I’ve always liked the number five. It brings up an early memory of sitting at the kitchen table with my parents. Dad was showing me how to draw the number on a piece of paper. “See, there’s this guy, and he leaves his house and goes straight down the street,” he explained while moving the pencil down the page, “curves around the corner, but then he remembers his hat,” he lifted the pencil and brought it back to the top, “so he goes back to put that on his head, see, you get a number five!” My early fives looked more like that guy stumbling home after last call, but still: my own number five, very thrilling.
Five years ago in May I played a solo piano recital. It went very well. The venue was nice, the piano was in tune and responsive, my Dad was in the audience, and at the end, fellow pianist Hao came up and joined me for Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite: beautiful music. Several days later, I had surgery to remove half my thyroid. It was all planned, no big deal, one overnight at the hospital, then home to take it easy. I’m not much of a “take it easy” kind of person. I spent the time reading about and then watching instructional videos on total immersion swimming. I wanted to try that next, and had mapped out the bike route to the pool — I just needed a green light from the surgeon to return to my normal activities. I thought he might not go for me totally immersing my neck as it was healing, but what about kayaking? I was willing to negotiate down to kayaking.
The follow-up visit was the usual poking and prodding while the doctor read a list of technical jargon about what he had accomplished. I perched at the edge of my seat waiting for the moment I could interrupt. Great! Now what about swimming? But then he mentioned the cancer. Um, what? Cancer? He read it in his droning monotone, the same one I’m sure he used as I was waking up from surgery to tell me how to get thyroid function tests. In my anesthesia fog, I did not take in the information and instead spent the summer slowing like an old timey clock on the wind down. But that lay in the future. Right then, his drone turned to white noise and I heard nothing more of what he was saying.
Instead, childhood memories were filling my mind: the trips to Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, the sharp finger prick to draw enough blood to check for leukemia, the most likely cancer to develop next, the other kids in the waiting room. The thunk of the x-ray machine. Swimming had been taken off the table, but I no longer had my negotiating hat on.
“What do I do next?” I asked at the end of the visit.
“Oh, don’t worry, I got it all. You’ll just get follow up scans for the next five years,” he concluded.
I was not happy as I walked to work after the appointment. I already did cancer as a child and had the t-shirt to prove it. Well, four of them actually: I had ridden in four Pan Mass Challenges as a cancer survivor. I didn’t have time to sit home and be sick. I had stuff to do. Did these doctors understand my timeline? I had recitals to play, pianos to tune, fiction to write, then bike all over Boston, kayak down the Charles River, and learn this open water swim technique. By the time I got to my office, I accepted the fact that I was going to have to trust these medical people and just hope that they could keep up with me.
In the middle of these yearly scans, I was still looking for a total immersion experience and found it in Goddard College’s MFAW program. I haven’t been up to my neck in literature and writing, I’ve been completely submerged. I sunk beneath the smooth façade of the novel, dodged the whirring gears beneath, and continued down until my feet hit bottom and I could look up and see the great engine of fiction spinning above.
Annotations slowed me down: I couldn’t just crash through a book in standard frenetic mode, I had to read and reread until I laid enough of the parts on my workbench to understand how the wheels turned. I learned how to take things apart and tried my best to put everything back together. What is so interesting about writing is the scale of things. Having spent years looking at Stephen Hawking’s universe spread across my sky, I now look at the beauty of small things: a well-told story, a balanced sentence, how a comma adds air.
This fall, I both crossed the five year mark and finished work on my Master’s degree. In cancerspeak, five years of clean scans is complete remission, it’s “cured” but-don’t-sue-me-if-it-comes-back, it’s resetting the clock to zero. What does it mean to earn a Master’s degree? True mastery is not about hitting a magic number of years or even a magic number of annotations. Everything I write is certainly not a shining gem of perfection. Every scene is not well balanced and concise. There are too many words and most of them are in the wrong place. The mastery is not the end, the mastery is not the process, not the starting and certainly not the giving up. Mastery is extending the hand, over and over, after starting, after stopping, after uncertainty, after success, after doubt. Reaching out to begin again. Reaching out. The moment of decision to try. The breath. The brief moment of stillness in the body before inhalation. When your mind is already there, and you reach for the pen to follow.
Cate Gallivan is a writer living in Massachusetts. She bikes up and down and all around, plays the piano, and has found true love at the library. She is a recent alum of Goddard College.