Eva Saulitis in Orion Magazine:
FOR TWENTY-SIX SEPTEMBERS I’ve hiked up streams littered with corpses of dying humpbacked salmon. It is nothing new, nothing surprising, not the stench, not the gore, not the thrashing of black humpies plowing past their dead brethren to spawn and die. It is familiar; still, it is terrible and wild. Winged and furred predators gather at the mouths of streams to pounce, pluck, tear, rip, and plunder the living, dying hordes. This September, it is just as terrible and wild as ever, but I gather in the scene with different eyes, the eyes of someone whose own demise is no longer an abstraction, the eyes of someone who has experienced the tears, rips, and plunder of cancer treatment. In spring, I learned my breast cancer had come back, had metastasized to the pleura of my right lung. Metastatic breast cancer is incurable. Through its prism I now see this world.
…NO ONE TEACHES US how to die. No one teaches us how to be born, either. In an essay about visiting the open-air cremation pyres of Varanasi, India, Pico Iyer quotes the scholar Diana L. Eck: “For Hindus, death is not the opposite of life; it is, rather, the opposite of birth.” It happens that my stepdaughter, Eve, is pregnant. I’ve known her since she was three years old; she’s thirty now. One late afternoon this spring, early in her pregnancy, early in my diagnosis, we picked bags of wild rose petals together in a meadow below my house; she intended to make rose-flavored mead. We hadn’t talked much about the implications of my cancer recurrence; in the meadow, we almost didn’t have to. It hovered in the honeyed sunlight between us. That light held the fact of life growing inside her and the cancer growing inside me equally, strangely. We talked around the inexplicable until, our bags full of pale pink petals, we held each other in the tall grass and cried. Watching her body change in the months since, without aid of technology or study or experience, watching her simply embody pregnancy, should teach me something about dying. In preparation for giving birth, she reads how-to books, takes prenatal yoga, attends birthing classes. She studies and imagines. Yet no matter how learned she becomes, how well informed, with the first contraction, her body will take over. It will enact the ancient, inborn process common to bears, goats, humans, whales, and field mice. She will inhabit her animal self. She will emit animal cries. She will experience the birth of her child; she will live it. Her body—not her will or her mind or even her self—will give birth. Can I take comfort in the countless births and deaths this earth enacts each moment, the jellyfish, the barnacles, the orcas, the salmon, the fungi, the trees, much less the humans?