On the summer solstice of this year my youngest sister, Debbie, was diagnosed with breast cancer, revealed in a routine mammogram. The mother of two young sons, ages six and seven, she wasted no time in responding to this diagnosis, and by early August I found myself in her tenth-floor New York Hospital room awaiting her return to life following eight hours of major surgery.
I brought two suitcases with me on this journey: one for clothes; one filled entirely with fruit and vegetables harvested from our northern California summer garden. My plan was to cook for my sister, to ease her back to health as she emerged from the labyrinth of anesthesia. Along with my other, healthy sister and Debbie’s husband, I decorated her room with Rosebrook Gravenstein apples and tender-skinned russet potatoes intertwined with the first three ears of sweet corn from our garden. I also drew out of my peddler’s pack golden zucchini, dragon tongue beans, and one or two heads of newly pulled garlic to chase away vampires and overly solicitous friends and help them clip short their hospital visits.
But mostly I stood, hour after hour, looking out the thick glass windows of Debbie’s hospital room, watching the tangled currents of the East River purl and knit their dark olive strands of water. A line from Case 87 of the Blue Cliff Record rose up from the bottom skein of the river: “Medicine and disease subdue each other,” taught Zen Master Yun Men. He also taught that the whole earth is medicine, and then turned to his assembly to ask, “What is your true self?”
How fitting, I thought, fingering the gleaming lines of vegetables on the hospital windowsill. You cling to existence, to health, he serves you non-existence; you attach to non-being, he brings up existence for you. And if you are crafty enough to be attached to neither existence nor non-existence? Then an undying, many-breasted, and cancer-breeding goddess manifests out of the rubble of the East River’s Roosevelt Island.
When my sister woke up, she had a transformed body. Many of the pathways of her central nervous system had been cut, and the severed nerve endings called out to their phantom parts, sending a mild surge of electrical current through Debbie’s body. “If the whole earth is medicine,” I whispered to myself, “then ground this traveler in the heart of the garden.”
It has been more than a month now since my sister’s mastectomy. All of the vegetables and fruit are eaten. Debbie’s lymph node biopsy came back clean and she is returning to her life. And my sisters and I, and our children, carry the truth of her cancer in every cell of our bodies.
Back home it is just past the autumnal equinox and the garden inclines toward winter’s rest. We are shearing the yew hedge this week, that ancient plant that encircles the inner garden of the Gulch and is the living source of Taxol, primary medicine for breast cancer. Do medicine and disease actually subdue each other? I wonder again as we shear the old hedge. I have a bitter taste in my mouth, one that does not fade. May this bitterness abide and give me my true self. ▼
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