"Straight from the fear of loss I plunged into the fear of being lost.
I couldn't stay long enough between them
in the sweet little no man's land of my everlasting
passing days. My hands are the hands of search and test,
hands of hope, hands of gloom,
always fumbling among papers on tables
or in drawers, in closets and in my clothes
which have seen their share of loss.
With hands that search for what is already lost, I caress your face,
and with hands afraid of loss I hold you close
and like a blind man feel my way around your eyes, your mouth,
wandering, wondering, wandering, wondering.
Because hands afraid of loss are the only hands for love."
--Yehuda Amichai, from the poem "I Foretell the Days of Yore," in Open Closed Open.
Cancer is a story of many losses. Some are swift: after the fog of anethesia parts, a part of you is missing. Others are gradual: losing hair, dimming sensation, ebbing vitality. "Straight from the fear of loss I plunged into the fear of being lost," writes Amichai; his poem hits me viscerally. Right after diagnosis, there is the blunt fear of losing discrete parts, but over time, this long haul of treatment, you plunge into this more all-encompassing fear: of losing yourself, your orientation, your sense of your place in the world, or being in the world quite simply at all. It slips so quickly from one to the other, the small losses chipping away at the more core parts of yourself you relied on to tether you to the here and now. The in-between time he mentions I recognize, the "sweet little no man's land" that is denial--the way you tell yourself you'll get through it and get back to the way things were. But there's never any going back, in the long litany of these "everlasting passing days." Time pushes you along, and you realize you are in a foreign place, in a foreign body, overcome by the fear and alienation of being lost, unrecognized, irretrievable.
In just the past week, I have had the uncanny experience of passing several people that I know well on the street and not having them recognize me. I'll grant that I have been changing my look and headgear regularly, but I still felt akin to my normal self. Yet even after announcing myself, others had a hard time seeing me as me. Then only a couple of days later, I was on a plane after an extended travel delay, and was wearing only a head scarf for comfort. After boarding, a flight attendant approached me and offered me a seat in first class, which I gladly accepted; when I later asked how I pulled the lucky number, the woman explained that she had friends going through breast cancer and thought I could use the extra rest and comfort. I was grateful for her kind gesture, but was the first time I experienced being seen by others this way--readily identifiable as a sick person. This disjunction between how you see yourself and how you are perceived by others is jarring: Is this who I am now? Is the 'me' I thought I was invisible? lost?
For Amichai, it is his hands that register absence: they "search," they "fumble" not sure what they are looking for, aged, not agile. And his clothes register the how the passage of time has diminished the body. A closetful of garments that fit another self.
When I was twenty, I wrote a poem called "Losing My Wonder," asking if when I was forty, would my heart still jump at sunflowers, full moons, or lightening bugs. I asked if losing my capacity for wonder would be "a one-day falling away" or "a slow sloughing off, unnoticed erosion." It was written in the full bloom of collegiate discovery, a time I remember fondly, but which now also appears to me arrogant and superficial, and blind, I suppose, in that typical way of the young who aren't really capable of imagining the lives or emotional depths of those outside their peers. For it never crossed my mind then that wonder wouldn't diminish, that it might actually deepen. What counted for wonder for me then had the emotional character of a high-school crush--the thrill of immediate sensation--whereas now wonder resides everyday in the unmitigated miraculousness of my children, the immediate and unspoken communication in the flash of an eye with my husband, how deep connectedness with community brings me intimations of the divine, and yes, how sun on your face, a sublime view, a field of sunflowers still do get me every time. My younger self projected a vision of loss that not only was off the mark, but failed to consider the way the germ of awe that was in me then would grow and spread and connect to all the parts of my existence.
Yet the other thing that time has brought to this sense of awe is poignancy. That piercing sense that moments are fleeting. Amitai's hands that fumble for misplaced objects, find connection in the caress of a loved one, but the fear of losing that person sharpens the intensity of the moment--what is gone, what is eroding away, what will be left of this love? The fear, however, brings potency: "hands afraid of loss are the only hands for love." If one doesn't sense the poignancy of the fleeting moment, does love get masked in boredom? enterred in numb routine? Does one need that pressing sense of urgency--not the urgency of need, but the urgency of loss foretold--to give flame to passion or truth to intimacy?
It seems to me now that perhaps the acknowledgment of loss could help ameliorate the sense of "being lost"; we cannot circle back, we won't get back to our prior selves; we can only forge forward into uncharted territory, keeping attuned to the wonder that has not left us despite it all, awaiting the signs of regeneration. Or some harbingers of the newly forged experiences, objects, relationships we will be able to mark "found" at a later date.