10 Years Beyond the Masts

There’s a book by Charles Dana, Two Years Before the Mast. It is a tale of courage at sea. The author knew that choosing a life at sea during the 19th century was a dangerous choice – but it was a decision he made of his own free will. Today is a decade past one of the more difficult days of my life. It was the eve of my breast cancer surgery to have both breasts removed and then be artfully gutted to reconstruct faux-boobs from my abs. I spent the day with my kids, George, and much loved “cellar dweller”, “Brother Lee”. I remember preparing a family meal and reading this piece I’d written while the pasta sauce, Gram’s recipe, simmered. Okay, I also seem to remember downing my cleansing prep with a couple of shots of vodka and then going right to sleep – only to awaken to horrific cramps and abdominal explosions. Surreally, few Americans had even a hint that real explosions were to take place an usher in a reign of fear and terror in just over a day. I prepared to gain a new lease on life as others slept unaware that their leases were to be abruptly, tragically terminated. I’d like to share my brief chapters of Tidal Times written 10 years ago about the next few days. My losses were so minor compared to those lost by too many. Sadly, they had no choice to alter their fate. Luckily, I did.

Strain on the Line


    Ropes can only take so much strain over long periods of time. They can bear heavy loads without aparent wear and tear, without signs of frays or loose ends dangling on the deck. Then suddenly without warning, the rope (line) snaps and the consequences can be dreadfully dangerous. There are a few lessons to be learned about releasing the tension on a sailing line that relieves the stress of maintaining sail trim. However, there is little forewarning from a rope that one more ounce of stress will be too heavy a load to bear – the line just snaps.

This is the day before surgery. My lines are taught but not unusually over loaded with strain. My impending surgery seems almost anti-climatic after seven-years of vigilantly monitoring the misdirected macrobiotic evolution within my breasts. There have been so many heavy loads for my psyche to bear; four biopsies, nearly a dozen diagnostic mammograms, and numerous consultations with surgeons, radiologists, nurses and the lot.  Over time I’ve also kept watch on my own “ropes”, known on sailboats as running rigging. These working lines are used to position and secure the mast, sails and boom which in turn power and direct the sailboat. If you look at a sailboat from a distance it appears that the hull, mast and sails are the sole triad that harvest and control the wind to power the vessel. What you can’t see are the myriad of ropes (lines) connected to either the hull, mast, or sails, with each dedicated to a specific task critical to directing the boat’s course and speed.

Running rigging has helped control the sails aboard my boats as well as being a metaphor for living. I navigate life with the help of strong lines that affect my attitude, confidence, goal orientation, emotional wellbeing and cognitive clarity. My running rigging connects

me with my inner-self and then I connect with friends and family. These lines harness the necessary strength to accept the simple principal of physics that I cannot control the wind but I can adjust my sails.

One afternoon last summer, I set out to sail my Sunfish on the Narrow River. The sky was clear, sun bright and breezes light. The water was womb-warm and inviting as I slipped the halyard through its block and gave a mighty tug to hoist the rainbow colored sail. The instant the boom responded and the sail leaped up the mast I realized that my abdominal muscles were doing a yeoman’s job of providing strength.

I froze with the understanding that the upcoming reconstruction surgery called a TRAM Flap procedure uses both front abdominal muscles to rebuild the breasts. The consequence of this alteration is to lose any strength associated with these primary abdominal muscles. I dropped the halyard as if it was a hot electrical wire, fell backwards and landed hard on the damp beach. There was too much strain on my lines. How could I possibly consider a health protocol that could possibly diminish my independence, strap my strength to raise sails, and possibly obliterate my chest and upper arm nerves? I snapped.

Sitting there, catching my breath, stanching tears, eyeing the river and tidal marsh over the mangled mess of boom and sail, I thought back to a recent break in my lines that took place atop Vermont’s tallest mountain on the first evening of May. Six days earlier I had endured the surgical biopsy that removed a golf ball sized chunk of tissue. Only four days before I had confronted the diagnosis of lobular carcinoma in situ and made the tentative treatment decision to opt for a bilateral mastectomy. Nevertheless, I refused to cancel my speaking engagement and subsequently flew to Burlington, Vermont. I was honored to serve as keynote speaker for the State of Vermont’s Family Literacy Project First Annual Conference.

I arrived the day before my engagement, savored a lovely lunch at a local pub, and purchased a half dozen books at the independent bookseller across the road. Anticipating time to unwind before sunset, I bought a few beers for my room, wandered outside to the resort grounds, and settled into a chair overlooking a mountain meadow. I popped the cap off an icy cold beer, relaxed and began reading a newly purchased novel, The Power of One. As I was reading, the sun hunkered down toward the mountaintop. The theme of the novel, that to act with one mind and one heart is the true measure of character, was boring into my soul. I kept fighting the thesis by pushing back pent up emotions with a strong rationalization that now was my time to think but not to feel.

The flight from St. Louis had left me tired with a sore breast. This post-surgical condition severely compromised my energy reserves and made me very edgy.  I was anxious about my presentation, for while I knew the content I felt distracted and unfocused. Passion for content and outcomes is the hallmark of my presentation style, without it, I am just another pedantic academician. I struggled in vain to stop obsessing about my diagnosis and decision to barter for health by sacrificing two breasts to the vile God of Carcinoma. I felt a slithering coil of fear in my bowels that questioned my ability to endure any surgical or chemical tactic that could possibly protect my wellness.

The majestic mountains were unmindful of my internal turmoil. It was surreally calm and peaceful.  The mountain foliage swayed in the clear sunlight from brilliant vermilion to crimson. Broad swaths of fuchsia, silver, cyan, and violet danced across the sky. I savored deep breaths of sweet pine tinted mountain air. The wind sighed as the meadow grasses shivered with her gentle touch. A chipmunk scampered up a nearby stone wall. It sat comfortably munching on a seed and enjoying the vista.

Two young female physicians interrupted my solitude. I overheard their conversation clearly in the thin and quiet mountain air long before I spotted them crossing the meadow. They were doing Tai ching or some other form of yoga. They chattered noisily like squirrels and recounted their busy day at the hospital. Their conversation reverberated with delight as one blithe spirit described how quickly a nurse had responded to her orders, “This is so real! We’re actually taken seriously as physicians!”  Then they quieted, stretched, bowed, and continued their serene regimen.

I held my book quietly and watched the sun nuzzle the mountain crest.  Yes, I mused, even young people of medicine who bear the sacred Cruces symbol of the healing arts, make decisions and call out orders that alter lives for better or worse. Reflections of my recent biopsy surgery; including vivid memories of neo-technical image monsters, soft words of comfort, disinfectant scents of medicine that sear one’s soul and catapult confidence came raging down the mountainside.

I squinted into the burning bowl of sunlight and prayed to God for the strength, power, faith and serenity to overcome my medical challenge. The sunbeams warmed the crown of my head as I bowed and prayed.

Silently, the warmth faded, a cool breeze lifted. I was overwhelmed with new freedom and security that released my fears and pain. I gasped sobbing aloud and unfettered. I swallowed huge gulps of air that were rashly expelled by deep blasts of anguish formerly hidden deep in my gut. Tears spurted like a severed artery from my soul into my hands on down into the mountain grass. I had just felt the power and compassion of God. My faith was confirmed. I was blessed with a grace that would carry me safely to a healthy recovery.

The torrent of wild weeping purged my soul of self-doubt, regret, anger and remorse. Breathing deep drafts of clean mountain air replenished my spirit with a bounty of peace and calmed my soul. The sobbing ceased and I gently took back the reins to my head and my heart. I pulled myself together as one, autonomous woman; stood, raised my hands in a humble salute, bowed and offered deepest thanks. I walked back to my room, each step directed toward conquering the health liabilities on my life.

The hotel room had a large picture window facing east toward the mountain range. I sat down and watched the mountain fade from view. The colors shifted from deep purple to black until the mountain was indistinguishable from the night sky. Eventually, the window was empty with only a shadow reflection of the hotel room. The world beyond the glass had ceased to exist. The mountain was gone only the window could be seen. That is what faith is all about. Believing something is real even though it is hidden from our senses.

I understood that there would be a price to pay for whatever security the mastectomies may provide. It was time to believe that I would be able to preserve my health by retaining hope and acting rationally. Wellness was dependent on achieving a balance of God’s investment into my spiritual account with regular withdrawals of memories from this mountain epiphany.

I jogged from mountain memories to my present situation on Narrow River. I thought of my pact with God to reinvest my energy. It was time to dock my rough water fears in a safer harbor of hope and confidence. I appraised my yellow life jacket clad chest and the lufting blue line attached to the rainbow sail. The sun was still high in the sky. It was the same sun that had set on Mount Stowe back in May. The day was still ripe with opportunity. July is endowed with long daylight hours that afford us time to soak up sunshine vitamins and establish a reserve account to help us survive the shorter, darker days of winter. I counted back three full moons since the mountain epiphany. I was closer to living a healthy life free of breast cancer fears today than I was back on the mountain.

I stood slowly, dusted the sand off my backside, swiped my hands clean on my shorts, put one foot on the starboard hull, then firmly clasped the halyard with two strong hands. I drew a deep breath, and using only shoulders and arms, adjusted my stance to raise the sail. The gooseneck hooking the boom to the mast rose jerkily upwards toward the sun. I nodded a quick prayer of thanks for God’s refresher course about accepting my lot in life. I twisted the halyard neatly on its cleat, adjusted the thick blue running rigging that controls the sail’s direction, climbed aboard and sailed away.

During heavy wind, if the running rigging is adjusted too tight, the sails become so taught that the boat strains to meet the wind head first and heels heavily into the sea. This is known as weather helm. The boat is fast but difficult to control. The helmsman is stressed to maintain a steady course and most of the cruising passengers become frightened as the boat dips and bucks angrily through the rushing sea.Sailboats have elaborate winch systems that mechanically add strength to the sailors straining to adjust the line’s tension. Simply put, the winches allow the boat to share the load with the rigging and the sailor. Learning to cope with strain and stress demands rigorous attention toward developing and using alternative strategies. We have to learn how and when to relieve the heavy load that burdens our running rigging.

Left untended the running rigging becomes an invitation for disaster as the inexperienced skipper loses control. The sails and wind explode violently as a line snaps of the winch. Other lines holding the sails may tear lose of their insane captors. The commonsense action is to bear off the wind, lessen tension on the running rigging and dump the excessive wind force from the sails. Once executed, the boat immediately bobs upright, settles into a stable groove and plows gracefully through the chop.

Writing has been a two-speed winch easing the heavy load that’s burdened my mind and soul during the past season. Committing my thoughts and observations to print liberated my hopes, fears, rationalizations, and reflections about living through a health crisis. I’ve been able to concentrate on selecting the right words to construct images, describe smells and relay sounds to other people. The words have illuminated my mind with new insights about living simply, clearly and comfortably with myself. I’ve learned to understand my flaws, redirect my insecurities, and listen more to the world around me.

Today, on the brink of my emersion into the sterile confines of a surgical suite and painful recovery I do not feel fearful. I bear an aura of acceptance and am centered. I find my mind more tuned to recalling clear, sweet mountain air where I learned a song who’s sole refrain I hear clearly in my head:

It’s a good song, playin’ on the radio,

 It’s a fine fine day

 I tell you cause I think it’s so,

 It’s a good life that comes upon you now and then

 and I tell you cause I think it’s so.”

Sailors know that snapped lines could be mended or replaced. They also know that it’s easier to prevent an accident than to recover from a disaster. My running rigging is in

Good shape. I’ve relieved my heavy load wherever possible then coiled my lines in a neat and tidy manner.

Today I lowered and furled my sails, cast docklines around secure cleats and settled comfortably into my cockpit. My hand will remain on the tiller until morning when the anesthesiologist will put me under and the surgeons take the helm. I have been blessed with many lessons about living a full life because of an illness that threatened to compromise my ability to thrive.  My upcoming trek is a unique opportunity share with others the most meaningful lesson of my experience, “It’s a good life that comes upon you now and then.”


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