Caroline has been my patient almost every Saturday morning for about ten years. For the first several years, she would come in and–while her tween son watched anime on his phone in the reception area–vent out all her stresses and aggravations about co-workers, frenemies, son’s teachers, and neighbors, whom I had become so familiar with that I would gab about them like they were my best friend’s other best friend: “I cannot believe Barbara said that” “What is it any of Joan's business?”
Caroline’s a classic Wood constitution: a competitive runner, a corporate lawyer for a movie studio ("business affairs" they call it here), ambitious, smart, her drive keeps her family afloat but keeps her in a wiry state of clenching, always fighting with "it's not fair"s. I spent most sessions reminding her that there is no such thing as human justice–and tending to two tenacious tension knots in her upper back, whom I refer in my notes to as "Barbara and Joan."
A few years ago she noticed a pain in her right thigh while running. By the time the MRI found the large tumor there, the cancer had spread to her lung. After a round of intense chemo and radiation, the cancer was in remission. She went back to work, and the little things bothered her less. The Barbaras and Joans of her world disappeared.
When the cancer came back a few months later, her family could no longer pretend they were the same. The second round of chemo was harder, and everyone felt worn down by it. Soon, Caroline, her husband and her son were all coming in for acupuncture on Saturday mornings, each occupying one of my three rooms, the cancer metastasizing in each of them individually. Several more surgeries followed, hopeful prognoses followed by grim ones, doctors appointments cancelling vacations, her son's high school experience entirely dominated by the unspoken fear that his mother may not make it to graduation. She did.
The summer before COVID, Caroline was in remission but rolled over in bed and her femur shattered, brittle from the radiation. The on-going question of whether she should amputate the leg had been answered for her. I visited her shortly after the surgery in her rehab facility. She had been through it, but her pulse was still wiry and she was brawling with the insurance company, the wheelchair manufacturer and a couple doctors, in a way that delighted me and I knew she was okay.
As I reopened this Spring, she was preparing for osseointegration so she could walk again, she was getting back into the groove at work, her son had started college. Then this summer, another tumor showed up in her leg, bigger than it should have been. Another surgery, and this time the surgeon insisted on a full hip disarticulation (removing the whole socket), meaning the chances of her walking again are slimmer.
Caroline’s a fighter, but a couple weeks ago, prior to this (her 8th surgery), she hit her breaking point. The family had a major blow-up in the car on the way to me, over something minor but three people can only take so much. She slowly crutched into my treatment room, like she was using them for the first time, and could barely muster the resolve in her neck to look at me; the strain just to hold the weight of her head suddenly seemed unbearable. For a woman who used to rattle on and on about the Joans and Barbaras of the world, she could barely muster a word except to whisper "I'm tired…. just so fucking tired."
"How much more of myself can I lose?" she asks, to me but not really to me. The losses have been adding up for her: her body, her mobility, her ambition, her savings, her son's adolescence, her marriage, the birthdays and holidays, her independence, her hobbies, her joys. "Really-- how much more of my fucking life do I have to have to let go of?"
Caroline doesn’t know it, but this question is the beating heart at the center of the transition from Metal to Water, from Autumn to Winter: How much of ourselves can we surrender to make way for something new? How much of the life we have spent years cultivating can we shed, and still not only recognize ourselves in the wake, but see ourselves with the possibility for more?
Autumn's imperative is that loss is the necessary predecessor to life: to enter the gestation of Winter, we must let go of everything we thought we were.
The role of Metal is to act as a miner’s cradle; slowly and thoroughly sifting away the layers of our acquired existence til what remains is just gold, just the precious, fundamental and everlasting truth: that we are the undying, unliving divine virtue of the universe, as a starting point for us to begin again.
I know what Caroline is actually mourning: will she lose more than she can bear, and will she lose herself with it. Metal says this isn't so: the loss is not to break your heart or spirit. It's to strain out waste to give you a new place to start from–to make rising again lighter and more poignant– just as every loss you've ever suffered has.
This is the delicate hope around which the seasons turn: that the toll of our losses will give rise to something new, something even greater; that we somehow come through the darkness into light. It's a spectacularly wild, deranged dream: that you could be robbed of everything you thought you were–all the familiar comforts you've built and parts of yourself that you love–and somehow still not only find your footing, but also flourish. And yet, it happens exactly that way, every year.
Caroline right: It's not fair. It’s irrational and mean. But as I’ve always reminded her, there is no such thing as human justice. Yet, I don’t dare say that to her today, as she calculates the years of grief, with her head slumped over like a broken mop. It would be far too patronizing and annoying to say "the loss is good for you." I would never.
Instead, I remind her of Spring.
I remind her that every year that she's ever lived, the darkness of Winter has miraculously precipitated the explosion of light in Spring. Every Fall, the warmth fades away and the flowers die, painfully torn from us, and are buried under frost and ice. And yet every year, they phenomenally bloom again. Every year the leaves scatter and then come back. Beyond reason, beyond our puny human understanding, beyond even the wildest, most deranged dream, from all that loss something returns.
I ask that she considers she could do the same.
I dont expect her to understand the loss. But I do hope she can be tender with her pain, and imagine the possibility that light can come back from darkness, as surely it does, every year.