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Dispatches From the Fifth Year: The Labyrinth

The picture on the website of the walking labyrinth is what convinced me to actually book a weekend at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, an idea I’d toyed with, to pause and process the fifth anniversary of my cancer diagnosis. I started noticing these labyrinths the year I was going through treatment — at a fancy hotel at a Florida beach; in the financial district of Manhattan; off the beaten trail in Warwick, New York; cliffside in Hawaii — and I eagerly rush towards them to walk them every time. These landscaped labyrinths are different things for different people across cultures, space, and time — a lesson, a respite, a meditation, a prayer.

As trauma survivors usually say, it seems like both just a few seconds ago and a time I truly and clearly can’t remember before that moment, that diagnosis moment. For me, a late Friday afternoon phone call at my desk at work from a curt and inconsiderate physician I had met only once and will never see again. Too late in the day to take action, but with the entire weekend to react and sob and feel despair leak, then rush, into my reality. I’ve floated, raced, and stagnated through many phases and stages of grief, pain, happiness, and gratitude in grappling with cancer. Sometimes it feels so weird to have survived, and I vacillate between feeling incredibly lucky, full of energy and optimism, and then like a victimized, angry, broken person confused about how to make life work. Often these feelings exist simultaneously.

Knowing how much attention and worry to give over to cancer, like an altar to visit and appease the recurrence gods: I try not to worry too much and waste precious time and energy, but if I forget and don’t pay homage, will it tear back into my face making sure I pay due respects?

I haven’t done much to publicly celebrate or acknowledge cancerversaries, focusing instead on birthdays or other ‘normal’ relatable life moments that put me back in the mainstream. All the while secretly counting internally, spinning over sequences and memories (it’s February this time 3 years ago that X happened, this time 2 years ago that Y happened), but this being the beginning of the fifth year since diagnosis feels like a big deal, partially because of the arbitrary 5-year survival rate metric in the medical community and partially because of some exciting changes in my non-cancer life.

Walking the labyrinth in all these different locations the past 5 years, the labyrinth itself is always the same. You walk around and around to get to the center, to the peaceful spot. But it’s not a simple path — there are confusions and purposeful misdirections. And you’re supposed to go slowly, thoughtfully, and take in what the path is teaching you. My mind usually races. Walking towards the center, going towards something — will I have the patience to get there? Oh what’s it like, what’s in the center? How far along am I?

The slow slog back to life after the high drama of diagnosis and treatment — in the best case, all the medical operatics will be replaced in fits and starts by the everyday glories, sadness, boredom, contentment, and mystery of a regular life. Normality, if one is lucky, glacially covers over the gurgling lava of cancer life. A spike and dive here and there over scan anxiety, a bad memory, a good memory of support, or small victory zing of experience now and then — but things come back to a plateau.

On the way out of the labyrinth, you notice what you’ve done and it’s vaguely familiar but backwards, and you don’t know it exactly. You’re taking the feeling of the center with you but the destination isn’t so fixed and discrete and self-satisfying — you’re going back out into the bright sprawling world again. You pass the gate, maybe pause and go get some lunch, or call your mother, or do the laundry, or laugh or cry or sing or sigh or just smile at the person entering the gate as you’re leaving.

But still, you don’t exactly get dropped off where you were picked up. Being diagnosed at 32 means most of my friends were married and either pregnant for the first time or heading there during the time I was off the grid with years of surgery and treatment and pouring energy into surviving. And now I’m back alive and grateful. But I secretly feel so disjointed — like I’m 1,000 years old and an arrested-development single gal at the same time.

I feel unsure of my steps, but only because I know, like someone much older than my biological age, that eventually one learns that we really know almost nothing and must keep stepping ahead anyway just to see what might happen, and keep it going out of respect for being one of the ones alive and able to journey.

The circle walk in the labyrinth you do right before the center, after winding closer and closer, takes you all the way out to the edge and erases all of your progress, seemingly. At this point I’m fuming, and forget every time that that’s what comes right before you’re brought to the center. I enter the maze knowing this and still, somehow, every time forget while walking it. In fact, I entered the trip knowing I was going to write the very piece you’re reading, and I wanted the labyrinth to be a big part of it, gave it thought, and still forgot.

But the next lesson I hadn’t even noticed yet in all my previous walks. Once I’d wound my way towards center, almost given up with the distracting discouragement, grumbling just long enough to be delivered to center, I stood in the middle gazing at the offering there and taking the moment to let some peace settle in my heart and mind, as well as some smug self-satisfaction. I marveled at how I could have again forgotten how it worked, that I’d almost given up, but had then been delivered right to the middle. I would then make a beeline walking right out of the maze, crossing over all the circles. It never even began to dawn on me, until this trip, probably the 20th maze I’ve walked in the past 5 years, that I was actually not finished but rather only halfway finished.

You are supposed to also walk back out. Follow the entire path and walk back out.

And on the way out, it’s a mirror of the way in, and one once again is directed all the way back to center (almost) before being delivered back into the world at the end of the labyrinth.

This is the beginning of my fifth year.

Tiffany Stevens lives in Brooklyn, NY and enjoys painting and writing. Her cancer diagnosis came at age 32. She was previously a practicing attorney and now works for a foundation that funds pediatric cancer research.

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