This spring, the tulip poplar at the corner of our house died. It had been looking unwell through last fall, and my husband and I feared that its days were numbered. It failed even to put out one leaf this spring, and we ordered a tree-cutter to come and take it down. In the meantime, the patch of variegated Solomon’s Seal that was spreading nearby began to yellow a bit around the edges. I thought it was probably getting too much sun, so I began to dig it up for the move. To my horror, I discovered a disgusting fungus, blue-green and fuzzy, clinging to some of the roots. Some of the stems fell off in my hands, and in their cores were masses of writhing maggots.
I spent a day moving the patch, pulling and breaking off the dead bits and treating the rhizomes with anti-fungal spray and tobacco tea (the nicotine kills various kinds of nasty bugs in iris rhizomes, too). My husband would have helped, but he’s recovering from a recent hip replacement and can’t yet bend. I began to think of the human body–its hidden diseases and malfunctions–and the ways we try to get at the roots of our own decay and mortality, to stave it off and, when that becomes impossible, to make something sensible, beautiful, or even funny of it. My two dear friends Becky Levell Cannon and Tom Sheets have both undergone multiple treatments for various cancers, as has my husband. Becky, always smart and never self-pitying, now jokes of her surgeon that she’s going to “have him put a zipper in next time.” Tom laughs, and I laugh. She’s made sense of her disease.
My husband now has a “matching set” of replaced hips, neither of which is (as they promise) as good as a set of non-arthritic natural hips. But he copes, and he laughs that he’s taking it “one step at a time.” He actually does quite a lot better than that!
But I recall the anxious weeks before his diagnosis for cancer, particularly the doctor who said, when we went in complaining that he couldn’t swallow, “You don’t look like a man who has cancer.”
Perhaps not. But cancer was the root of the problem after all. It could have taken him, as it took my mother within a week of her diagnosis. Pancreatic cancer: she hadn’t mentioned the stomach ache.
The tree came down this morning, and the Solomon’s Seal is recovering in a quarantined bed. I’m going back to working out the plot problems in my third novel this evening. Becky and Tom and my husband Rod are all in my thoughts today. We live in mortal bodies, all of us.
And we want those bodies in which to work out our stories for as long as we can have them. Sometimes that means getting to the roots, digging out disease, and then celebrating new life–and new growth. Every day that we are, as my husband would say, “still casting a shadow,” is one for which I am thankful, as I am thankful for him, for Becky, and for Tom. May we all live, and laugh, a long time.