June 21, 2013

Love Woke Me Up on Death’s Doorstep. ~ Gem Salsberg


Feathers of Regular Moments: Part 1.


Scalpel on peach flesh the razor unzipping my belly; fingers reaching in to remove the poison pit

I was 23-years-old.

I had been volunteering, planting underwater eelgrass forests after a season of tree-planting. I’ve always been a woman of healthy appetite and vigorous constitution. It was strange when food began to repulse me. The light seemed different somehow, colder and more aquatic. The oddest pain began to flood me, a drowning spread of branching heat and black lattice-shaped shards. After many tests and the news that I had a tumor, I remember thinking, Is that how life works?

At first the words used to describe my flesh seemed cold and hard. “The pancreas is a highly over engineered organ.” The tumor was possibly malignant and filled with carcinogenic fluids. If it leaked or ruptured, the poison would spread through my body. I lived with an unknown foreign bomb inside of me. I began moving gently, cautious of the fragile egg perched on the cliff edge of my pancreas. My pancreas? A year before I would not have known what a pancreas does. Sometimes my body is unfamiliar, a separate creature with a city metropolis bustling and heaving inside a shell of skin.

Let me tell you in simple talk

I had a tumor the size of a baseball on the end of my pancreas. My surgeon sliced me open, cut out the poison ball, stapled me up and plastic-wrapped me in morphine, codeine and blood thinners. I was in the hospital 11 days. The dietitian tried to feed me spaghetti and meatballs and chocolate ice cream. I wouldn’t eat, only drank water. I wanted out of that raunchy illness-flushed death-smelling hospital with tortoise-armpit-green flasher gowns and pain like internal crucifixion (without any of the fiction).

Yet, over and over, grace arrived uninvited and unexpected, carried in the plain palms and feathers of regular moments.

A slender-necked pigeon flew to my window on the third floor skyline. She was cramped on that windowsill. I had just opened my eyes for the first time and saw her. She looked in on me, turned her head, a side crooked eye glance, then the other eye. I knew her. Messenger. I could close my eyes, and rest among the flaming horsetails and mad fiddlehead visions of stitch-ghosted hallways. The slanted crevice of Gravol and my electronic bed spun me beyond the edge of gravity.

Awareness returning

My mother’s voice was calling softly, “We’re here. It’s okay, Gemmy, we’re here.”

Both eyes were swollen slits punching dim vision into a hard grey haze. Gauze wrapped my abdomen in a stiff muslin cocoon. My hand hovered below my heart, trying to speak. Nothing is real when pain is the singular encompassing experience. I heard voices, felt breath around me. This was real. This was comforting.

The first night, released of my humanness and magnified. Suffering so much that I could not speak past leaking, burnt coriander eyes silent. I lay curled and crying in a goose throat hollow pooled with salt.


She came from the shadow corridor. A woman in yellow gloves and rubber tongue squeaker shoes emerged through the eggplant crevice of middle night. A Filipina cleaning woman carrying holy water aqua green and spraying the acidic scent of false pine. She stopped, simply looked at me in the dark, a pause for pulse and breathing. After this subtle inhalation she pulled up a bucket and sat level to my damp sweating skull. She whispered, “What you love?”

Mountains birthed upwards around us streams carved deep valleys and lakes gathered the waters rose smooth and calm a tinge of green edged the damp and gathered mineral to leaf the slightest chance and trees carried the earth from darkness

All this revolved before I finally whispered a punctured word. “Garden.”

She sat in the dark. Her head tilted, a soft lamplit child listening for the edge of clouds. Her canary rubber gloves began expressing the air in knuckle feathers, challenging my caves to become breathable. She told me of the fuchsia pallor of her petunias and the striated, saffron, sunburnt marigolds of her small backyard tendings. How mother deep her tangerine whispers of lush petunia growth, feather flashes of green arrows, crushed parsley stems and infant calendula cradles. “Why the slugs eat all my nasturtiums?”

I understood then how simple life can be. It is real to care for someone who is in need, someone unknown, to risk the standard day for a life beyond basic survival.

She could have lost her job for stopping and being human. Bluebells and azaleas. Carrot weeds and roses. The green secrets of life bloomed in the air of my tunneled body cave and hushed out the flesh of her trowel-scented backyard.

A simple woman in such indigo shadow I never saw her face

I was shocked. One morning I discovered that I had no care whether I lived or died. All the important heartbreaks and betrayals, the passions, hopes and motivated thrust of regular living evaporated. I discovered myself completely alone in a decreasing body. Breath became my companion.

Each night I lay awake and dreaming for the light to rise, for the mountains to swallow and digest me. I was flooded by an unfamiliar stillness. A single sunflower was left on my nightstand in a jar with sage and wild grass. I was okay; my mom was right. Okay even on this leaking raft of pain, on a heaving, nauseating ocean. I was somehow more accepting and present than I had ever paused to actualize before.

Truth, a dawn of sunken marrow in my mind. The earth was being revealed again as precious. The kind of precious I had felt once when I lifted my tiny grandmother out of her wheelchair.

Some determined god shouldered herself into my body and shouted at me, Wake up! But mostly she just whispered, I love you; look how much I love you.



Continued in Part 2.




Gem Salsberg is a freelance photographer and artist. She has an InterMedia Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Emily Carr University of Art and Design. Salsberg lived 2008-09 in New York, NY working within editorial at the internationally renowned Aperture photography magazine and book publishers. Her work has been published and shown in such venues as The Vancouver Sun, ascent Magazine, Dandelion Magazine, Timeless Books, The Hive and Dawson City International Short Film Festival. Gem currently resides in Vancouver BC. Explore more of Gem’s projects by visiting her website, cargocollective.com/gemsalsberg.






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Ed: Brianna Bemel

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