Quest Cycles Applying the Hero Quest to the crises in our lives Linda S. Griggs
Scenes from a Hero Quest - Part 1 - Chariot Phase

Details how my soul is rudely awakened through my breast cancer diagnosis, surgery, chemo and radiation.
The "symptoms" of the cancer-prone personality that I identify in myself during this six-month phase
are variously dealt with in later phases.


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Chariot Phase
(Oct. 1993 -- May 1994)
Excerpts from Part 1

Chariot -- by Mary Ellen McNaughton

Cancer, new beginning, change for the good, introspection, meditation, spiritual path.

The driver sits in meditation . . . in a chariot which has not yet begun to move. He is . . . meditating on the Holy Grail [which] symbolizes the Wheel of Fortune. The driver is examining all possible consequences before daring to set the chariot in motion on a new beginning, for once the driver has chosen to start, there is no turning back. Nothing will be able to arrest the journey.

Gerd Ziegler, Tarot: Mirror of the Soul

Call to adventure

The call rings up the curtain, always, on a mystery of transfiguration -- a rite, or moment, of spiritual passage, which, when complete, amounts to a dying and a birth. The familiar life horizon has been outgrown; the old concepts, ideals, and emotional patterns no longer fit; the time for the passing of a threshold is at hand.

Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces

October 18, 1993

"I wouldn't worry about it," the doctor says. He's just jabbed the needle into my breast for the third time. Still no liquid. But he doesn't think it's anything serious. He'll send the cell sample to the lab for confirmation.

"Or rather, I'd worry about it this much." He's smiling, holding up his little finger, indicating the nail area. "So go on to Toronto as you'd planned, and give us a call when you get back for the results."

He is wrong. And right.

It is malignant. About the size of the nail on his little finger.


Send off

The adventure that the hero is ready for is the one he gets. The adventure is symbolically a manifestation of his character. Even the landscape and the conditions of the environment match his readiness. . . . The adventure evoke[s] a quality of his character he hadn't known he possessed.

Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

October 19, 1993

People don't know what to say. They stand there, hands in pockets, avoiding eyes. Or let long silences spread over the phone line.

"We're trying to be positive."

"You'll be in our prayers."

"There are miracles, you know."

They take pictures when we get together for dinner: "It just occurred to me that we have no pictures of all of us. You never know when one of us will get hit by a Mack truck."

My mother offers to fly out to be with me. "I don't know what I would do out there, but that's what my motherly instinct says I should do."

"No, not now, Mother. I have to do this myself."

A relative who's trying to start his own business sends me a brochure about some miracle shark cartilage and carrot juice pills he can sell me -- suggests he could even get me a special rate if I became a distributor under him, and that I could "make some extra money" that way.

Only one -- the one I would've least expected it from, a male neighbor -- manages to do exactly the right thing. He brings over fresh-baked cookies, sits and talks. And when he gets up to leave, he puts his arm around my shoulder, pulls me over to him in a sideways hug -- solid and strong and unembarrassed: "It'll all turn out okay. You just won't enjoy it much."

Suddenly, at dinner, I'm weeping. My husband goes to the bookshelf and comes back with a photograph of a woman with a raised spear in one hand and a tattoo along her mastectomy scar.

"It could be sort of neat. Like an Amazon woman."

Fellow travelers

"I'm going to run things and figure out things to suit myself -- when I retire."

"I've never done a single thing I've wanted to in my whole life."

Sinclair Lewis, Babbitt

October 25, 1993

I can hear the woman talking across the waiting room, but don't look up. There is nothing in this magazine I want to read, but I still can't stop flipping through it.

"I suppose I should make out a will. I could give Ginny the pots and pans. Bill the bed. Jay the night stand."

A woman sitting beside her reflects quietly that yes, that would be nice.

"My ex-husband wouldn't go to a Catholic church, so I went to his Baptist church for a long time. The priest at the hospital last week just walked off. He wouldn't give me communion, because I'd been away from the church too long."


"My daughter has MS. She just keeps getting worse and worse. She had moved out and was living with a friend who was helping her, but now they're not getting along so well so she's moved back in with me. I thought I could help her. But now that this has happened, I don't know. And with Christmas coming, I don't know what I'll do. My sister is supposed to visit, but she always shows up expecting to be waited on hand and foot. There's too much to do. And I'm just so tired."


"I was going to get a job. I was going to fix up the house. Now I don't know if that's possible."

She gets no response. She turns to me.

"Do you work? Are you married? Are you Catholic?"

The Wounded Fisher King

In the various Grail legends, the Fisher King's wound is in his thigh or genitals.

Jean Shinoda Bolen, Crossing to Avalon

October 30, 1993

It's Halloween. The nurse is holding the clipboard out to me. "It's just a release form. Just a formality. Sign on the back."

"What does it mean here, 'and whatever other procedures may be necessary?'"

"Sometimes they get in there and find something unexpected. The surgeon will do whatever he has to do, given the circumstances."

"I don't want him to do anything but take out the lump. I don't want to wake up without a breast. I want to be the one to make that decision."

"I'm sure he wouldn't do that."

"But if I sign this, he could."

"But he won't."

"How do I know that?"

"Maybe you'd like to write in your concerns on the form. And initial it. I'm sure he'll take it into consideration."

I wake to my husband's voice. "He said he took some extra tissue. He said it would serve you well down the road. Just a little extra insurance."

The bandage is big and bulky. It covers the whole breast area. For 48 hours.
When it's finally time, I stand before the mirror as I pull it off. Slowly. Very slowly.
The outer tape. The thick outer padding. Like a foam rubber bra insert. The inner bandage tape. The inner bandage. The two-inch incision, stiff black sutures knotted up at the ends, curving with the nipple, black and blue and purple and yellow.

In the mirror it is a tight-lipped frown. But when I look down at it, cupping the achey breast in my hands, it is a smile. A crooked smiley face.

What Teiresias says

Put your own house in order. . . . You are the cursed polluter of this land. . . . Your enemy is yourself.

Sophocles, King Oedipus

November 5, 1993

The runes counsel against expecting too much, or expecting in the ordinary way. "For the old way has come to an end: you simply cannot repeat the old way and not suffer. Do not focus on outcomes, nor bind yourself to past achievements; in so doing, you rob yourself of a true present, which is the only time in which self-change can be realized."

They say to imagine the phoenix: "that mystical bird that consumes itself in the fire and then rises from its own ashes." They say to envision the eagle: "free from entanglement, lifting itself above the endless ebb and flow of ordinary life to acquire broader vision."

They say I may need to experience a psychic death: "Let go of everything -- no exceptions, no exclusions. For nothing less than renewal of the spirit is at stake."
So by the time my husband and I walk into the surgeon's office to discuss my prognosis and "protocol options," I know this is just the beginning.

When the surgeon says "some women live 20 to 30 years; some don't," I'm ready for it. When he shows us the pathologist's slide of the tumor, I'm surprised that it doesn't scare me. He says he'll have to remove some lymph nodes to see how much it has already spread -- as a precursor to deciding what to do from there.

And when he says the survival rate is the same whether I have the breast removed or do radiation and chemo, that there is always a chance of recurrence, that having cancer is like being chased by a dog ("he'll never be killed, he'll always be there, you've got to just keep running"), I feel myself rising up, taking wing, floating above it all.

Starting to contemplate some larger issues.

Descent into the underworld

Like a fruit suffused with its own mystery and sweetness, she was filled with her vast death, which was so new she could not understand that it had happened.

Rainier Maria Rilke,
from "Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes."

November 6, 1993

The kayak is standing on end, up against a wall, shrouded in white gossamer. If you look very carefully, you can see a face beneath the shroud, inside the kayak -- serene, composed, at ease. The artist calls it "Yes."

Next there is a canoe carrying a wooden skeleton ("Do You Still Love Me?"), and then another kayak made out of crude sticks with a map of the world cut into pieces and stretched to become the skin of the vessel ("Journey"), and then another with faces from some medieval icon painting sewed to the stick frame and a dark, shrouded form inside that could be a fetus or a mummy ("Missionary"). Then there's one called "Here in This Longboat of the Body" that has a muscular chart on the outside in the shape of a crucifix. You can't tell if a boat is evolving into a body or a body is evolving into a boat -- you just know there's movement there. In the midst of all these boat pieces there's a wood carving of an almost prone human figure (larger than life) with a huge spear in its neck: it's called "Sudden Demise (Why is Timing Everything?)."

We move from piece to piece -- my husband and I, and the couple who invited us to this art opening several weeks ago, before my diagnosis -- without saying anything. Our friends seem very uncomfortable. They're usually quite talkative. On the phone a couple of days ago, when we told them what was going on with me and that we still wanted to go to the opening, we went on to talk about the shows and films we've seen lately -- "Phantom of the Opera" and "The Piano" -- just like always. I told them I didn't want anything in our relationship to change.

So today, no one has said anything further to acknowledge my changed situation. However, our friends eventually fall in with my husband, all three of them moving away from me, leaving me to contemplate these stark images alone.

I am not afraid. I can feel my breathing slowing, my heart barely beating. The spear is in my neck. That's me inthe kayaks, in the canoe. The phantom is rowing me down, down to his underground lake. He's singing to me:

Close your eyes and surrender to your darkest dreams!
Purge your thoughts of the life you knew before!
Close your eyes, let your spirit start to soar!
And you'll live as you've never lived before. . . .

The rope is tangled around my leg, the piano is dragging me down, down to the bottom of the sea:

There is a silence where hath been no sound. There is a silence where no sound may be
in the cold grave. Under the deep deep sea.

I've pushed off from the shore. The journey has begun. I'll be sending back periodic messages from the dead. I'm just not sure who all will be listening.


Entering the labyrinth

We [do not] risk the adventure alone, for the heroes of all time have gone before us. The labyrinth is thoroughly known. We have only to follow the thread of the hero path, and where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god. And where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves. Where we had thought to travel outward, we will come to the center of our own existence. And where we had thought to be alone, we will be with all the world.

Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

November 15, 1993

I enter the hospital through a revolving door, just as a woman is being wheeled out, new baby in her arms.

All the halls look alike. Unable to remember the front desk's litany of straights and rights and lefts to get to surgery, I lose my way after the first turn. I keep asking directions, keep doubling back. Someone finally leads me to where I'm supposed to be. Once there, once I've exchanged my street clothes for my magic gown and slippers and paper cap, I lie down on the gurney and watch the ceiling lights as they wheel me deeper and deeper into the maze. The last light I remember is very bright, all colors.

When I wake up my husband is standing there with his arms full of presents: a "galaxy" robe with the moon and stars and the sun smiling out of a blue-black sky, a little tiger puzzle, a softball-sized pyramid with spirals painted on it. They keep delivering flowers and balloons with my name on them. It feels like a birthday.

I can barely raise my arm when I need to turn over. There is a tube coming out of my underarm, where my lymph nodes used to be, to drain fluids into a bottle pinned to my night shirt. I watch it fill up with a peach-colored liquid. It looks like fruit punch.

My husband is telling me about the book my mother sent that he read through my surgery, about the connection between psychological wellness and physical healing. I can feel him thinking this is somehow a plea for attention on my part. He points to all the flowers. "You know all these people love you, don't you?"

On the other side of the curtain I hear a man and woman talking low, laughing, joking. They are playing cards. She has tubes draining out her fluids too. I know because the nurses are concerned that she is still draining. She's been there a week. When she tries to sit up straight on the bed, she's still in a lot of pain.

After the men leave, she calls to me through the curtain. "Your husband seems very supportive."

"So does yours."

"He's not my husband. My husband was really a jerk. He was playing around on me. I left him a year ago, after I had my lumpectomy."

"So you've been through all this before? How long did it take you to get your range of motion back?"

"I was playing golf a month later. You'll be back to normal in no time."

"And what are you in for this time?"

"A double mastectomy."

"You had a recurrence?"

"I took a chance. It didn't pan out."

They wheel me out to the front desk, my arms full of flowers and balloons. I leave the hospital through the revolving door, realizing this is the easy part.

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