Dec 312009
 

Part travelogue, part literary history, part memoir, this essay offers a glimpse into the power of literature and nature to heal the human body and soothe the human spirit. This piece is still in the works, but I wanted to post it for all those who have asked for it.

…To fear and love,
To love as prime and chief, for there fear ends,
Be this ascribed;
–William Wordsworth, “The Prelude,” Book 14, 162-165.

First, you get up in the morning, and although they tell you not to drink coffee, you do it anyway, because you know it will be the best moment of the day. Try to do few things around the house before they come to pick you up and bring you to the doctor’s office. Later on you will just want to nap and watch TV until morning, probably horse racing, because it’s the only thing on late that you don’t already know the outcome of.

Don’t forget some fruit, the poetry book, and the headphones, because you’ll want to tune out the other people in the room, the cancer clutch. The center is nothing fancy, not a suite of private treatment rooms like at some centers, just a large room with some office dividers acting as a lame attempt to screen you off from each other. The reclining medical chairs are dated, vinyl and not particularly ergonomic. Considering what it costs for this stuff, $7500 each visit, you’ll wonder why they can’t splurge on nicer lounges and maybe some privacy curtains.

For the next five hours you will be hooked up to an IV drip containing the medicines that are supposed to save your life, if they don’t kill you first. Don’t worry, you’ll fall asleep through part of it, and by judiciously using your headphones and your book, you will be able to ignore the cancer clutch. There are two kinds of patients in the room, those who talk and those who don’t.  You make it very clear early-on that you are a non-talker, aside from the occasional pleasantries, of course. It’s not that you’re antisocial; it’s just that most of the clutch, seeing their own life fade before them, feel compelled to talk about their disease at great length. They are old and ready to die; you are young and not ready. Don’t fall victim to that complacency. Fight the disease quietly, alone.

The nurses are compassionate and will ask many questions: How are you feeling? Have you eaten today? First, they do a finger-stick blood test to make sure your cell counts are OK before they start poisoning you, unleashing cell killers that don’t differentiate good cells from the cancer cells; the drugs attack with equanimity. Next, they’ll put a long flexible needle into a vein on the top of your hand. It’s best not to watch this; if the nurse is good, you won’t even feel it. Take the blanket the nurses offer you because the liquids are at room temperature and they will chill you off from the inside, something you’ll think must feel like the onset of death. Your cocktail drip-they call it that-consists of four ingredients, starting with Compazine, to prevent stomach upset, and Benadryl, to ward off allergic reactions to the chemo drugs. If you’re lucky, the Benadryl will put you right to sleep for an hour. Then they’ll follow with the big guns: Taxol, a lung cancer drug made from the Yew Tree of all things, and Carboplatin, a basic do-all cancer drug that will burn slightly on the way in.  If it gets too hot, call the nurse, and they’ll rinse the vein with some saline.

When you wake up, eat some fruit and read Wordsworth for a little while, then close your eyes and try to nap again. Follow your breaths, like in meditation, until you begin to visualize Wordsworth’s landscape–the fells, slate-capped and oddly treeless, dotted with sheep, quilted by stone walls that stretch for miles. When the discomfort starts, promise yourself that if you get better, you will go back there as originally scheduled, visit your mates, get your families together and go walking. Convince yourself that planning this trip while healing will cure your melancholy, much the same way that living there cured Wordsworth’s. At the church in Grasmere, above his grave, Wordsworth planted Yew trees. You find this ironic.

***************

In the churchyard at Grasmere, among the Yew Trees and just off the path that bears thousands of summer tourists through the streets of the small village, lies the tomb of English poet William Wordsworth. Standing there under the trees, trying to make out the writings on the stones faded from 150 years of English precipitation, it occurs to me that it would be OK to die here. There are few, if any, similarities between William and me. I am neither a scholar of romantic poetry nor a poet, but this small piece of the world has held special significance for me for over twenty years. What began as a random stop on a semester abroad has become a place of almost tantric focus, a mental image to tranquilize the fear of my impending death. Now in remission, I have come here to pay homage, as the bard himself once did:

At sight of this seclusion, he forgot
His haste, for hasty had his footsteps been
As boyish his pursuits; and sighing said,
“What happy fortune were it here to live!
And, if a thought of dying, if a thought
Of mortal separation, could intrude
With paradise before him, here to die!”
–William Wordsworth, “Home at Grasmere,” 8-14.

Young William first saw the beauty of this place as a child. Much of the region’s popularity derives from the treatment of this landscape in Wordsworth’s poetry. Twenty years ago, two dear friends, my roommates at England’s University of Worcester, borrowed a car and took me here for a long weekend of camping and walking, which is what most people come here to do. My roommates had heard that all Americans want to visit the Lake District, like Buckingham Palace, but the truth is, I had never heard of it. Wordsworth was a walking poet, and he composed most of his work while walking the fells and vales of this most beautiful of landscapes. As a student, I was just barely acquainted with his poetry, but my amazement at the place made me explore his verse and come to enjoy it even more. In this landscape, and in the language William uses to evoke it, there exists an indescribable power to sooth and reassure, as if to say, within nature lies the capacity to survive.

Throughout the months of cancer treatment, I used Wordsworth and Grasmere as my crutch. At my times of deepest anxiety, when most would focus on their families for comfort, I could not bear to conjure them, the possibility of losing them as real as the possibility of survival. But I could recall the incredible sense of peace I felt in these hills, the completeness. Trying to avert long nights of anxious dreaming, I often pictured myself walking here, healed, restored. That college trip to Europe changed my life, and the brief time I spent walking these hills and pastures were more transformative for me than I ever could have known. For twenty years I dreamt of coming back here, bringing my family and gathering my roommates and their families for a week together in these hills. We had begun to make plans before the tumor was discovered. The reunion was postponed so I could receive treatment. Fate intervened, and on the other side of the battle for my life, this trip shined like a trophy. All I could do was follow.

Such pleasure now is mine, albeit forced,
Herein less happy than the Traveller,
To cast from time to time a painful look
Upon unwelcome things which unawares
Reveal themselves, not therefore is my heart
Depressed, nor does it fear what is to come;
But confident, enriched at every glance,
The more I see the more delight my mind
Receives, or by reflection can create:
Truth justifies herself, and as she dwells
With Hope, who would not follow where she leads?
–William Wordsworth, “Home at Grasmere,” 491-501.

Now in the churchyard the sky threatens showers and we start the day late, delayed by trying to get six adults and nine children under fourteen dressed and fed, so that the day’s excursions could begin. My roommates and their families headed off in another direction, leaving us to take this one journey alone. Though we planned the walk for months, arriving at the parking lot and preparing to begin stirs my anxiety. What if it rains? What if we get halfway and I can’t make it any more? Surely the kids are not as interested in this as me. They are enjoying the trip, but I think they look upon this walk with their parents as a bit of an annoyance, like having to go to church. Still, they know this walk is important to me and are supportive even though they cannot understand the deeper significance of it all. I’m not sure I understand it myself. They were so strong and grown-up through my illness that I feel almost ungrateful for making them take this trek.

In another bit of irony, this walk is called the Coffin Path. The brochure tells us to begin at Dove Cottage, where Wordsworth moved at the age of 30 to live in relative obscurity with his sister Dorothy and to compose his life’s work, “The Prelude,” a long poem discussing the growth of a poet’s mind. The walking path is circular, beginning at Dove Cottage where it climbs to a level of 1800 feet at a moderate incline, running parallel to Grasmere Lake and Rydal Water until it reaches Wordsworth’s later home at Rydal Mount, some three miles away. We are then to descend to the water’s edge and begin a slow climb along the other side of the lakes, returning to Grasmere. Total distance: 5.4 miles. The tourist information center lists the difficulty as easy; suitable for children and the elderly, it says. Allow three hours.

When William moved into Dove Cottage in December 1799, his first book of poems had just been released to a mix of controversy and acclaim. For the next 50 years, he walked these hills and immortalized this landscape and its inhabitants. The Cottage was once a small inn for passing traders, and William and Dorothy lived here simply, if not comfortably. The home has all the charm of an old cottage: whitewashed walls, plated glass windows, small sparsely furnished rooms, and an unpretentious English garden planted with common domestic plants like London Pride, Orchisis, Celadine, Laurels, and Thyme. While living here, the Wordsworths entertained other poets of the period, most notably Samuel Taylor Coleridge, with whom Wordsworth would have a deep personal friendship spanning many years. The cottage, and the small group of buildings that surround it, have all been purchased by the Wordsworth Trust and are well maintained. There is a new museum as well, which holds many artifacts from the Wordsworths, as well as illustrations of Lakeland life in the early 19th century. The food in the nearby café is remarkably good; we eat heartily and watch the skies threaten more showers. My wife and kids seem to be waiting for me to decide when to leave. I’m having second thoughts again. My wife takes my hand. “You came this far,” she says. She’s right, of course, and strong.

The road begins its ascent from the valley just beyond Dove Cottage, and at first, though it is paved and slightly steep, I feel encouraged. Part way up I feel the strain in my legs and chest. I hoped the incline was more gradual, but then again, perhaps it is better to put my lungs to the test now. I lost half my left lung to the cancer, removed surgically in a four- hour operation in New York City just over a year before this trip. I was not in the greatest shape before the surgery, and certainly had not prepared in any way for this walk, so I’m not sure how my breathing will be and if I will be able to complete the walk before the dark of night or chill of rain. As I climb, stepping smaller and smaller, I sometimes turn around and walk backward to shift the pain to other muscles in my legs. I later learned that Wordsworth sometimes did this as well. I breathe steady and rhythmically, like a determined marathon runner, thinking at each step that if my kids can do this, then so can I. At first the paved road is easy on the ankles, but as we reach a leveling out point, the pavement veers left and the trail, pointed right by a wooden signpost that says “Path to Rydal,” becomes damp soil littered with stones. The first ascent complete, I am out of breath but still breathing.

***************

You’ll observe in the hospital that no one wants to be the one to deliver the diagnosis. The attending doctors actually flip coins to decide. They’ll kind of skirt the issue and avert their eyes when speaking to you, because they can’t hide their sympathy for what you are about to go through, for the degree to which your life is about to change. What they will eventually say is “There is a large mass, seven centimeters, at the top of your lung. We have to do more tests. It could just be pneumonia.” You’re smart, though-you know it’s lung cancer-but you’ll stay strong for the wife who is sobbing next to you. You’ll say something pathetically brave, like “It’s OK. We can beat this.” Bravo.

From this point on, under no circumstances are you to read information on the five-year survival rates, which hover around ten percent. Lung cancer victims are mostly old people; you are young and can handle everything the medical community can throw at you. You will get sick, lose your hair, grow more exhausted and disheartened than you ever thought possible. Radiation treatments will burn your esophagus, and chemotherapy will make you vomit. You won’t shit for days. After that, if you’re lucky, you will only lose half your lung, rather than the whole one. You have two, but every piece counts. You will survive this though. Even when you don’t believe this, you must believe this.

***************

Walking now, I am starting to heat up. My teenage son has taken to glancing at me, looking to catch me if I faint. He coaches me the way I coached him in Little League. “Move your arms more,” he says. “Lift your knees.” I remove my coat and stuff it in my backpack. It’s a black Swiss Army bag, not one of the shiny high-tech looking ones, but a more basic daypack that actually zips on to the outside of the larger, more high-tech bag that carried my belongings here. I haven’t overpacked: there’s my lined windbreaker and a compact Totes umbrella; some sunglasses, a small LED penlight and a set of binoculars; basic first aid items, of course, Barbie band-aids, Advil, and cortisone cream. Hidden deep-down, a few Vicodin. Water.

On the straps, I’ve attached pins that promote my alma mater, favorite sports teams, and other quirks about me–an American flag, a drum. The one that says “Cancer Sucks” I left at home. I’ve also brought Wordsworth’s selected poems (the Dove Cottage edition), a topographic map of the Lakes, and the brochure containing the directions for the hike.

On my back, I carry the joy of having survived, of being in a place with such enormous spiritual power, of connecting the past to the present with the ones I love most in the world. Before me lie the hills and valleys on which I relied for support when my soul was at its most afraid. From such fear, such joy! For all cancer survivors, my continued existence, like my ability to complete this trek, is tenuous, and so I also carry the heaviest item of all…the fear of failure. But I keep walking anyway.

In my head I can still hear the lines of poetry, the iambic pentameter that now seems so quaint to our ears. Wordsworth’s language became my lexicon of hope, and even though I often read it halfheartedly, only skimming the text without taking from it any real meaning, it gave me great comfort just to have it there, like a Bible, as if reading it could bring my mind and spirit back to this place in which I am now walking, as if I could calm myself enough to do some good.

The trail winds gently up and through a forest between stone walls that must have taken years to build. In some areas sheep graze in between the trees and ferns. In other areas, small rivulets of clear mountain water flow down to the lakes, which have now disappeared from view. I stop at some of these rivulets to baptize myself in its coolness. My daughter laughs when I shake my head at her, like a wet dog. Eventually we come to a small clearing where the lakes can be seen once again. According to my watch I assume we must be almost there, but according to the view, we are not yet one-fourth of the way to our stopping point at Rydal. I have to stop more often to catch my breath, pretending that I need water when what I really need is air.

The Coffin Path gets its name from its important role in connecting the once-churchless village of Rydal to the church at Grasmere. When a Rydal resident died, mourners and pallbearers would have to carry the deceased in his leaden box over this three-mile route. Scattered along it are stone seats, where they could place the coffin and rest their shoulders. The one before me is a simple slab of limestone, nothing noted on or near it, but well worn from years of service. Wordsworth walked this path often, composing poetry aloud as he wandered. Nab Scar, a foreboding piece of rock where falcons and buzzards nest, looms high above us. Darker clouds roll in, the same way they did when Wordsworth wrote his poem about this eerie spot in 1808:

A humble walk
Here is my body doomed to tread, this path,
A little hoary line and faintly traced,
Work, shall we call it, of the shepherd’s foot
Or of his flock?–joint vestige of them both.
–William Wordsworth, “To a Cloud,” 54-58.

The rain begins to fall at last, but we are protected by the overhanging forests through which we climb. The sounds of running water grow as the rains increase and then subside, and moments later the sun breaks out, raising the humidity and making it even harder to breathe. We pass a small ruined cabin, gated off, in which Wordsworth composed poetry in his later years, and from which passers-by often heard him talking to himself. Just beyond we can see the main house, Rydal Mount, where William moved in 1813 having outgrown the more meager spaces of Dove Cottage. He had a wife now, and children. This home and the lush landscaped gardens that surround it are quite different and reflect Wordsworth’s new status in his career. I am eager to see inside, but I am more thrilled because I know there is another tea shop where we can revive ourselves and take in the surroundings. After two grueling hours, we are halfway home.

Rydal vastly differs from Dove Cottage, featuring acres of formally landscaped gardens designed by Wordsworth himself. In contrast to the other gardens simplicity, these include plants quite exotic for the time, large plantings like Japanese Maple, Rhododendron, and Italian Cypress. Though partially still in use by his descendants, most of the home is open as a museum, featuring copies of letters and artworks that belonged to William. We are the only visitors, and the woman who walks us through the house is excited to see us. “Sit a spell,” she tells me. “You look half dead.”

Though William composed most of his best poetry in Grasmere, this new home bespeaks of reinvention and revision. At Rydal, while continuing to write new poems, he also spent vast amounts of time revising “The Prelude,” the final revision of which would not appear until after his death in 1850, 45 years after he completed his earlier draft. His life’s work was truly that-life-long.

While browsing the gift shop, the clerk asks if we’ve taken the trail here. I joke about being exhausted and yet only half finished. He says, “If you’re really knackered, there is a bus that runs from the bottom of this hill right back to Grasmere every 30 minutes.” My wife looks at me, relieved that, with both houses now visited, we can enjoy a more sedentary afternoon. But I’m not so sure.

Over tea we discuss the options. The day has warmed but I feel restored, invincible, and I want to keep going. None of the brochures mentioned a bus return, so I always assumed the only way to get back would be to complete the walk. Taking the bus back now would be anticlimactic, though my legs, lungs and children would thank me. I pretend that I am debating the issue as we descended from Rydal Mount, past the waterfalls on which Wordsworth based one poem, and past the Rydal Church, where in his late 70s, he and his wife bent on hands and knees and planted thousands of daffodils to honor the memory of their daughter Catherine, who died at the age of 42, nearly my age now. It being August, the daffodils are not in bloom, but we decide to walk through the cemetery gate and see the inside of the church.

Alone in the cool sanctuary I listen to the slow scrape of a branch against a stained glass window. My daughter signs the visitors’ book as I sit in the first pew, right where Wordsworth himself sat (and allegedly slept) through many services in his later years. Here I feel the connection to William more strongly than ever. On this very bench, might he have prayed for strength? For health? Frail and 70, his planting daffodils seems more effort than my finishing the last three miles of this pilgrimage. This church was not completed until eleven years after Wordsworth moved to Rydal, so until then, he continued to attend regular services in Grasmere by walking the exact path we had just completed, back and forth on a Sunday morning. One of the things you learn when facing cancer is to do nothing half-way. The kids, bless them, say nothing, as we walk right past the bus stop at the bottom of the hill and begin the second half of our journey.

***************

You’ll feel surprisingly good when you come out of surgery. You won’t remember anything, just saying to yourself, “Done.” Gradually you will begin to assess your situation, location, sensations. Before you get too far along, the nurse sees you are awake and comes to your side. “Are you comfortable?” she’ll say. Yes. “Do you know your birthday?” Yes, April 22. She’ll tell you everything went fine and will leave to get your wife. Your wife will look more beautiful than ever before.

Try to enjoy this moment of self-congratulation. You survived major surgery, feel pretty good, and with any luck, are now completely free from the tumor and any cancer cells waiting in the minefields of your chest. The way you feel at that moment will be the best you feel for days, anesthesia still in force, relieved, grateful. The months ahead will hold rehabilitation, discomfort, drug addiction, depression, anxiety, hate, pain, guilt. This will be tempered by the support of friends you have never met, the prayers and offerings of dear ones, and the joy of seeing your children waiting on the porch as you pull up the drive, their tears finally flowing. You realize that when you last left them, they were not sure they would see you alive again. It amazes you that, somehow, you never saw them cry.

***************

The walk on the west side of the valley is every bit as beautiful as the east, but instead of being shaded and cooled by the canopy, it is wide open, the forest having long ago been cleared to make room for pasture land. With no shade and the clouds fleeing, beautiful sunshine warms the earth but continues to increase the humidity. This path’s long, slow climb goes on for ages, and the sign posts and the directions in the brochure do not always agree. Time grows late. We stop for a drink and realize that we have left our last full bottle of water in the tea shop at Rydal. We have just a few ounces left in the bottle in my backpack. Growing weary, there remains much more walking to be done. Tempers, while still good, are fragile. Five hours have passed, and we expected to be finished by now.

After the surgery, days of laying about in the hospital, the return home, and subsequent follow up visits, we had time to celebrate the surgeon’s declaration that all the cancer had been removed. Happy to be finished, and comfortably numb from the Vicodin, the news that I would have another four doses of full-strength chemotherapy, just to kill any rogue cells that might be circulating in my body, did not sit well. Like this walk, I just wanted my illness to be completely over. In hindsight, it seems as if this entire episode of my life-this battle temporarily won, this disease tenuously in remission-is a sign of some kind, sent by something greater than life, with a message equal to the severity of the continuing challenge before me. It is never completely over. We keep walking.

Thanks to the means which Nature deigned to employ;
Whether her fearless visitings, or those
That came with soft alarm, like hurtless light
Opening the peaceful clouds; or she would use
Severer interventions, ministry
More palpable, as best might suit her aim.
–William Wordsworth, “The Prelude,” Book 1, 351-356.

I suddenly realize we took a wrong turn at the last signpost, and have started to ascend the mountain again. Clearly it will end at the same road, but rather than hugging the shorelines of the lake, our path meanders across slightly wooded pasture. We learned later that the trail had been altered to improve drainage and that new brochures had not yet been printed. I start to get tense. My whole body aches. I long ago stopped hearing William’s encouraging words in my ear. I just want to get to the pub at the end, and from there, return to our rented cottage where there is, of all things, a large Jacuzzi tub.

The brochure said the walk would take about three hours, and now, approaching the seven-hour mark we finally see the village in the distance, almost touchable. I am not thinking about William or about poetry anymore, as up ahead of me I watch my 10-year old daughter set the pace. She has complained a little, but is now excited about the nearing of the village and getting to rejoin her new friends at the cottage. It occurs to me that for each of my steps, she takes two. That’s 30,000 steps over the course of this walk to my 15,000. She has not reached for the Barbie band-aids, nor I for the Vicodin. Discomfort is temporary, and relative. It occurs to me that this is yet another transformational moment in Grasmere, a reminder that there is more to life even than death, if you simply slow down and take the time to see it.

***************

For awhile you will dislike being called a survivor. It seems so trite and almost gloats in the faces of those who were not as fortunate as you. Though it may sound strange, you are not grateful for your second chance at life, delighting only superficially in your past, and dwelling not on your fragile future. You are grateful solely for this very moment, to just exist, right now, because like discomfort, pleasure, too, is temporary and relative.

You will no longer waste a single minute. You will do only what you care most deeply about. You’ll focus your interests and take on less responsibility, not as a sign of surrender, but as a commitment to live life to its fullest, which entails giving it everything you have. You will never do anything halfway.

***************

Leaving the path at last we follow the paved roadway into the village of Grasmere. The narrow road, bordered on both sides by ragged stone walk barely fits two cars passing side by side, so we walk single file, as close to one wall as possible. I lead, my senses on heightened alert for speeding vehicles, the kids follow close behind me, and my wife brings up the rear, keeping us in line. We have come full circle in more ways than one– completing the circuitous path, returning after 20 years to this land of special significance, and coming once again to this plot of Yew Trees, which saved my life literally and figuratively. But at the end of every circle lies its beginning, and I remember that the battle is never really over, but a new one begins. But my soldiers and I, with our poet lieutenant, are ready.

  2 Responses to “The Coffin Path”

  1. What a beautiful piece. Tomorrow I travel to this very same area – and look forward to walking this path. Last August, on the day my grandmother died, I climbed Great Rigg, the ridge walk above the route you describe, and descended into Rydal down the face of Nab Scar.

    I came across your post having googled “coffin path” – a name which captures my imagination as a writer.

    Reading your blog I hope that you have completed your novel, and that you continue to enjoy poetry and walking.

  2. Thank you for your kind words. I hope your walk was successful, though I can’t imagine making that trek in the winter!! Best of luck to you in everything.

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