The Sky Begins At Your Feet: a memoir on cancer, community, and coming home to the body

Alysa Cummings
The Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania
Last Modified: August 28, 2008

The Sky Begins at Your Feet

Author: Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg
ISBN: 9781888160437
Information: Ice Cube Press, 2009 | $19.95 US
OncoLink Rating: 3 Stars

I have never met author Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg face to face. But despite that fact, I feel a real connection to her. I have to wonder why.

Maybe it's because I've been a fan of her work for the past five years or so. Caryn's chapbook, Reading the Body is one of my all-time favorite breast cancer survivor poetry collections. Or maybe, just maybe, it's because I just read her astonishing cancer memoir, start to finish, all in one sitting. Yes, 229 pages later, I could almost swear that Caryn and I are the best of friends.

Bottom line: Caryn's voice is in my head. A writer's voice that is clear and strong and healing. As a reader/book reviewer who devours survivor memoirs as a guilty pleasure, for me it's always gratifying (not to mention immensely validating), to sense bits and pieces of my own survivor journey in someone else's story. If Caryn and I were grabbing a cup of coffee together, there's no question we would have lots of CancerLand common ground to chat about.

Many cancer memoirs lead the reader step by step from discovering a lump through biopsy, surgery, treatment for cancer and recovery. What sets Caryn's story apart from many other breast cancer memoirs in print are the many moments throughout the journey that she describes - so poetically, so vividly - that they linger memorably long after you finish the book.

One such moment occurs after Caryn's first round of chemotherapy. She chooses to get her head shaved and decides to bring the clippings home in a bag. She and her youngest son Forest walk outside onto the deck to scatter her hair:

"‘We're going to give it to the birds so they can make nests out of it,'" I told him, both of us imagining baby birds sleeping in my hair, high up in trees. We each took handfuls, preparing to toss it all over the yard. I was amazed by how much gray there was in my dark hair as soft, weightless handfuls of it filled my open palms...

‘For you, birds, to make your nest,' I said.
‘Here, little birds, here is your nest,' Forest called."

Then there are the times that Caryn finds humor in the cancer journey. As in the case when she starts taking steroids during chemotherapy to address nausea and happily discovers the gift of extreme energy that results:

"That evening I had also weeded an enormous vegetable plot littered with last year's remains, and put in an entirely new vegetable garden, not to mention the three rose bushes, some basil, impatiens and other plants. All this after preparing a delicately delicious dinner, washing the dishes, sweeping the floor while singing show tunes, and talking profusely to all three of my cats. I was on a mission...I was thinking of painting the hallway, maybe a pale color and then I thought I should probably reorganize the linen closet first..."

Caryn's sense of humor during treatment also helps defuse some of the anxiety and fear that her family members have about her illness. One memorable example from the book involves putting washable tattoos on her newly bald head:

"Tattoos. Bald head...I knew what I had to do...

I put a cardinal right over my left eye, a goose over my right, and the others became part of the garland around my head. Flight. Wings. Color. Beauty. They just seemed to belong there...

It became a ritual: Once a week, I would shave my head smooth of the nubs that had started to erupt, and then carefully, with a wet washcloth, apply a circle of mammals, amphibians, butterflies, or sometimes flowers...there was something about wearing a ringlet of kittens around my scalp that made chemo seem a lot less like a pact with the devil."

Caryn's story documents her journey from diagnosis through recovery as many cancer memoirs do. But her skills as a writer invite the reader inside her head as she tackles each decision along the way, including whether or not to have reconstruction:

"There was something else just as significant to me: the importance of looking at this loss head-on, of seeing myself breastless every day, every night, and making peace with it. I wanted to learn to love my body in a whole new way, more than I had ever been able to love it before. Listening to what my body wanted, what my body didn't want, was the first lesson in making that love more of a verb than an abstraction. ‘No, I'm not going to do a rebuild," I told him..."

The Sky Begins at Your Feet chronicles the breast cancer experience as seen through the eyes of a woman who also happens to be a wife, a mother of three, as well as an accomplished writer and educator who commutes regularly between the states of Kansas and Vermont. How she keeps all those plates spinning and at the same time recovers from treatment for breast cancer is an amazing story worthy of the reader's time and attention.