My mother had a mantra that she would recite during times of collapse. It wasn’t as if she was speaking to anyone, but more of a communication with the universe. In a low voice, she would say,
“I have given up hope and now I feel much better.” This always left me confused because it didn’t stem the collapse. If anything, it only served to wound her in a deeper place than anyone else could get to, anyone except herself. I’m sure those were someone else’s words playing in her mind-someone had gifted them to her which she then gifted to her children.
In sharing this with you, I mean to tell you that I haven’t come by hope naturally. It didn’t arrive with mother’s milk, it was actually the opposite, and I have subsequently traveled through most of my life learning another way of being.
I am now over four years out from the end of treatment for stage three throat cancer. The journey began with an experimental drug regime that worked, followed by surgery, and finally radiation. There has been no recurrence since the end of radiation. My doctors tell me that at the five-year mark they are going to pronounce me cured and usher me out the door. This will be a goal that has been a long time coming, hard won and much appreciated. Although this staying alive stuff can be exhausting, there have been the gifts of prolonged lessons in gratitude and hope.
I had a bad two years, that period of time from diagnosis, drug therapy, and the surgery, to surviving the effects of radiation treatment and the damage done to my body. The first half of the first year was grim. I was struggling to ingest 200 calories a day because swallowing anything was incredibly painful. I would sleep intermittently in 5-10 minute increments. There was no position that didn’t hurt. I lost speech for a while. It became difficult to breathe, to drink water, and I would live from moment to moment.
I would lie outside at night because I couldn’t breathe very well in the house. The outside night air was cooler and easier to breathe. I would sit under our pergola that faces the east towards sunrise and I would await another day. I would watch for the first blush to appear over the edge of the Gauliuro mountain range across the San Pedro river valley. During the dark, a pair of Great Horned Owls would keep me company in the top of a dead snag fifty yards distant and their occasional hoots would punctuate time until the start of a new day.
At the first pink of dawn, a hummingbird would come and sit with me. She would take a position on one of three little sprigs that hung off the branch of the cottonwood tree next to the recliner I was lying in. She would nestle in about 4 feet away from me and there she would stay for the 30-40 minutes it took for dawn to unfold and the light of a new day to illuminate the world. If I could get through the night I knew she would be there before dawn and would sit with me as I got to mark off another day.
As the sun began to heat the air she would leave. Her departure marked the time I would return to the inside of the house, when the flies started moving and swarming and try to climb into my mouth where part of my body was dying.
Eventually I was able to breathe better and started being able to sleep again. I didn’t get out to the pergola to greet the dawn. The hummingbird’s vigil ceased. She wasn’t needed anymore and I did not see her again.
Until today. Parking on the first floor of the large cement parking garage at the Arizona Cancer Center, I noticed someone looking up at the ceiling. He took out his phone to take a picture. As I stepped out of my car I walked by and asked them, “Is it a bird?”
“Yes, a hummingbird,” he answered.
After my doctor’s appointment, as I was returning to my car, I walked over to the spot where the man’s attention had been focused upwards. There, where a large steel cable hung down and bent up backwards, a hummingbird had constructed a nest and was sitting on the next generation of hummingbirds. The nest hung directly over the driveway, and every car entering and leaving that side of the parking structure would have to travel and pass within feet of the hummingbird. Hundreds of cars pass that way on any given day- the Cancer Center is a busy place. Each time, the vehicles unknowingly traverse the space where hope holds vigil above them. Everyone struggling with illness or with their loved ones facing those struggles beside them traveling unawares of the small beating heart just above them. Most people don’t realize hope is watching over them. They drive by, unaware that the universe has provided a small guardian- but the gift is that even if they are unaware, hope is aware of them and keeping vigil.