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“How to Be Tender” by Maureen O’Brien

In August of 2023, we released our fourth Open Call: How might we reimagine healing and transformation with cancer through poetry, art, letters, and stories? The following is a poetry submission we received from this open call.

“Tenderness is a word we urgently need to hear more within all talk of cancer. Cancer is so devastating–I am a cancer survivor. It is terrifying to be swept up into the medical world, and to have body parts removed, even if it will save your life. It has taken me a long time to make peace with it, especially in a world that kept telling me those parts were worthless because I was older. So perhaps there can be healing and transformation if we can be tender with ourselves, our grief, our fears, all our feelings–and if we can find the tenderness within the walls of our hospitals too. If we can even, as Audre Lorde says, make it a habit. It can help heal the holes of terror and despair that cancer leaves behind.”

Maureen O’Brien

How to Be Tender

“We have to consciously study how to be tender with each other until it
becomes a habit.”

–Audre Lorde

Dear Audre,
When my cancer came
and I had to be cut open,
I returned to that night
you gently pressed my hand
between both of yours.
How to be tender.
Decades after I thanked you for your words
your warmth reached into me
even deeper, readying me for the scalpel.
How to be tender
with myself.
A woman past the age where children come,
and the world kept declaring,
“you don’t need those parts anyway.”
But I loved them.
What are the words you do not yet have?
What do you need to say?

My womb. Call it what it is.
Ovaries, fallopian tubes, cervix.
Everything that had once given life had to unfurl.
All the white feathers
would blow as if spinning and floating on a pond,
then blow across a see-through skin of ice.
I was going to die, if not sooner than later.
After a lifetime of flying within me,
how would I, with
wings taken, find sky?
In the city where I met you I had to
let the knives in. That skyline.
Where would my lost love birds go?
Audre, I faced the grief
with the morning light lifting me through.
But the tenderness.
It’s there in the hands of women, like you showed me.

The surgeon tucked my hair
gently under my blue cap.
“Your hair is so soft it won’t stay under the elastic.”
Wheeled beneath the overpowering glare
of the operating room,
I heard, “She is such a little peanut!”
Filled with tenderness
I counted backwards
into the darkness and let go.

Audre Lorde quotes takes from “The Transformation of Silence Into Language and

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