“I think I should teach you tai chi,” he said when I arrived for physical therapy.
A highly recommended physical therapist, I knew Allie was the “tai chi guy” from his presence at health days at the school. He seemed like a normal person, but visions of citron sheets and shaved heads still entered my mind. Although I didn’t have that angry, fighting spirit so often described in the “how to have cancer” literature, I had decided I would do whatever it took to become healthy, so I listened for what he had to say. As a result of chemotherapy, at least I had the right hair cut.
“Sometimes, people who are dealing with big problems need a way to get away from them, to clear their minds…” Allie said.
Do I seem like I am not dealing well with this, I wondered? But I continued to listen.
“…and it’s good exercise. It would be good for you.”
Well, he had me there. So, when I returned to the office, I clicked on complementary medicine, and did a little research.
According to the Mayo Clinic website, among the many possible health benefits of tai chi are reducing stress, anxiety and depression, improving balance, flexibility and muscle strength, lowering blood pressure, improving sleep quality and cardiovascular fitness, increasing energy, endurance and agility, and improving overall feelings of well being. Wow! Those seemed like good things.
So, as part of my physical therapy, I very self-consciously started to learn the 24 forms or postures of tai chi chuan, yang style (simplified).
“Begin from a point of nothingness,” Allie said. “Imagine you are suspended by a golden thread.” Oooo. This is a little weird, I thought.
“Commencing step. Horse position. Rising ball of air.” He recommended doing this with my eyes closed. I couldn’t. It made me feel dizzy, and I couldn’t stand the thought of unknowingly being observed by the staff and other patients.
“Carry the ball on the right.” Sigh. I don’t know my right from my left, and it gets worse if I try to think about it. So far, tai chi was contributing to my growing dread that the illusions of confidence and air of competence, carefully developed over many years, would soon disappear, leaving me exposed as a pretender. I could not imagine how that would help me. Well, I guess it gave me something to worry about that wasn’t cancer.
“This is how you should breathe,” Allie began the next lesson. What?! I thought I at least knew how to do that right! Oh goodness.
Through the weeks of physical therapy, as I regained mobility in my shoulder, he patiently taught and retaught the beginning forms of tai chi. I don’t know how apparent my discomfort and nervousness were, but I was determined to “live the life I was trying to save,” to see all my treatments as more than a fight against cancer, but as a steps on a journey toward good health. In spite of my misgivings and lack of coordination, I became convinced that tai chi would help.
Much literature on chemotherapy speaks of imagining the drugs coursing through your veins, seeking and destroying cancer cells. That imagery didn’t work for me. Surrounding myself with fun, life-giving people (and very effective antiemetics) had made chemo an enjoyable experience. Once I made the decision that I wanted to aggressively treat the cancer and had a great team in place whose medical decisions I trusted, it seemed like all I had to do was to show up. I arrived at chemotherapy, surgery, radiation, and physical therapy, willing to do whatever was necessary. Up until this point, my treatment felt like something that was happening to me. But to my surprise, with these slow graceful movements, I gradually felt empowered. For the first time, I was fighting back. I became part of the team.
Allie demonstrated each posture, breaking it down into small, managable movements. “Turn toward the front window, and part the wild horse’s mane,” he said. “Reposition, link, and part the wild horse’s mane.”
I turned and imagined myself facing the cancer. As I became stronger, better able to keep my balance, I began to feel like I was back in control. Now, I was confronting the cancer, blocking it from taking over my thoughts and emotions.
“White crane crosses it’s wings. White crane spreads it’s wings.” I had seen Allie demonstrate these postures for the children at school. I spread my wings in the face of the life-threatening illness. I am bigger than you, and I still have a lot to do, so back off.
“Twist and brush left knee. Twist and brush right knee. Twist and brush left knee again.” One website lists this move as “Green dragon shoots out pearl.” What a great name. When Allie does it, it looks like a major league pitcher’s wind-up and release. Even though I was only a rookie, I imagined myself advancing toward the cancer, driving it away, pelting it with pearls.
“Play the lute.” I gathered my inner resources to prepare for the whatever would come next.
Physical therapy ended at the same time as the second round of chemotherapy, but tai chi lessons continued. My middle child found the idea of coming to one of my medical appointments too frightening. Allie suggested she take tai chi lessons with me, giving us an opportunity to walk together on the good health journey, and taught a private mother-daughter class for us. She quickly became the personal tutor my chemo-addled brain required.
Each week we went to the clinic to learn a new posture. Every night we pushed coffee table against the couch, covered it with instructions, and practiced in the dimly lit living room.
“Repulse the monkey,” Allie told us. This is also referred to as the reverse reeling forearm. I was pleasantly surprised that I could bring my arms up and around, a move that would have been impossible before physical therapy. This became my favorite move. I felt like I was baiting the cancer, daring it to take me on, while at the same time, pushing out of my space.
“Tai chi is movement meditation, but it is also a martial art,” Allie explained. As radiation therapy became a dreaded part of my daily routine, I was secretly becoming a warrior in a campaign against cancer. Treatment required holding completely still in an unnatural position for 45 minutes, alone on a cold and uncomfortable table in a dark room. Every day when I heard the lead door close, I fought back panic by using the breathing techniques I had learned in tai chi while tears streamed down unbidden. Every night while I practiced tai chi, I rebuilt my resolve to see the treatment to the end, to repulse that monkey another day.
Although most of my attention was focused on the battle against cancer, I continued to live the rest of my life. “Parry left, ward-off right, and grasp the swallow’s tail,” Allie demonstrated. Even as I pushed in other directions, I continued to ward off the cancer, keeping it from controlling my destiny at the same time I relished the opportunity to deal with the ordinary annoyances of daily living. Tai chi moves mirrored by life.
“Danbien and strike left. Ward off right. Wave hands like clouds.” With graceful motions, I deflected blows from well-meaning people, exposing loving intentions as hurtful comments fell to the ground. All the while, I moved toward the left to resume the battle.
“Danbien, strike, high pat on horse.” The cancer was loosing power as I tamed it with an overhanded blow.
“Block and kick right. Turn and strike opponent in the ears.” Listen up, cancer! You will not be my identity. I am more than a patient, more than a cancer survivor. I am a very lucky person surrounded by love and grace, a wife, a mother, a sister, a daughter, a friend, a beloved child of God. Cancer was a problem I had, it was not who I was. I privately raged at the cancer, allowing me to show a happy demeanor in public.
“Turn. Block. Left heal kick. Danbien.” Danbien (pronounced “don ti on”) is a concept as well as a posture, Allie told us. It is the single whip form in tai chi, but it also refers to the physical center of one’s gravity, the seat of internal energy or chi. I liked this imagery. It corresponded with the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach when life seemed to be spiraling out of control. When I achieved balance, in my life or in tai chi, I had a “gut feeling” that everything would be okay.
“Snake creeps down and golden rooster stands on left leg.” You have got to be kidding me! I am a bald, overweight woman in my late 40’s undergoing radiation therapy for late stage breast cancer. Allie does not acknowledge my incredulous glare. My daughter, naturally, can do it with ease. Oh! I did it! I feel as proud as any golden rooster! On to snake creeps down right.
“Fair lady at the shuttle.” Life went on around me as treatment and tai chi lessons continued. I found comfort and humor in the fabric of daily living, the familiar rhythms of folding laundry, eating dinner, washing dishes, working, driving, texting, laughing, sleeping, weaving a future for family and friends that would include happy memories of time spent together.
“Needle at the bottom of the sea.” I reached into the deep recesses of the blessed ocean of my existence — constant yet changing, powerful and refreshing. There I found faith that gave me a sense of gratitude and peace.
“Fan through the back. Strike left, protecting head with the right.” The oncologist said it was not curable, but I knew it could be beat it into remission. I refused to get caught in the head games of negative internet chat rooms, scary statistics, and annoying predictions of doomsayers. An 80% recurrence rate means that one in five people escaped unscathed. I could be that one.
“Turn body, deflect, parry and punch.” Once again, I turned to face the cancer. I was still standing. When I die, I hope my obituary will read, “she died unexpectedly,” with no mention of a valiant, lost battle to cancer. I will die while living this amazing, unexpected, yet wonderfully ordinary life.
Winter had turned to spring, and lessons were coming to an end as we were introduced to the closing postures.
“There is a drop-in class on Wednesdays. You should come,” Allie said. By this time, I agreed that the practice of tai chi was good for me, but idea of joining a class filled me with trepidation. I took a deep breath, reminded myself of the many thing I had done over the past year that tested the limits of my courage, and wrote the class time into every week on my calendar.
The class gathers in a circle, and I look into the faces of kind strangers, but when we move together in the graceful, grace-filled unison of the 24 forms, I recognize their open, broken hearts. Pretension and illusions of confidence have no place here. I am still nervous, but I feel safe.
“Appears closed.” To my surprise, the cancer no longer feels like an enemy. I clear my right arm with my left, and withdraw my hands with my palms up, with the realization that the cancer is neither friend nor foe, but part of my being. I accept this part of myself, then push it an arm’s length away, closing the door on it’s ability to dominate my thoughts and emotions.
It’s World Tai Chi Day and some 50 people have gathered in the town park. My heart sings as Allie leads us in the beautiful dance in the wind and the sunshine.
“Cross hands, then circle to gather everything, wrists cross and rise to the throat.” I draw the lessons of tai chi and my affection for the now dear strangers, and hold them close to my heart.
Allie gives the final instructions. “Closing. Separate hands to shoulders, palms down and descend. Return to commencing position, relax and return to nothingness, suspended by a golden thread.”
In returning to the beginning, I can see how far I have come.
I got the world on a string/I’m sittin’ on a rainbow/Got that string around my finger/What a world, what a life! (Harold Arlen, Ted Koehler)