Three years ago, I was knitting a beautiful rose colored shawl. It went everywhere with me until the evening I lost it in a meadow as I moved from one stage in life to the next. Over the years, it had taken on a life of its own, and when it was no longer needed so strongly, it apparently moved on. But for the long days of its creation, I put everything I had into it, and over many long nights, it gave it all back to me.
I was diagnosed with breast cancer on September 19, 2008. My world was tipped upside down, and as things settled into their new form, I could only think of surrounding myself with as much warmth, love, prayer and hope as I could. So I headed to the yarn store.
A life-long knitter, yarn connected me to generations of women whose hands were always busy with some sort of stitchery. My great grandmother taught me to crochet and knit when I was little, and I have a closet full of scarves and afghans from her. Even though she has been dead for 30 years, the loving thoughts she put into them still hold, and I remember happy days sitting with her as she worked on them. I needed to surround myself with that same sort of contented longevity as I embarked on the unknown path of cancer treatment and survivorship.
The local knitting shop was a high-end expensive place with yarns that would knit sweaters costing an entire month of my income. Exotic, beautiful, hand dyed yards in a rainbow of colors – I was not going to short myself and didn’t even look at prices. I shopped with my hands…touching, looking for weight and texture, and softness…it would have to be the softest yarn as my already hyper-sensitive skin healed from surgery and radiation. I didn’t want to jump on the “breast cancer pink” bandwagon, but my years as working in Waldorf schools had ingrained in me that rose was a soothing color of heart-healing. The only thing I knew about my journey for sure, was that my heart and body were going to need a lot of healing.
I wasn’t the typical customer for this shop, looking much younger than my years and clearly not of their usual customer’s income level. I thought I had it handled – that I could tell the saleslady what I wanted to do and not get into too many details. I was wrong. As she asked what kind of project I was starting, I burst into tears. Alarmed, she went behind the counter to grab a handful of Kleenex, which I gratefully used to wipe mascara tracks off my face as I sniffed back the tide.
“I am sorry”, I finally got out. “I was just diagnosed with breast cancer and I am going to knit myself a shawl to wear while I am undergoing treatment.” Her eyes welled and the store grew silent.
The culture of knitting shops is such that there are always women hanging out, knitting comfortably together, receiving assistance with difficult patterns or advice regarding difficult families. Regardless of knitting’s resent popularity resurgence, knitters are typically older women of the same age that usually worries about breast cancer. Surprised enough that I was there to buy yarn, their faces registered shock and sadness that someone so young was told she could die. Tongues clucked in sympathy and eyes softened as they went back to their work.
As the clerk and I both regrouped, we wandered the store looking for just the yarn to contain the sorrow and hope of my future. With no clear pattern in mind, the possibilities were endless, but nothing was right until she went to the back to pull out the last skeins of soft Merino wool that had been put aside as a sweater kit. They were an unevenly colored, hand dyed, deep rose; soft and beautiful and everything I had hoped for. Tears flowed again and I took ragged breathes as we began to talk patterns.
I am an experienced knitter, and had an idea of what I wanted it to look like. I was looking for an easy pattern. “I want it to be kind of lacy, but warm – and,” here, I paused as I choked up again “I don’t think I can follow much of a pattern right now – my brain is not working very well”. My throat closed on those words; nothing seemed to be working very well for me right then and my brain was the least of it.
She began to write out notes on a scrap of paper; “This will be a beautiful repeating scallop pattern” she said “once you get it started, it will be easy to keep going, and if you make a mistake it won’t show. And it will go fast.” We both realized that my time was short to get this done with my surgery less than a month away. The thought was too overwhelming, and once again our eyes filled with tears and we turned away from each other.
With a bag full of hope and beautiful hand carved needles to craft it with, I was eager to begin. Everywhere I went for the next 3 weeks, my yarn went with me. As I attended doctor’s appointments, planned for my time off and talked to my family and friends about my diagnosis, I worked into my shawl prayers to allay my fears, the good wishes of my loved ones, and plans for a cancer free future. I knit on my lunch breaks, and the men who worked with me sat and watched as we talked about the sorts of things men talk about when they want you to know they care about you without saying so directly. Their grief and hope was knit in too.
The week before my surgery, my shawl was complete. It was big enough to cover my whole body when I was curled in a ball (which was often the case); warm and weightless and full of every type of healing magic I could weave into it. When I woke in the recovery room, drugged, sick and in pain, it had already been placed over me by unknown hands, and was never far from me afterwards.
My shawl was a reminder of all that I was as I suffered through the losses and fears around what cancer had made me become. As I made my way through radiation treatment and the exhaustion resulting from it, it held me warm and snug as I slept, providing some relief from the pain and devastation I would face again upon awakening. It covered my boyfriend and I as we cuddled on “date nights” watching movies and drinking wine, trying to regain a sense of normalcy. It even came with me to the dentist when I had the teeth I broke clenching my jaw in pain from surgery repaired.
Over the next three years, I was like Linus – the shawl came everywhere with me, especially if I was feeling uncertain. But, as my third anniversary approached, it came out less and less. One of its last outings was in May, nearly 3 years from when I first saw a doctor, my head rested on it as the permanently scarred area where my right breast once lived was tattooed with a design of my choosing, as I reclaimed the body cancer had laid hold of. As it had held me together when I lost so much of myself, it provided comfort as I redecorated.
The last time I had my shawl, I brought it with me to a women’s retreat where I was facilitating a workshop and rite of passage ceremony for women who have experienced a life threatening illness. I was in the middle of my own rite of passage – not only in leading the workshop, but because I had been accepting into grad school, and received a scholarship, to pursue my Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. Writing was a long held secret dream and cancer gave me a topic that was something I could justify spending time writing about. I began a blog about the lessons learned and earned through life changing events. I “allowed” myself to indulge in writing because writing about cancer was a good, socially responsible thing. But really, I was beginning to realize that I was worth doing something wonderful for – even when I was not “sick”. And dreams will never come true if you don’t give them a chance. It scared me to think I could have died without doing the one thing I always wanted to do.
In the same way that I bought expensive yarn and knitted so much hope into my shawl, I began crafting a new dream as I thought about grad school. I was beginning to realize that I didn’t want to be a “cancer writer”….I wanted to be a writer. Period. While cancer may have opened the door for me to pursue dreams that I deemed unworthy before, it was up to me (not cancer) to walk through them. And I was walkin’!
After the ceremony, I had my shawl wrapped around me when a young woman, newly diagnosed with cancer, stood shaking and alone, strongly impacted by the ritual we had created. I dropped my belongings in the dark and went to her. We talked for a long time and people cleaned up and left the circle. My shawl got picked up and I did not see it again.
When I realized it was missing, I was heartbroken. But I was also curious. Where did it go? Why did no one find it? The gathering wasn’t that big and people knew it was mine! Surely it couldn’t vanish. I put so much of myself into it and now it was gone. What did that mean?
The next day, the survivor pendant I had bought myself midway through treatment fell off and disappeared while I was having a conversation with someone about my future and creativity. It was just suddenly gone. Two things that linked me to deep feelings about cancer – to how uncertain and scared I was at that time – disappeared in 24 hours. Was this a message to me about moving beyond cancer?
Four months passed. Without my shawl, I started grad school and wrote several well received pieces that were in no way about cancer. I also continued writing my blog about living a better life post cancer, and traveled to speak about my experience as a young survivor and volunteer for The American Cancer Society. As my three year anniversary approached, I had moved far past the tears in the yarn store, and the prayers and wishes I wove into that shawl have come true for me tenfold. Life has expanded, and so have my dreams in ways I would have never imagined.
Recently, I was flown into Denver and put up in an expensive hotel so that I could deliver a speech to a group of patient services professionals. It was an amazing and scary thing to travel alone (with someone else paying for it) to visit a city I have never been to and always dreamed of. It was the sort of scary new adventure in which I would have hauled my shawl with me as a talisman of how strong I was, but instead I wrote about it while I was on the flight. I was in awe of how far I had come in just three years.
I spent three days in Denver; met a couple friends for lunch, but otherwise as to roam with no obligations. I walked for miles each day and reveling in my newfound independence and courage. The speech was a success and that evening upon returning to my hotel room, I saw I had an email: “Dear Robyn, sorry it has taken me so long, but I just now opened a box from this summer and found your shawl. I picked it up in the meadow and had forgotten I had it. How would you like me to get it to you?” I sat on the edge of the bed crying as I looked out from the 25th floor at the twinkling lights of the city towards vastness of the shadowed hills.
The one prayer I knit into that shawl over and over: “Please, let me be more because of this, please let me be stronger, please let me leave it behind and go on to do amazing things” came true. I thought I needed the shawl to remember who I was, but in fighting the battle found I was the person I hoped I would be.
I have left cancer behind me, and those days and nights of fear and uncertainty are a memory. But I created deep magic in that shawl, magic that had nothing to do with cancer, and everything to do with calling power and courage and love that I already possessed to me in a deeper, clearer way. The shawl was a symbol of all that I was and all I hoped to be. If cancer taught me anything however, it was that I am not the external things – a boob or a shawl, pendant or pink ribbon. I no longer needed these symbols to show my strength, it was already abundantly clear. My future is mine because it is what I chose for myself when I decided I was worth it, not because cancer chose this path for me. I can walk confidently forward and leave the reminders at home .
(Which is exactly where the shawl is going to stay!)