing it down once more. Crazy. But, like a little stuffed teddy bear, it peeked back out. I saw the tip of its ears, the furry crown of its head, its tiny glass eyes. The thought had a name. Godsigns.
Godsigns. The things that happened earlier. Things that had been happening since I became sick. Meetings. Casual remarks. Odd discoveries. They were signs from some benevolent force that either wanted me well or wanted me to know that all would be well, no matter the outcome. In a leap of faith higher than the stars above, I sensed these were signs meant for me. They were so delicately timed and orchestrated that—impossible as it seemed—they must have come from a mysterious, unknowable source. A source with infinite power, goodness and imagination. Pieces had been put in place and moved so perfectly that they could only have been masterminded by a chess player far more advanced than Bobby Fischer. By the ultimate chess player of the universe.
On one hand, it seemed the height of chutzpah to assume that people and events and conversations could have been arranged just for me. Who was I? Hardly someone who’d racked up points with the Almighty. I’d come to God in my fifties, but for selfish reasons. Because I had nowhere else to turn. Because prayer consoled me, helped me through worries about my mother and then about my marriage and now about my health. I was a nice person, a caring friend, a devoted parent and wife. But no Mother Teresa.
On the other hand, why not me? Why not any of us? I’d be a fool to dismiss the extraordinary turns that had occurred, especially in recent weeks. So many gifts had shown up in my life. It would be ungrateful not to appreciate them. I couldn’t ignore the possibility that certain events were somehow designed to reassure me, to boost me up, to give me hope. Wishful thinking? Maybe. Illogical? You bet. But divine intervention is not a matter of logic. At least logic as far as we human beings can see. And even if these occurrences weren’t specifically designed for me, they happened. That was magic enough.
No matter how loving my family and friends, or how encouraging my doctors, despite the degree to which medical technology had advanced, when I was in that small, sterile room taking CT scans, I was on my own. Me and my doubts. Each of us finds comfort in different ways. When we discover something that sustains us, I say chill the champagne, light the candles and embrace it. Believing the universe was on my side could help me to feel less alone. However magical the thinking, trusting in Godsigns just might help me to feel less afraid.
I had come to a yellow wood. I could take the intellectual path, a road of cynical disregard. I could give in to skepticism, toss these experiences aside as random or meaningless or trifling. Or I could treasure them, roll them around in my head and my heart as I would wiggle my tongue to savor a sip of a good cabernet. I could value their significance and welcome the grace they brought.
We turned on to St. Armand’s Circle. Anticipating our return to the still-wintery Midwest, Burton had put the top down on the Corvette and turned up the heater full blast. The heater warmed our bottom halves; the night air cooled our cheeks. On the Avenue of Presidents, we drove past the Columbia, with its famous 1905 salad that my sister insisted on having whenever she visited from Santa Barbara and in which I was a willing partner. A few hardy diners sat outside. Tourists strolled the sidewalks, licking ice cream cones, checking out shop windows filled with t-shirts and bronze dolphins and multi-colored glass sculptures and dresses in pinks and greens.
“Godsigns,” I murmured.
“What’s that?” Burton often asked me to repeat myself. He had problems with his hearing, possibly from flying airplanes and shooting guns without adequate protection in younger years.
I wasn’t sure I believed what I had said, but I repeated it anyway, in a firmer voice. “Godsigns. The things that happened today. I think they’re signs from God.”
Burton knew how much I dreaded going home. How much I dreaded facing the next day, the next month. He knew how much a spiritual connection had helped me through the preceding ones.
“I like the way you’re thinking,” he said.
Signs that kept me going had actually been occurring, and spurring me on, since the past summer when I was first diagnosed. They may well have been happening all my life, but it took getting sick to notice. That night in Florida I began to add them up, to wonder if something greater were involved. That night, our last in Florida for who knew how long, I began to wonder if they were more than lucky coincidences.
“Godsigns,” Burton said. He cocked an eyebrow and looked at me. “Is there such a word?”
I shook my head. “I don’t think so.”