Mates My Friend Died of Cancer, but Lives in Moss
I’d been walking alone in the Maine woods six months after she died when someone rushed up behind me.
Moss is hardly like Marion, and yet there she is in it. Breathing. Not gone.
I’d been walking alone in the Maine woods six months after she died when someone rushed up behind me. I turned to find moss as far as I could see. For years now, she has guided me on a botanic voyage, pointing me to mosses that I reach out to feel, shoots I grasp for because they contain notions of her.
Bryophyta [ brahy – uh -fahyt-a, brahy – uh -fahyt-a]: moss’s phylum, the word I repeat as if it is my breath, its sound recalling an exhale. Bryophyta, rooting under towering canopies, spreading like a living carpet, thriving magically.
Properly preserved, nothing is ever really dead.
In 2014, about a month after my twenty-eight-year-old friend died of ovarian cancer, 1,500-year-old moss was being brought back to life in a laboratory.
Researchers from the British Antarctic Society had been drilling permafrost on Signy Island near the Antarctic Peninsula when they noticed the deeper layers had not decayed into brown peat as in warmer climates. Instead, they were cryopreserved. The researchers punched through the permafrost, removing cores of soil, ice, and moss.
These frozen cores were shipped back to the UK where scientists sliced them up, placing the preserved shoots in an incubator. Then, they waited.
The thawing rhizoids sent out new shoots from the same plant that was sending out shoots when the Mayan Empire was at its height and Attila the Hun’s reign of terror was ending.
Before this Antarctic moss, there was hard evidence of creatures surviving only twenty years without water or warmth. This moss, a breakthrough in the field of resurrection ecology. This moss, accordioning time.
The scenes I conjure are corrupted parts and shadows:
I’m in the bathroom of Marion’s rental house in Little Rock, clearing the dust and dog hair from the baseboards. The toilet paper wrapped around my fingers is white and the boards are cream.
I’m helping her transcribe her interview with an old Mississippi blues musician because she is nauseated and having trouble meeting a magazine deadline. A blackbird flashes by the window.
Marion is in a store dressing room, trying on a bathing suit, when she looks down and realizes that one side of her belly is much more prominent than the other. The scene exists in my memory, unfolding before a three-way mirror, even though I was not there.
Irish moss, Chondrus crispus , is actually not moss at all, but red algae that flourishes on rocky Atlantic shores. It contains fifteen of the eighteen essential vitamins and minerals that make up the human body and good doses of vitamins, calcium, sulfur, potassium, and iodine. Iodine helps curb the effects of radiation poisoning. It may help recovery from cancer treatment involving radiation. Did Marion know about Irish moss?
Did she know that Spanish moss is actually a flowering plant-relative of the pineapple? That moss pink is a garden flower in the Phlox genus? That reindeer moss is actually lichen?
After rounds and rounds of chemo over several years starting when she was twenty-four, Marion had trouble hearing. Phone calls became too challenging. She wrote emails to a devoted group from her family’s “Big House” in Monroe, Georgia, sharing blooming reports. And cancer reports.
Mosses can absorb liquids up to twenty times their weight. Sphagnum moss can take up oil, leaving no biohazard. Use it to soak up a long list of chemicals or even animal fats. Return it to nature with confidence; it will never release what it has absorbed.
More scenes from the edges of memory:
Standing with her next to my garden beds full of Arkansas late-spring sprouts, Marion tells me that every woman has fat pads in her lower belly and hers had been removed. Cancer. Later, alone in my closet, I felt my own fat pads and had a shiver of jealousy that, seconds later, horrified me.
Watching her slip a pair of knitted lion shoes onto my year-old daughter, spawning a song, “Lion shoes! Lion shoes! You can do anything in your lion shoes.” Repeating the song in my mind endlessly, an incantation, a child’s prayer I felt certain had the power to keep Marion alive.
Walking with her in the Portland Japanese Garden, laughing when moss, thick like little pipe cleaner trees, tickled our ankles. Listening to a waterfall trembling down moss-covered rocks. Admiring cascading moss gracing the twisting branches of a tree. An enchanted scene, indeed.
But the delicate, crumbling edge that divides fiction from fact never placed us in this garden together. At least not until now, when I clip my husband from the scene and supplant him with her for the sake of a story in which believing only the facts risks rotting away the truth.
Want moss to proliferate? Place chunks of it in the blender with buttermilk. Whip up the world’s most disgusting smoothie, take it outside, and pour it wherever you want moss to grow. Wait, then be awed, as a glorious emerald carpet spreads.
Buttermilk, also a Southern staple essential for sipping, folding into cornbread, frying the best chicken. Southern roots grew Marion. And it was in the Big House, in Monroe, where the last days of her life spread between her and those who loved her like the soft, dark truth at the center of everything.
For Marion and me both, fertility, infertility, surrogacy, desire, possibility, and impossibility were all tangled up. We joked that between our body parts, we could almost make a baby. Both of her ovaries were overtaken by tumors and had to be removed. My ovaries were intact but my fallopian tubes gone.
Fallopian tubes that are blocked and filled with fluid (singular, hydrosalpinx, plural, hydrosalpinges) are easily confused on ultrasounds with tumors. Before surgery, I believed I had cancer. When I woke, no cancer. Pinx reminded me of the fearsome sphinx. My body solved the riddle Marion’s had not.
Marion rooted us on as our twins’ lives were launched in Petri dishes, transferred into my body through a tube that worked where my own had failed. Then, my water broke around our son at twenty weeks. I was committed to bed, tilted into the Trendelenburg position, feet above head at a thirty-degree angle.
I could not get up for any purpose, our babies and I prisoners in my upended body until one or both of them died, or until I died, or until further notice. The doctors were not sure this position would help. In fact, there was no real evidence that it was going to help. Then again, it might.
During the most wretched weeks of my life before our son’s heart stopped beating in utero and our daughter was born at twenty-three weeks gestation, Marion emailed me often. She understood devoting every breath to preserving life even though the statistics were nil and the doctors knew. She understood the devastating and astonishing proximity of these possibilities: having life, not having life.
Don’t mosses rely on spores to proliferate? Could Marion feel moss growing inside her?
Just when the moss starts making complete sense I think, This is crazy. Why the moss? Then I remember her advice about a story I was writing a few years ago: Make it crazier. Make it shocking. Is Marion making it crazy now, trying to shock me by appearing in a form so unexpected that it can only be taken as a sign?
If cancer spores can take your life, moss can help you survive.
Cut it in squares and place them atop your shelter. Within twenty-four hours the sliced edges will begin to close their gaps. Stuff moss between the logs of your cabin. It insulates, waterproofs, gathers potable water.
Use moss to dress your wounds. Absorptive, acidic, it inhibits growth of bacteria. World War I soldiers whose wounds were packed with moss had a higher survival rate than those whose wounds were packed with cotton.
What do you give someone who is dying? When Marion moved to hospice, this question dissolved me. What did any thing matter, anyway? I tried to make a gift of words but nothing I wrote held up. I settled on wine, but it was not the answer. Perhaps velvety, viridian moss would have been right. Something she could have felt. Something that would live on.
I see Marion’s profile as it was at a writers’ summit. She sits in an overstuffed leather chair, resting her whiskey highball on its arm, talking with a friend.
Earlier that evening, after she applied her makeup, I had watched her put on her wig. She said it itched sometimes. I’ve been nauseated, but I think I’ll drink tonight. If I can’t drink at a writers’ conference, when can I?
She sips from her highball, then laughs big, the half-moons of her eyes turning downward over her once-round cheeks, the darling bob of her blond wig quivering slightly, a shiver. In that side view, she remains, laughing.
In Scotland, peat is cut and piled into pyramids for drying. Soft slices transform into hard briquettes that burn fast with the energy of decaying plant matter. Damp malt is dried over peat-heated fires, bringing into barley grain the characteristic smokiness for which Scotch whiskey is known.
In early summer, having sauvignon blanc and cheese on her patio while the sun fell, Marion said, with rare tears in her eyes and a rare anger, I’m so sick of all the cancer glory. Cancer hasn’t made me a better person! I was a good person before cancer! I just want it to go away so I can be like I already was.
Now, I wrap my hand around my throat and wonder what it means to be like I am, what kind of person cancer would make me. How easily we could all die, our cells imploding and spiting us, denying our greatest efforts and our will, and the greatest efforts and will of all who love us. It does not matter a lick that we’ve been good or made right choices or treated people kindly, nor that we claw at everything within and without us to survive. The metaphors of battle are so far from the truth that cancer simply happens for no reason at all to the wrongest people at the wrongest time.
In the barest part of me, I knew Marion would live. Marion did not live. How can this be?
And yet, these are the facts. Aren’t they?
Here are more facts: I cannot know why. I cannot understand. Even so, I will not stop trying. Even so, there is beauty. The color of beauty is green. Green is something I can feel, something I know.
Dawsonia is the world’s tallest moss—up to twenty inches tall, it looks like a miniature evergreen forest fit for tiny fairies. No flowers, no seeds, no vascular system to conduct water. Yet it grows, up and up and up.
When light is sharp or dark is blunt, I long to tell an end that isn’t so much like its beginning. But at dusk, when the world is a shade between, I lie on the forest floor on a bed of dank moss. Dark trees tower and I feel small and alone. But when I close my eyes, Marion lies next to me. We are bogged in darkness but reaching for the light, guarding against fevers that always set up at nightfall, awaiting dew that always dots the moss at morning. We breathe the forest in and breathe the forest out. Damp is a smell and green is a feeling.
I will continue collecting all the moss I can. I will throw tufts of moss like bones to see where they will land and what they will tell me. I will flip the stories from the dark and the cold to the warm, vivid green.
What is left of Marion? A whisper at my back. Something that recedes from my peripheral vision when I turn. Something that goes soft beneath my feet.
Bryophyta has nearly 10,000 species. Each brings me closer to finding her.