This excerpt of “Wakeful Night,” a book by Nicole Skibola, and a forthcoming publication with Dottir Press in the Fall of 2018, is an illustrative exploration Skibola developed to lead readers through their own stages of identity, fear, and metaphorical thinking associated with a cancer diagnosis.
Some mornings I wake up conscious of a parallel future I will never know as a woman. Attached to this heaviness are still-recent memories of loss and heartbreak. On this kind of day, I’m desperate to find the ocean.
In winter, I walk alongside freezing water, over sand cascading into tiny dunes leaning in the direction of the tidal winds. In the summer, my hunger to escape into the ocean is the most primal. I crash into the collapsing chop; I plunge into the aquatic night below.
Navigating the ocean is a game of submission and pugnacity, and I wildly flipper my feet until the foam is replaced with black stillness. I undulate in swells of water, give in to the heartbeat of the ruthless ocean. Swimming skill is not always associated with survival, and anyone could drown here, sink to a place where there is no sense of end or beginning, equilibrate with the earthly version of outer space. I imagine the ocean’s horizon hovering over ancient sand and whisper to myself: the wreck and not the story of the wreck—words from my favorite poem, Diving into the Wreck by Adrienne Rich.
In my wreck, I find my second survival, this time a spiritual one. Losing so much makes space to grow; being close to death violently peels away my story.
The new story starts like this: On a freezing day in January, I stagger out of the Manhattan office building of the start-up where I work, place one hand against a freshly pine mulched planter, and violently vomit what feels like every remnant of myself. Tears stream down my cheeks. Simultaneously, I weep and wretch and feebly apologize to business people buzzing by on their way to lunch meetings. I concede defeat. I stop feigning that I am okay. I retreat to my empty childhood home in the hills of northern California. After many weeks of complete solitude, I join a writer’s group. It’s a warm sunny afternoon. In the group are artists and writers who make work about death and stillbirths and personal trauma; the work is raw and stunningly beautiful. I feel a palpable sense of permission to go there, to give the middle finger to the Greek chorus chiming that sadness and honoring loss is a detrimental form of hanging on.
My early pieces are rough. I recount the same story over and over again—my organs, my partner leaving, the cancer rage. Then come the drawings—endless drawings of my life over the past few months. Some of the details are imagined, like pink tissue-y organs floating in darkness like sea anemones. Others are real, like the lonely shipping cranes I walk to at night. I sink into the losses, sometimes for days, as I write and draw the story of cancer in my life. Slowly, I identify a hunger—the creative emptiness that had gnawed away at my insides for years.
These writings and drawings become an illustrated memoir called Nightflower. My personal wreck is still painful, but it begins to feel malleable, a tool I can use to explore the person I am in the wake of loss. In this arc of anger, mourning, and acceptance, I experience an awakening. Facing the waves takes death-defying courage, but diving below the water’s surface into the ribs of the wreck is how I become an artist.
Cancer, like any loss, is not a stand-alone event. There are disappointments, secondary losses, and questions that shake all assumptions of identity. (I could have limped away wounded, but the spiritual death of heartbreak and betrayal was the passageway to the person writing this introduction.) Grief is a deeply tangled, messy creature and in its folds is the heart’s immense capacity to regenerate. The more I draw and write, the more I grasp the deep human desire to share our stories. Stories honor grace and courage in the face of calamity. Outcome is irrelevant. Heroism is our capacity to see and feel.