Chapter 14: Put Down The Knife
from A Pleasant Loitering Journey

Goddesses do not take a knife to their days. They neither dissect nor disembowel the memories behind them and the prophecies or plans in front.

There are a million daily decisions that, in their addition, will add up to the youness of you. Taking a knife to each day, looking cause and effect in the eye, searching for what you could have done better? You are not dead yet, there is no need for a postmortem.

Plans and memories may spring forth, let them do so in their resplendent joy of action and thought, but stop, stop, stop, smearing them in the blood of your days. Your bullshit journals and to-do lists, your five-year plans and annual lists of growth areas. A goddess lives her days, she does not organize them. She does not categorize them. She does not agonize over them. 

And it is in this fourth tip I fear you will see me as a hypocrite, take none of my other words for truth, put this tome down (a shame, for you have come so far already). Like the other tips I will tell you how I learned it, and in telling must share how and when I was less than the goddess I am now. But unlike the others, this time feels more recent and stares back at me from the mirror in the night. I was still taking a knife to my days not long after the doctors took a knife to me. 

There is an odd trick the doctors play on all those they’ve had need to slash, to burn, to poison in the name of health and healing. We are given pamphlets, booklets, photocopied leaflets telling us this was not our fault, that anyone might find themselves in a reclining beige pleather chair with alternating solutions of salt and poison administered by women in protective smocks and gloves. That it is not there but for the grace of God go I but a situation of no grace, only random pickings, our souls like balls in a lotto hopper, some of our numbers called and others left to rattle in the cage a little longer. 

We are told it could be anyone watching their hair fall out in clumps on the floor of the shower, feeling the sensation of the strands coming loose on their hands, feeling the pain of the follicles in their Taxol-induced freakout. O, little goddesses to be, let me tell you about the pain, because the others will not. It takes a goddess to speak of the pain of hair loss. Fuck the wigs and wraps, fuck the pretty little hats. They will try to convince you the alopecia is an issue of vanity, placate you with it’ll grow back and you’re beautiful as you are, your head has a lovely shape. May their distracting mouths be sewn shut should they gaslight—no, that’s not quite the right word—dismiss, the word is dismiss, another woman’s fear and pain. Because when it starts to fall out between days 9 and 14 of the first round of Taxol, your scalp will tighten and ache, a wrong move will send a shock wave of misery through your whole body, and merely laying your head back on your beautiful leather office chair—the $1,000 ergonomic glory you made space for in the budget when first promoted to director—feels like sledgehammer and railway spike all-in-one. It is not vanity, but how can we explain this to them when they must protect themselves from the knowledge of what they are doing to us? O little lottery winners of this random terror, you are so silly to care about your hair, let me show empathy for your vanity, so I might ignore your physical pain. 

What the fuck was I just talking about? Oh yes, they tell you it’s not your fault. Then they tell you it is. 

Because in every post-care missive, you are told to watch your weight and alcohol. You are told to exercise. Keep the devil cancer away through healthy living and good cheer. Sugar, though, is fine. They will even give you cookies and colas as you sit in the beige pleather recliner with poison in your veins. Sugar lobbyists earn their keep. Or not, who am I to say? You are told how to keep it from coming back, though also that you did nothing to cause it. It is madness to figure their logic, even more so to enter the spiral of the internet. 

Each time a friend posts general cancer preventative tips, not thinking of me, just thinking to share the latest fitness craze, be it paleo, low-fat, CrossFit, or Jazzercise (they have all beat cancer in their day). Avoid red meat, especially charred. Don’t use fake sugar or parabens. Avoid soy and dairy. The list, it grows, each addition with its own army of clickable articles and lists until your brain is a swirl of guilt and blame. Because if you can prevent it, doesn’t that mean you caused it? 

No, no, poor dear, no, no, mustn’t think that way you broken, invalid soul! Until you’re better, of course, and then here is your list of things you must do and if the cancer returns we’ll know, we’ll know for sure you have been a naughty, naughty girl and brought it on yourself. 

On meeting my new oncologist, six months out of chemo and impressed with my growing lashes and brows, the first thing she said to me was, “So, how’d you get cancer so young?” This thing that six months ago was random and could happen to anyone, though it was indeed happening to me, was now something she expected me to have a cause for, expected me to atone for my sins both real and imagined. So I took a deep breath, or as deep as my not-yet-healed body would allow and said… 

 It may have been that time I masturbated with a shiva lingam. Or the C-8 in the water up home, the radiation from the break-room microwave or staying up late playing Candy Crush with my tablet atop my abdomen. 

 It may have been too much soy or maybe not enough, or the cheap pheromone perfume from an MLM thing a friend was doing and I bathed in every day for a month or so.  

 It may have been the milk I drank when I was just a girl or hamburgers, cheese, veal, butter, anything with hormones running wild. Is this why I started my period at ten, which used to be considered early but isn’t anymore? 

Since my mind is on being ten right now, let’s take a short side trip to the first time I met Henbit Deadnettle, the first and only time really.  

Henbit came to Granny’s for some gossiping and tea. I was outside doing something rowdy and grimy. Seeing the two old women (though they were not much older than I am now, I fear) sitting at the kitchen table, I wondered what it would be like to be so free and cackley in my laughter. I had just recently realized I laughed too loudly and been told by my mother I would never get a boyfriend unless I toned it down, and here was Henbit, single and going off like a howler monkey at some story or other Granny was weaving, some memory.  

As if sensing my confusion and chagrin, Henbit reached out for me, taking my hand and introducing herself, forcing me to come to terms with her not just as a vague presence in the room, but as all of her in all her selfness.  

And I felt a spark in her touch and she felt it too. It ran from my right hand up my arm and around my body like a charge down a line of caps firing off. Was it turning on some bits of the goddess Aphrotiamis or was it putting something in that wasn’t there before? I don’t know. What I do know is it wasn’t some full-transfer draining that left her with nothing. Not like pouring cherry Kool-Aid from the pitcher to the glass from the glass to your mouth, each step leaving less and less. No, it was more like car batteries and jumper cables igniting a spark (well, okay, not a spark, that’s dangerous, but you’re getting what I’m saying, right?). The battery comes back to life, ready to ride the asphalt in the dance of metal it’s been longing for. Did Henbit know? Did she do it on purpose? Was it intent, destiny, or accident? Who knows, who knows, who knows. And speaking of uncertainty, let’s get back to my listing of all those things that may or may not have been trying to hasten my demise.  

It may have been my getting a graduate degree. Isn’t that what they used to tell women? That education made their ovaries shrivel? Perhaps they meant explode? 

It may have been using condoms or maybe going without them. Too tight underpants or too loose of morals. Or maybe just a gene somewhere, but I don’t have two hundred dollars sitting around to find out. 

It may have been too much sugar or too much fake sugar. It may have been trying to do what everyone said, trying to please everyone, a nearly impossible task.  

It may have been because my husband didn’t want to sleep with me. Or because other men did. 

It may have been my appetites for one thing or another. Skin creams with parabens or cake frosting with the same. Sitting in dirt or swimming in chlorine. 

Two or three girls, now women, who were in marching band with me have recently had estrogen-dependent cancers and one’s already dead. Are these numbers normal or did the stuff that turned our white knockoff Keds orange do more than cost us money? 

Was it the benzene in the air around Grisway Holler or the sweet taste of our wells that summer that did it? 

Was it this? Was it that? My-lanta this list can go on forever. Aren’t you glad you asked? 

The doctor looked at me and said my numbers looked good and showed herself the door. 

Now you, dear friend or enemy as the case may be, know the real reason, know it’s because I couldn’t leave those shadowy bastards alone, had to always be trying to save everybody else regardless of the cost. That’s got to be it. Because there is a reason, there always has to be a reason. 

I see her every three months still, for another year or so. Then six months, once a year, every two years, every five. I am tied to her, or someone like her, forever. It is not a comforting feeling. And it often asks me to do what a goddess must never do: take a knife to my days. 

Focus on my body with laser precision and worry. Is that heaviness the cancer coming back or just too much bread and meat? A radish too far? Are my memories scattered from the chemo or is that the cancer coming back? Am I tired from being up too late playing Candy Crush (again) and looking up Suzy Fuller playthrough videos on YouTube because level 3199 is kicking my ass, or is that the cancer coming back? Am I worn out from dissecting everything I’ve ever said to anyone even though you know I just said goddesses don’t do that, or is it the cancer coming back? Report it all so they can ignore it all and shrug their shoulders prettily. But they are lovely people, just don’t know what to do with a goddess like me, no one ever does. 

Jennifer Schomburg Kanke lives in Florida where she edits confidential documents. Her work appears in New Ohio Review, the Massachusetts Review, Prairie Schooner, and Salamander. Her zine about her experiences undergoing chemotherapy for ovarian cancer, Fine, Considering, is available from Rinky Dink Press. She serves as a reader for The Dodge.