A friend asked me to tell him a childhood story of wind and I told him of standing on the red cinderblock retaining wall next to the garage when I was eight or nine, and watching the westernmost pine tree in the yard, the branches closest to the ground so still they could balance a bubble on the needles, but the very tops of the tree were fussing, as if they knew something we didn’t. The sky was green and I could hear thunder, but where I stood was too still even to be called calm. I stood motionless and watched the tree’s top, recognizing for the first time what a storm smelled like.
Anyone who’s been through illness knows there’s a point where everything contracts, pulls in like blood to the core, away from the limbs, into the empty space in my mother’s abdomen where her uterus with its three pound embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma tumor used to be. Fingers become superfluous, the need for circulation to the knees, gone. The body becomes a fist, the raptor’s talons 400 psi to the human 40. This is how we survive: we don’t struggle. We still.
It’s hot today in Minneapolis, the heat index over one hundred and we close the house against it, the curtains, even ourselves, as if quiet will cause the heat to pass by unnoticed, the way I remember closing the east side of the house in the morning and the west side in the afternoon when I was young before we had air conditioning. In the hungry quiet of this June morning, I don’t know what to do now that my mother’s chemo is over, the CT scans clear of cancer. I am suspicious of this calm, waiting for the storm I know must lurk beyond the stillness. My mother’s hair is growing, the port scar on her chest losing its vibrant purple shade. I struggle against this frozen moment that still feels like waiting, the expectation that will carry on as if the last six months never happened, the release of the tension so abrupt as to be disorienting.
My mother gardens in the June sunshine as we can feel the storm building, energy she hasn’t had for nearly a year, ever since her belly started growing until she felt pregnant. It was, we learned later, a three-pound, cabbage-sized uterine tumor of a childhood cancer so rare in adults that only 400 cases have been reported in the last thirty years. She will lose her energy quickly, but at least she is there. June is planting season, the return of childhood memories of standing with my mother in the cool darkness of seed store in Park Rapids for beans and radishes and carrots, even as I now associate seeds with cancer that my mother’s doctors are vigilantly searching for on her CT scans that she undergoes every three months. A lot can happen in three months: my mother went from cancer-free to a cabbage-sized tumor in three months; my sister’s trimesters of pregnancy move away from a fear of miscarriage towards the arrival of a child that will number three.
June is strawberry season in Hubbard County, the sandy soil of my hometown so perfect for growing strawberries the place might have been designed specifically for them. My grandmother, mother, sisters, and I would go strawberry picking at Keske’s U-Pick in the brightness of early summer mornings before the heat was too dangerous. There were other U-Pick farms in the area, but Keske’s was the only one that allowed children. Strawberries are the only fruit with its seeds on the outside, each one averaging, we are told, two hundred seeds.
Some statistics put the number of “cured” patients, those who receive the “no detectable cancer” diagnosis, at 80%—and other statistics say that in 90% of these patients, chemotherapy does not work on the recurrence. My mother has no detectable cancer, but we still worry about those cancer seeds, waiting in the stillness to replant themselves.
At our family’s homeplace, my grandparents’ Cabin on 3rd Crow Wing Lake, two hundred miles north of where our family now lives in the Twin Cities, I walk down to the lake in the quiet of a morning that knows more than we do, the loons warbling and then growing silent against the darkness of the west that rumbles with the promise of a morning thunderstorm. There is incredible stillness here, leaves frozen, not even the chitter of squirrels. In the green under my feet, a spot of red hiding in the shapes of leaves I recognize: wild strawberries. The seed of memory sprouts: my grandmother trying to occupy three little girls by hunting for tiny wild strawberries down by the lake, a hunt that never yielded more than six or eight, strawberries that never had enough surface area to be more than a mouthful of seeds, but a treasure that always required two scoops of ice cream to celebrate. Is this what happens when an internal moment becomes external, the moment where I am called to pause in stillness that smells faintly of fear and anticipation and joy: is the point of this moment not the blister of ozone, not the fear of what seeds will grow with the rain from this storm, but the bright burst of a wild strawberry, the tart and the sweet, the way it’s supposed to be, fresh, as the storm moves on?