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A good fight.

I was nine years old at Robin Hood Camp for Girls. Two and a half hours north of Brooklyn, by bus, and mountains and woods and lakes suddenly came together as a real-world situation for me.

I was short for my age, and very young.

It never seemed odd to me that our camp boasted the name of a rather notorious male hero.

I never wondered about the absolute difference between my regular concrete street life in Bedford Stuyvesant and the idyllic circumstance of our summertime cabins and dirt trails and huge, hearty, community meals on the outside deck of the rec hall.

I don't remember puzzling over my experience of seasonal integration, which meant that ten months of the year I lived and played in an entirely black universe, and then for eight weeks I became a member of a minority of three or four black girls in a white vacationland of seventy-five to eighty other kids coming from neighborhoods and schools quite different from my own.

I was nine years old and free! I was far away from home, and I was hellbent on having a great time. We played softball and we learned archery and we went on wilderness hikes, overnight, and we burned our tongues on hot chocolate in tin cups and we rode horses, English saddle, and we swam and we made things for our parents in arts & crafts.

I was nine years old and some of the counselors gave me The Razor's Edge and Tender Is the Night to read after lights out and some of them tried to take away what they called "that filthy rabbit's foot" that my best friend, Jodi, gave me to wear for good luck.

And we sat around campfires and sang under the stars. But best of all, we played softball and I supposed that when I grew up I'd probably become a professional shortstop for some terrific softball team, and then, maybe, after lights out, I'd write my own Tender Is the Night, or Time Must Have a Stop, or Magic Mountain.

Those were my plans. But, in fact, the most exciting thing that happened was that Jodi and I became Blood Brothers. Of course, it never occurred to us that maybe we should become Blood Sisters: We were thinking of David and Jonathan when we each cut the inside of our wrists with a penknife and mingled blood to seal our pact of eternal friendship. Not satisfied with that, we formed an elite club, The Dare Devils, and we hammered overlapping capital D's into our silver bracelets that we now could hardly wait to finish in arts & crafts where, formerly, we laconically wove lanyards or beaded belts or painted jewelry boxes for the "old folks" back home.

And, having mingled our blood, and, having hammered our bracelets into distinctive emblems of our bond, our tribe of Dare Devils leaped across big splits in the earth or we set loose the rowboats in the darkness or we swam across the lake, secretly, by moonlight, or we raced each other, on horseback and on foot, and we looked for the highest trees to climb and we played out our days with utmost heart and utmost hilarity and we - nine- and ten-year-old little girls - thought we were young gods fully blessed by all of our lives full of energy and love and an insatiable appetite for danger. We were daredevils loose on a beautiful planet. We were nine - and ten-year-old little girls and we thought we were free.

Toward the end of that summer, we had a final campfire down by the boats, and the song we sang was, For all we know - we may never meet again - before you go - make this moment sweet again." We were so young. We could tell that was supposed to be a sad song but we felt no sadness ourselves. We tried not to giggle. We tried to sit in sadness out of respect for the grownups sprinkled among us. And I remember wondering if I would sometimes feel sadness, too, when I got old enough to become a counselor.

But I wasn't sure. Back then I could not imagine the sadness reserved for girls, everywhere.

I would have been amazed by any societal surprise at our Dare Devil/Blood Brother activities.

I would have been dumbfounded to hear that every fifteen seconds a woman is battered in the United States.

I would never have believed that people kill babies if they're female.

Or that white people despise black people.

Or that half of all black mothers have no or inadequate prenatal care.

Or that one out of every eight women in the United States has breast cancer and that before this decade is out, 500,000 American women will die of breast cancer.

Or that only 5 per cent of the money spent for cancer research is spent on finding a cure for breast cancer.

Back then, my ideas of daredeviltry did not conjure up the taking of my black body into a roadside luncheonette for a forbidden cup of coffee.

I never would have imagined that my loving a white man or that my loving any woman or that my raising my son by my own wits would constitute high risk and certain jeopardy.

And I never would have supposed that the biblical story of Ruth and Naomi held as much heroism, or more, inside its humble womanly narrative as the story of David and Jonathan.

And I would have laughed at anybody who said that someday I'd have breast cancer and that, even after going through a mastectomy, Id have only a 40 per cent chance of survival.

Then, last year, one early morning, there was my friend, Dr. Alan Steinbach, bending over me in the recovery room at Alta Bates Hospital, and Alan was saying, "There's bad news!"

I thought, immediately, that he must mean something godawful had happened to my son, or to one of my friends, but he meant there was bad news for me. They'd performed a biopsy and found an enormous amount of cancer in my right breast.

And so I became one of the millions of American women who must redefine courage and who must redefine the meaning of heroic friendship if we will survive.

And my son and my lover and my friends gathered around like Dare Devils daring themselves and their devotion and their walking of my dog and their changing of the dressing and their seamless and hilarious system of around-the-clock support to save my morale and to save my life.

And it was not easy. And it was not brief. And it is not over.

In between surgery number three and number four, I wrote this poem:

The breath continues but the breathing hurts Is this the way death wins its way against all longing and incendiary thrust from grief? Head falls Hands crawl and pain becomes the only keeper of my time I am not held I do not hold And touch degenerates into new agony

I feel the healing of cut muscle/ broken nerves as I return to hot and cold sensations of a body tortured by the flight of feeling/normal registrations of repulsion or delight

On this meridian of failure or recovery I move or stop respectful of each day but silent now and slow

I swear to you I never ever expected to write anything like that, my whole life, but I had to try to tell that truth.

The Women's Cancer Resource Center of Berkeley and the National Black Women's Health Network and Dr. Craig Henderson and Dr. Susan Love and Dr. Denise Rogers and Christopher and Angela and Adrienne and Dianne and Stephanie and Martha and Haruko and Amy and Sara and Pratibha and Lauren and Roberta and Camille and my colleagues and students at school and the neighbors next door and Amigo, the Airedale who lives with me - they dared me to make this cancer thing into a fight: They dared me to practice trying to lift my arm three or four inches away from my side. They dared me to go ahead and scream and cry but not to die. And so I did not die. But I have faced death. And I know death now.

And in the mornings when I walk out into the garden and I see the ninety-seven-year-old willow tree and the jasmine blooming aromatic and the honeysuckle bulging into the air and Amigo gulping at a bumblebee and a stray bluebird lifting itself in flight above the roof of my little house, I am happy beyond belief.

And when I may join with men and women to end the disease of breast cancer and the disease of race hatred and the disease of misogyny and the disease of homophobia and the disease of not caring about the victims of ethnic cleansing and the victims of our malignant neglect, I am happy beyond belief.

Because this is a good fight. It feels good to me. And, yes, now I know about sadness but I do not live there, in sadness.

And I am happy beyond belief to be here and to join with you to make things better.

June Jordan, the poet, is professor of African-American Studies and Women's Studies at the University of California-Berkeley. Her column appears regularly in The Progressive. She read this at a benefit for the Women's Cancer Resource Center of Berkeley, held at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco on October 23, 1993.
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Title Annotation:civil rights activist fights breast cancer
Author:Jordan, June
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Column
Date:Dec 1, 1993
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