Tying terror into knots.

The terror comes undeniably and entirely from within myself.  

There is no pain during the radiation treatments for my cancer.  No stinging sharpness, no thundering jolts, no stifling enclosures.  I’m even allowed to listen to music that I choose, and a nearby fan creates a soft breeze across my body.  Everyone is polite and compassionate.

But I am excrusiatingly claustrophobic. And the room is dark and hard-metal grey.  And I must lie perfectly still, completly alone, on the stiff and narrow, unforgiving table, with my feet sometimes bound together.   

And there is – for my particular treatment – a specially fitted mask fastened very, very tightly across my face and head.  It is made of a hard wire mesh that has been shaped to encase my face exactly.  The technicians have kindly cut slits in it across my mouth and eyelids and throat.  Yet it is utterly unmoving when attached to the end of the table, holding my head perfectly immobile – critical for the radiation to be focused with absolute precision on the place to be healed.

I understand.  My intellect understands.  But my terror still overwhelms me.  It fills my body with ice and lead; it bleeds and blanches into my head and heart and arms and legs and belly and back with a surging desire to plead for it to stop, to lash out, to run.

The first day, I managed to endure it – but only just.  And I knew I could not do it for 24 more days, five days a week, for five weeks.  After that first session, I sat in my car shaking and trembling and weeping and sick.  So I drank ice cold water and ate dark chocolate (my go-to self-soothing protocol) until I could at least drive home.  But for the rest of that afternoon and night I fretted and cried and slept in fits and starts – and tried to conjure up ways I could possibly deal with this admittedly self-induced terror that came rushing up from who-knows-what black dungeon of my mind or memories or madness.

In the predawn darkness of the next morning, some loving unseen guiding influence caused me to instinctively reach down to the foot of my bed and touch my bathrobe – and I pulled the sash of it free from its loops.  It felt soft and relatively thin and stretchy.  And in the dark, lying still and flat on my back, not moving my head, not looking at my hands (which I held low, about waist high), I began tying knots in the sash, along its entire length, one after another after another.  And then I untied them all, one at a time.  

My mind was focused on the image of my hands and the knots and the sash that I could not see.  Mentally, I was entirely “in the moment.”  While my hands were simultaneously releasing repressed kinetic energy, feeling their way in the dark as they performed and repeated this simple task requiring only small familiar movements.  I wondered how much time had passed.  My senses felt it had been about two minutes; but the clock told me it had been closer to twelve.  And I knew this could work; this tying and untying of knots could allow me to get through my terror of the sessions.

Long ago, I learned the mystical (yet scientifically proven) connection between our brains and our hands.  It’s the reason I must always write out by hand all my columns and stories before I keyboard them into the computer.  It’s the reason our children should still be taught cursive writing – to develop that essential connection between brain and hand and thought and perception.  And, now, this undeniably significant connection was allowing me the focus and release that I so desperately needed – through the simple task of tying knots – while lying on a table, physically helpless, terrified, in order to be healed.

By the time you read this column, I will have completed four of the five weeks of my treatments.  And I have calculated that I will have tied and untied more than 630 knots in my trusty old bathrobe sash (I do sometimes switch to a thin, soft rope to keep my hands amused and interested). 

And during those days and weeks, I’ve sometimes also imbued the knots with meanings:  each one might become a plea or a prayer, a gratitude or a regret; sometimes it’s the image of a person or an animal I’ve loved, or a place I’ve been to or imagined into being.  But mostly they’re just simple knots – over and under and through and back again.  And sometimes my fingers still tremble violently, and the terror wants to break through.  And then I think of poet Rainer Rilkey’s words reminding me to “Let everything happen to you:  beauty and terror.”  And I name the next knot “cancer,” and the next one “healing.” 

Tied and untied, cinched and unleashed, they have become my faithful knots of survival.  They have become my knots of beauty as well as of terror.