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The Lump in the Road: My Year of Living Precariously

The rare black deer that appeared in Carol Flake's yard seemed to be delivering a message. After a breast cancer scare, she figured out what it was.

What happens when the small-scale dramas in your personal life become entwined like flotsam in the large-scale currents of local and national events swirling around you? I’ve decided to call 2021 my year of living precariously, when my own troubles were played out against a backdrop of impending catastrophe, as the nation endured a million deaths from COVID, an insurrection threatening our democracy, four major hurricanes, and rampaging wildfires in the West–the kind of things that shift the ground of your being.

I should probably have taken heed of a kind of omen in late January.

I should probably have taken heed of a kind of omen in late January, when a black deer appeared in my back yard. Black deer, known as melanistic deer, are incredibly rare, and the last time I had seen one in my yard was ten years earlier, not long before my husband’s death on a wild river in Guatemala. But I didn’t feel any premonitions about this one.

I had begun a virtual online retreat called Book of Dreams, run by two incredibly gifted artist friends, as I was trying to learn how to illustrate my work, to think about my words in visual terms. It was a welcome escape from the isolation of COVID, which was reinforced by an ice storm and prolonged freeze that shut down the electrical grid in Texas, leaving many of us without power.

I was essentially locked in my house for ten days, surrounded by a thick layer of ice that precluded walking without slipping and driving without careening into a ditch. Huddled inside, I could hear my trees creaking, cracking and falling to the earth from the weight of ice on their branches. In the middle of the storm, the black deer came to my front door, looking in at me as though she wanted to come inside. She was like a dark shadow in comparison to the glistening white snow and ice that covered the walkway and the yard beyond. She did not flinch or run away when she saw me looking back at her, but almost seemed to be trying to talk. She appeared to be delivering a message.

Read More: Stop Telling Me That I’m Overly Anxious about Cancer

The Foreboding

is a lump in the breast always cancer

The photo of the rare black deer in the author’s yard.

As the ice finally melted, I got in to see my gynecologist for a checkup that had been postponed for months because of COVID and then because of the storm we came to call Snovid. As she was doing a breast exam she discovered a lump, saying that I needed to get a mammogram, that had also been postponed because of COVID. At that point, I wasn’t worried, and during my Zoom time with my Book of Dreams friends, I joked that I had found “a lump in the road.” I decided that it could be visualized as Bee-nign, drawing a bee looking happy and carefree. Wishful thinking and drawing. I even gave the lump a name: Aurora, named after the dawn that appears then disappears as the day goes on.

The mammogram indicated that this was not just a lump but a tumor.

But the mammogram indicated that Aurora was not just a lump but a tumor that needed further probing–a biopsy. At this point, I was still in a kind of dull fog of resignation. The pandemic was keeping us away from each other and from the social and cultural life, from the cafes, theaters, museums, clubs, concert halls and places of worship that could lift our spirits. It was a time when even brief moments of respite seemed like small miracles.

Our lives, I was finding, are entwined with weather, with nature, with the body politic, and even in my semi-isolated state, I was finding it hard to separate myself from the increasing sense of disorder around me. So when Aurora turned out not to be bee-nign but cancerous, it felt like one more indication of how little control we have over our lives.

But my oncologist offered a choice that gave me a few months of breathing room. By taking a tiny estrogen-suppressing pill every day, she said, I could wait for the tumor to shrink before having surgery. And shrink it did, living up to its name of the dawn that appears then disappears. But surgery was still in the cards, as there was a good chance that Aurora had left microscopic particles behind.

The Lump and the Message

is a lump in the breast always cancer

The author in full Dia de los Muertos regalia.

During the summer I published my seventh book, titled Wild Surprises, with the photo I had taken of the black deer at my doorway as the cover illustration. I wanted to tell stories of my unusual adventures in the wild, including encounters I’d had like those with the black deer, encounters that had felt like far more than coincidence. These wild surprises, as I had come to call them, suggested ever deeper possibilities of connection to the natural world.

Check out the 2024 NextTribe trip to San Miguel de Allende over Dia de los Muertos.

As fate would have it, I had scheduled a trip with NextTribe to San Miguel de Allende in Mexico to participate in Day of the Dead ceremonies, shortly before my surgery date. It might seem strange to want to be part of a celebration of mortality at a time when I was having my own brief encounter with it. But the Day of the Dead in Mexico, I’ve found, is actually a celebration of life, as celebrants welcome their departed beloveds for a brief time, creating ofrendas, or altars in their honor and donning face paint and costumes to become living skeletons bedecked with flowers.

I knew that joining NextTribe women would be another of those meaningful adventures I’m always seeking. It was quite wonderful after prolonged isolation from COVID to join our boisterous meals together, to laugh and tell stories and walk and talk together on the cobblestone streets. As I joined my fellow NextTribe celebrants as we got our faces painted, I thought we looked both macabre and beautiful at the same time. And lordy, how we danced in a festive procession through the streets of San Miguel. Actually I could hardly have chosen a better way to prepare for my surgery.

I thought back about the black deer and the message she seemed to deliver that dark day amid ice and snow. And what was the message? I think now that it was that the unexpected will always surprise you. And that it is not to be feared. As I went into surgery, I felt that the deer had come to tell me that darkness is a part of life. And that the shadows we face may cast their own kind of light. Two years later, I remain cancer free and ready to greet the unexpected at my door.

Read More: The Best Way to Honor a Friend With Breast Cancer

By Carol Flake


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