By Gale Lederer
#1: PAWS IN THE AIR: A SONNET
(Written after my breast cancer diagnosis)
Must I then lie on my back and wait
Whimpering, with all four paws in the air?
Or, Karamazov-like, rail against fate,
And scorn this travesty—oh, so unfair!—
Called “life?” We’re thinking reeds, poorly made,
Soft and weak in both body and brain,
Without and within attacked and betrayed,
And condemned to end in squalor and pain.
I hate my cancer, but maybe that’s wrong.
It could be a catalyst: perhaps I’ll learn
To love all of life, and sing wisdom’s song.
Who knows what truths it will force me to earn?
Disease does not define me: I’m here still.
It’s not my whole life: just one bitter pill.
#2: SMALL STUFF: A SONNET
(Written after my first surgery: a lumpectomy)
Cancer. Dreaded C-word. Ultimate fear.
An unseen evil grows within: for sure
It must be slashed and burned. But—oh, my dear!
I’m terrified—of both disease and cure!
Yet in the tale of my long, lovely life,
Cancer’s but a vignette—not the whole book.
I’ll not be poisoned by the fear and strife
I have called forth. I’ll take a truer look
At the awful beast. Now: with the die cast,
The knife poised, trusting myself to the skill
And kindness of others, I know at last
Serenity, and can let come what will.
And now I see that while my path seems rough,
My cancer’s not my life. It’s just small stuff.
#3: FAREWELL TO MY BREAST: A SONNET
(Written after my failed lumpectomy suggested a mastectomy)
Good god! I’m letting them whack off my breast!
Why should it upset me? Unsexed and old,
Of late I’ve not much surfed that crazy crest
Of physical passion. These days I’m cold
To men’s beauty. I’m moved more by my cat,
By music and friendship, by what I read.
Yet, when I contemplate that final flat
Place on my chest, it hurts. I beg, I plead:
“Oh, lord—not yet!” I know if I’m to live,
Bodily integrity I must forego.
One pointless breast is not too much to give
For the joy of watching my grandkids grow.
Though reason knows best, and must win the day,
I mourn the price this poor old body must pay.
#4: CANCER-MATES: A SONNET
(Written after my mastectomy)
I keep peeking obliquely at women’s chests
Searching for cancer-sisters, maimed like me.
Those stiff, crepe-draped lumps: are they live breasts?
She’s stone-flat under that smock—isn’t she?
My own shirt conceals a flat, ugly bruise
Set next to one lone sack of sagging flesh.
It’s not pretty, though of course I’d choose
The same hard path again. My pain’s still fresh
But unlike death or taxes, it will subside.
A missing breast’s not stuff of tragedy,
For whatever conditions I must abide,
At least I’m now completely cancer-free!
Right, old girl! Abandon lamentation.
You’re maimed, yet whole: what’s your next creation?
#5: DESERT LION: A SONNET
(Written after my first post-mastectomy shower)
Wondrous water sluices over my breast
As I cradle it gently in my hand
And bathes that nearby corrugated mess:
My horribly-harvested, ravished land.
Yet, swaying under the soothing shower,
I will not mourn my poor, diminished state.
I pity it, but shall not give it power
To twist my life or dominate my fate.
The misted mirror reflects my same face,
My same ironic eyes. To cancer I fell,
But, cutting my losses, I won my race
Against that demon. I’m still me: all’s well.
And I’ll people my wounded, desert land
With a tattooed lion asleep in the sand.
#6: POST-CANCER POINT-COUNTERPOINT: A SONNET
(Written after all my cancer treatment was finished)
Was it overkill? Or was I right?
Was “Let’s just whack it off!” the way to go?
“Less of a woman?” “An unholy sight?”
Well, I’ll cover up and fake a good show!
Escaping radiation was a lure
So powerful I felt I had no choice.
My mind is still my strongest suit, for sure,
But did my feelings ever get a voice?
Yet it’s over: at last I’m cancer-free
And can move on, and so my case I’ll rest.
I know myself: I need finality—
Ending worry—more than I need a breast.
Right or wrong? Instead of dwelling on it
I’ll tattoo my unbreast and write this sonnet.
#7: PROWESS: A SONNET
(Written after I was fitted with my prosthesis)
Many brave unbreasted women “go flat”
These days. “I’ll revisit girlhood,” they say,
“And be free from tight-latched straps and all that
Old low-cut, out-thrust, meat-market display…”
Loose and flat, pleasing themselves: I admire
How they’ve turned lemons into lemonade.
But I’m half-flat, and half-brave: they inspire
Me, but not to follow their way. I’ll raid
Those peculiar stores for a nice fake breast
And into that old female harness force
My strange new half-dangling, half-blasted chest.
Tight-bound but feeling whole: I’ve found my course.
Straight and proud behind my double prow,
Through my post-cancer waves I’ll boldly plow.
Gale Lederer writes: “I find writing sonnets hard, but I love playing with language and the sonnet’s strict form forces me to refine my thought until it feels (almost) perfect and says (almost) exactly what I want.” History is Lederer’s first love: she spent thirty years teaching American and European history for San Francisco public schools. Upon retirement, she joined the Peace Corps, serving in Azerbaijan as a teacher-trainer. Back home, she works on her Peace Corps memoir, reads history, travels, visits grandchildren, volunteers for animal rights causes, and finds many other ways to enjoy life.