Recently, Matilda—my daughter, five years old, born when I was 42; you don’t have to tell me how lucky I am, statistically speaking—lamented the disappearance of the dodo. We did some reading. The dodo disappeared because it had evolved with no predators in Mauritius, and when the island and bird were discovered by sailors, the dodo didn’t know to run away. The dodo was no dodo, merely inexperienced and (these things happen) also delicious. It was eaten into history, by human beings and the animals (pigs, dogs) they brought with them.
The dodo was fearless. The dodo is extinct. As for me, I fear and persevere.
By Lynn Darling
A few years ago, the summer my only child left home for college, I moved from an apartment in New York City to live on my own in a small house at the end of a dirt road in the woods of central Vermont.
At the time, I thought it was an extremely rational decision, but reason had nothing to do with it. No, I had gone to ground the way an animal does, because I was wounded and beaten and in need of retreat.
My daughter’s departure left questions, big questions that the warm hive of family life had made easy to ignore, of who to be and how to live; of what, if anything, I wanted in this new and awkward phase of middle age. I was no longer a mother, I had long been a widow, even my work seemed to have lost its value. I had no idea of who I was or what I wanted.
If I thought the move would reveal the answers to any of these questions, I was mistaken. Alone, in a strange house in unfamiliar territory, I felt only fear. I was afraid of the past and the regrets that loomed large; afraid of the future, which had no discernible shape; afraid of myself and my possible inability to cope. Before long, I had drifted into a deep, dreamy lassitude, a warm downy burrow in which to hide.
I’m not sure how long this state of affairs would have continued. But I got lucky:
I got breast cancer.
That diagnosis is a particularly scary one, but it could have been any major illness, any catastrophe with the power to smash a hole through your life. Suddenly, all the aimless, shapeless fears that had paralyzed me galvanized into an adamantine metal, sharp and shiny, of pure terror.
In the months that followed, I did what we all do: endured the treatment and haunted the Internet, looking for information, facts, statistics, anything that would help me define what I was up against, what the odds were, how long the future would stretch.
Those were the big questions, but behind them crowded a smaller, more insidious, more dangerous one. Why fight, my fear whispered. Maybe cancer was the dreadful but simple answer to all the questions of who I was and what I wanted. And the seductiveness of that idea, of giving up, made me most afraid.
One night, my brain and soul colonized by chemo, I looked up from the sofa in the living room and stared out into the inky night, which was all I could see beyond the French doors that gave onto the woods. I saw something, an image, lit by lamplight, in one of the panes of glass. It was large and pale and glowing, and I was puzzled at first as to what living thing had braved the unforgiving New England winter. I looked harder. It was an enormous white egg. No—it was a face.
An old man’s face, oval as an egg, pale and nearly featureless, and bald, with a pair of thick brown spectacles, a puffy face wearing a quizzical expression.
I stared. Fascinated, repelled by this new version of myself, an old bespectacled eggheaded man. Me and not me. I called him Augustus Egg, after a Victorian painter who looked nothing like the reflection in the mirror but whose name was perfectly suited to the image I saw in the window that night.