To Climb, Ascend, Descend, Transcend
oan and I greet each other with huge smiles, so very pleased to see one another after six months. I begin with something that had just come to me on the # 104 bus: “Together we've lost about three and a half pounds since we first met." For a moment, Joan doesn't get it, and responds as to a report on successful dieting. "No," I say, patting my flat left chest and looking significantly at hers, just as flat and far more recent.
Today she is looking beautiful. I'd been a bit nervous about seeing if her recently shaved head (a gesture of one-upping the inevitable) would make her look mannish. On one of our coast-to-coast phone calls, she had told me about her first venture out like this, to her local Soho cafe where she's a regular. The young crew-cutted waitress who floats around in a peignoir and Doc Martens had never paid any attention to her until she showed up bald. Suddenly the waitress began treating her as though she were cool, an interesting person after all.
It's so different from when I got sick six years ago. Body mutilation has become fashionable. A photographer at a recent symposium showed images of skin-carvings, including one of herself holding a knife to her female lover's breast. The room was packed with an admiring gathering of black leather, bright yellow hair, nose rings. I stood in the back wanting to scream, "You idiots!" A knife at a woman's breast isn't a flirtation with danger. It's an attempt to stave off death.
Joan and I order coffee. I haul a shopping bag onto the cafe table and begin lying out a stack of scarves, flipping through them like pages of a well-thumbed book. The top one I'd recently laundered, a soft blush pink of Egyptian cotton with an ivory border. I'd ironed it especially to show how much more attractive the rest of the scarves will eventually look, even though most of them have been in my drawer for years.
I call them The Kate Wasserman Headcovering Collection, a fond remembrance of how, when I first learned that I had to have chemotherapy, my friends sprung into action, delivering Kate to my door. Lovely Kate who had laid her head one night on her pillow and awakened to a bed in flames, later to a badly burned head which required a series of skin grafts. A woman of style and panache, Kate had invested in a remarkable panoply of head coverings.
To Joan I now show a black and white and yellow silk scarf with the initials YSL; a purple cotton triangle rimmed with gilt coins, exotic once on Kate's wide-boned face but too much for my own gypsy-ish features. From India, a hand-blocked print, burnt orange entwined with magenta, and a wrinkly turquoise scarf dotted with tiny mirrors. Next, a navy and white striped cotton square, quite smart, quite French, Jean Seberg crossed with Catherine Deneuve. A long scarf, rust-colored, with a Native American arrow motif.
I should have returned these scarves to Kate, now thriving in marriage, motherhood, and good work. But instead, I'm passing them on to Joan who, beautiful though she looks, is quite ill, at least if one judges by the number of affected lymph nodes. Hers were double mine. She's receiving chemotherapy through a drip catheter installed under her collarbone, less vein-scarring than when I received it through my hand once a month. Pulling down the collar of her blouse, Joan shows me the incision. I wince: it looks like it hurts, and it does.
Joan and I reach a point in our conversation when the thing to do is disappear into the ladies room and show each other our scars, which are more or less the same, allowing for her still-inflamed redness and the slightly more hollow dent of mine. I show her my ravishing new bra of which I am so proud, with its black lace that lets both the real and the prosthetic breast peep through. With the prosthesis slipped into its pocket like a visiting card into a glove, no one would guess I'm faking it.
It's time to leave, I'm going uptown to a show at the Guggenheim Museum. We stand outside the plate-glass window of the cafe, and I find myself reaching over to pat Joan's cheek, a gesture that reminds me of something my grandmother might have done. Then I'm seized with love.
In the great spiral hall of the museum, I stand for a long time looking at a piece of the contemporary German artist, Rebecca Horn. She has strung a wire from ceiling to floor. Along its length, a beat-up brown suitcase travels, ascending and descending while it slowly opens and shuts. Prayer, so often evoked in her work through that gesture of slowly coming together, again and again, like palms needing to touch.
Janet Sternburg is the author of the memoir Phantom Limb. She is also the author and editor of both volumes of The Writer on Her Work. A widely published poet and essayist, she is acknowledged as a pioneer in creating new ways to present literature on stage and film. A visual artist as well, her photography is in private and museum collections.