Taking the full measure of life

The Moments

May 6th, 2009 · 7 Comments

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“so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

–william carlos williams

I remember in high school, junior year, explications of William Carlos Williams’s poem. I remember learning that he was a doctor, a pediatrician. Someone (perhaps the text) suggested that Williams had written the poem after making a house call where a child died. The theory went that he walked outside after the death of the child, and in the senselessness of the moment, he saw the red wheel barrow, glazed with water, and the poem formed in his mind as a representation of what we can’t divide.

But maybe it was just a moment. I’ve never seen that story of the poem since. Maybe it was just a guess, and maybe it was wrong.  I cannot say.

The past week has been filled with particular moments, the meaning of which I cannot fully tell you, because I do not know. And yet, they have been stark, or striking, or poignant, even without comprehension.

I fell. My husband was giving me a piggy-back ride down the sidewalk. (This shouldn’t surprise you, should it? It’s a common occurrence, well befitting our absolute silliness.) And he boosted me up, but he boosted me too high. He leaned forward to try to regain his balance, and I went flying over his head. In the worst-case-scenario, reptilian part of my brain, my concern in falling was simply do-not-squash-husband’s-head (as he fell, too) between my thighs and the sidewalk. Thus, unconcerned with my landing beyond that, I hit the ground with my left arm crooked under my stomach. I punched myself in the stomach; road rash streaked my elbow. “Are you okay?” I gasped at him, panicked about his head. But he had simply scraped his knee. “I think I might have broken my arm,” I told him as I perched, breathless and nauseated, on the ledge of the sidewalk. My elbow swelled. My arm throbbed. I’ve broken my arms twice before; I’ve hurt numerous body parts. I think of myself as someone who breaks bones easily. I spent that night mostly sleepless, my arm immobile, and the next morning at the doctor’s office getting x-rays, thinking about the multitude of times I’ve pulled on a lead apron and arranged body parts under the clicking lamp, curious how many x-rays it takes to bring on the side effects of radiation.

My arm wasn’t broken. I felt like the gluten-free diet—which can prevent or reverse bone decay—is a ray of sunshine that falls upon me and warms my bones with strength. In the moment leaving the hospital, my arm aching like hell, I felt immense gratitude for avoiding certain foods.


A friend invited us over to catch up. “How was your trip?” We spilled out the stories, tumbling over each other with details of our adventures and misadventures and impressions of the different cities we saw. “What’s your news?” we replied, expecting she’d found a house to buy.

“I have breast cancer.” She had just learned. She has no family history. She’s 34.

Life feels so full, and yet, when you need to, you shove everything else aside, and you make room for what matters more. We’ve listened when she talks. I’m so amazed by her self-possession, yet I’ve told her she should never feel like she has to be anything but what she is, whatever that is at the moment. Her only young friend with a cancer history, her only friend with such self-chosen time, I accompanied her to one of the doctors to find out options. I took notes on chemo. I was able to be present for her, in whatever small way. I hate—I abhor—that she has to go through this.  For the first few days, I kept thinking it could not be true, that at any time she would call to say it had been a mistake, and I kept thinking how my shock must pale in comparison to her own.

And yet, for me—I told her, and I meant it, that it’s okay if she never feels this way, and that I hadn’t thought about it until I talked to someone else who’d been through worse than I had and that girl had told me the same thing—but for me, even though it’s come at a high cost, I would never take my cancer back. It’s taught me too much. That’s easy to say when you get to live through it, maybe.  Maybe if it comes back tomorrow, I’ll do nothing but rage against it, though God knows I have repercussions from it,  even now, that I live with day to day.  The fact is—even if it’s a small thing, and this is one of many gifts—I have been able to listen with empathy, not just sympathy, as she has worked through some of her struggles with this process. How can a person regret the ability to empathize?


Today, I made stock from the chicken we roasted last night for a small dinner party with two new friends. One of the joys of self-employment is the ability to take the time and energy, during the day when I still have time and energy, to put a stock simmering on the stove for the afternoon.  Taking the bit of time to make stock, to make full use of the animal that sacrificed its life for us, just feels right. I put the chicken bones, the carrots, the onion, and the green garlic into a large pot, covered it all with water, and turned the eye on to medium-high. I dug out the kitchen shears and skipped down the stairs outside to the deck and then the yard, where the kitchen herbs grow in warm blue pots.  I thought to myself what a fine thing it is to wander outside on a spring day, linger among the herbs, and clip fresh them for a simple stock. I bent down to sniff an herb I didn’t recognize.

“It’s RAIIIIINING!” I heard a kid yell joyously on the playground adjacent to the house—just feet away from me.  What? I thought. My head flicked up, and I saw a drop bounce off a leaf a foot in front of my eye.  Within a single second, the downpour engulfed me.  I clipped what I needed and raced back up the stairs, into the house.

Sticky clothes do not feel good.  My glasses were coated in rain.  But how could I do anything but laugh, hard, out loud, even though I was alone in the house? It was my private moment of comedy.

You can’t always explain life.  You can’t always parse it.  But you can try to lean into it.  Sometimes I think that’s all you can do.

Tags: gratitude · spring · sturm and drang

7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Anthony // May 6, 2009 at 11:38 pm

    Very eventful moments I must say.

  • 2 Shannon // May 7, 2009 at 3:51 am

    I have moments, with my babies, that remind me of movies. You know the scene where everything around you is perfect, beautiful, warm and full of love and then suddenly you get into a horrible car accident? Where you think nothing compares to how full my heart is right now. I have those moments in the car with my boys, looking in the rear view mirror. Except, somehow, I have yet to have the sad ending.

  • 3 Kristen // May 7, 2009 at 7:06 am

    It sounds like you are enjoying life.

  • 4 Hannah Handpainted // May 7, 2009 at 3:34 pm

    Bittersweet post. Thank you and good luck to your friend. We all have these struggles, but it doesn’t mean that they aren’t profound…

  • 5 elisa // May 8, 2009 at 9:52 pm

    Definite love and luck to your friend. Glad she has a friend to be there for her. I think that will work wonders. (At least it would for me if I was in that situation.)

    I love that poem. It always makes me pause. And there is so much lately that is making me do that. I pause for the bad news on NPR and the mix of bad and good news from friends and then the babble of the toddler when I look down and find he’s taken off all his clothes and is happily playing in the living room with his wooden train. Life is good and life can suck and then it rains and it can be shiny for a while. Yeah. Anyhow. I guess that’s my long way of saying, yeah, I agree.

  • 6 Cheryl // May 9, 2009 at 1:08 pm

    Much love to you and your friend…she is fortunate to have your friendship. How wonderful that you were able to turn cancer in to a gift and a blessing.

  • 7 meg wolff // May 11, 2009 at 3:01 pm

    Yes, leaning into it is a good way to put it. hen things are what they are, leaning in is the only way to go. You are wise beyond your years, Sally.

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