Your Grandmother’s Magic Jawbone

Part I: How Maui Slowed the Sun

Are you awake, Mokopuna? Are you listening? Jawbone and I will tell you a story.

I first heard it when I was a kid in Aotearoa. They said it was a myth: How Maui Slowed the Sun.

It’s part of Jawbone’s story now. Yours too, if you need it.

Long ago, Te Ra, the Sun moved too quickly across the sky.
As each day grew shorter, people watched their future fading. They believed there was nothing they could do, but Maui had a plan.
Gathering his four brothers, he said, “Come with me and we will capture the Sun. We will make it move more slowly.”
The brothers hesitated. ‘That is impossible,’ one mumbled. They were afraid the Sun would burn them up.

When the sunny miracle of your health recedes, there is a plan. The treatment comes with side effects, but it stands on generations of practice with enough evidence for hope. It is an unpleasant plan, a frightening one. I was afraid it would burn me up — and it did, a little. But it was a shot at claiming back the receding days.

Slicing through the flax, Maui showed his brothers how to weave strong ropes, so they could snare the Sun where it rises. Silencing their doubts, the brothers cut the flax and plaited the ropes to capture the mighty Sun.

Most people don’t know that a fibula isn’t essential to keep on walking. In the seventies, surgeons began grafting fibula bone to replace diseased jawbone. They learned how fashion leg bone into jawbone.

Early in the morning before the sun rose, the band of brothers crept from their beds and began walking to the gaping pit where the mighty Sun rises. They only travelled during the long night, so Te Ra would not see them coming. Walking through darkness, into the forest, across the grassland, flax ropes draped over shoulders, the plan weighing heavy on their minds.

We left home at 3 a.m. on a mild winter morning, your grandfather, mother and me. 405 traffic was light, so we made good time and arrived to check in at 4:20. Dozens of people were there — patients and families — waiting at the hospital. Calm and somber like us, walking through the glaring halls of private darkness.

Prepped before the procedure, wearing a crisp gown and ID bracelet, I overheard a surgeon talking to another patient about removing a tumor from his brain. I wondered how the patient stayed calm in the face of such a frightening diagnosis. I felt oddly fortunate that my tumor was in the jaw.

The anesthetist slipped into the curtained cubicle, asking if I had any more questions. Then he pushed the gurney into the operating room. I watched the ceiling roll away.

The ground grew warm and dry underfoot, and as the birds grew silent and trees gave way to shriveled sticks, they knew they were close to the pit where the mighty Sun rises. Maui and his brothers built a wall of earth at the gaping mouth and sheltered behind it. Maui told his brothers to wait until he gave them a sign to throw the ropes. “Once we snare the Sun, you must not let it go.”
And, as the blazing giant rose from the chasm, Maui hissed at his brothers to wait.
As the fiery flames reared up over the wall, Maui and his brothers still waited.
As the red hot eyes of the Sun God glared from the pit, still Maui sheltered and waited.
Not until he felt Te Ra’s scorching breath; not until he could see the fierce mouth of its rising, only then did he shout for his brothers to cast out their snares to capture the Sun.
The brothers threw the flax ropes, so they coiled through Te Ra’s fiery hair and tethered his body to the Earth.

Out of the oblivion of anesthesia, I was roped to a bed with an IV, nasal feeding tube, trach, catheter, and questions: Did the surgery remove all the cancer? Would the three inches of leg bone, now jawbone, ‘take’? How could we prevent infections and complications? The fresh bone sliced into my jaw didn’t hurt as much as the aching loss of leg bone. Airways swollen shut, remotely, I sipped air through a tracheostomy. Unable to talk, I wrote notes to communicate.

You think the worst is over, but this is the beginning. The pathology tests showed the tumor’s margins were clear, a good sign. But the doctors recommended radiation and chemo to ‘target any remaining microscopic disease’. I had doubts. I hated the whole plan. It was still uncertain how much speech I could recover after surgery. I was afraid of the short-term and permanent side effects of radiation. Adding chemo seemed like a cruel sentence. But weighing it up with my family, I chose a treatment plan with evidence to support it.

Seeing the Sun’s white-hot teeth, Maui leapt to his feet. Generations of magic radiating from the bone weapon held high above his head. He invoked the powers carved deep in his grandfather’s jawbone and smashed it down upon the face of the tethered Sun.

Six weeks after the successful surgery, I began daily radiation along with weekly chemo. After two weeks of radiation, my mouth was raw with sores. By week three, everything tasted like dust against my dead taste buds. Week four, my jaw locked tight and I couldn’t speak. Burned surgical scars darkened to purple. By week five, I struggled to swallow water, raw throat swollen closed. Most salivary glands were destroyed by week six.

Mokopuna, sometimes I have an impulse to run when I see someone else’s pain, or my own. And back then, I did try to run, emotionally. If I had any real hope of outrunning that fear-storm, I could have set a sprint record. But in the end, there were no real options for flight. Only fight.

Maui rained the magic jawbone’s blows upon the flaming face, again and again, as Te Ra roared a scorching rage.
More blows, until the Sun cried out in pain, “You will kill Te Ra!’
“No, I will not kill you,” Maui replied, “but I will make you move more slowly!”

At first, I fought the wrong enemy: the pain. The more I blazed in denial against it, the more I suffered. Don’t misunderstand, there were painkillers, and they deadened some physical pain. But emotionally, I was twisted in a knot of resentment and fear. Haruki Murakami says, ‘Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.’ Eventually, as I surrendered a little and stopped raging against pain, I suffered less.

As the radiation plan progressed through the weeks, things got ugly. I was desperate to make it through the last few sessions and equally desperate to stop. Emotionally, I was on my knees, sobbing as I climbed onto the metal bed, into the gaping mouth of the linear accelerator. Struggling with the mouth guard that kept the jaw in place through treatment, gagging in the rawness of my mouth. Choking. Your grandfather soothed me until I became calm enough to get the mouth guard in place.

I lay back on the bed as the technicians tethered the mesh mask over my face, locking me down. It took all my will just to breathe, as the mouth of the great machine hummed and whirled, and a hailstorm of savage light radiated down.

I grieved for my new jawbone, miraculously transplanted from a leg, bonding with existing bone, fusing in tissue, nourished by freshly transplanted blood vessels. All roped in place with a titanium wire that looks like a bicycle chain on the x-ray. And now, this magic jawbone was burning in the blows of an unforgiving sun.

It wasn’t until the Sun grew weak and still that Maui stopped raining blows on the face of Te Ra. He told his brothers to loosen the ropes and allow the Sun to creep slowly back across the sky.

Once the treatment was over, my mouth grew worse for a while. Purple neck scars grew darker. Like an injured animal, I curled in bed to shelter. But now that weekly chemo was over, there was less nausea and depression. Liquid meals became easier to force down. I grew strong enough to walk around the block. I watched the world rise back up. A snail glided across the path. The neighbor’s yucca cactus erupted in flower.

And then one day, I found the herculean strength to do a load of laundry. I was excited to be able to pick up a laundry basket, and carry it — so proud of my newfound stamina in a three-year-old kind of way. Under a speechless surface, I was whispering with the joy of growing stronger. The days grew longer again.

Another week passed. I drove myself to the supermarket. I hadn’t been there in months and it was staggering to see acres of food, stacked high and wide. Everything was beyond my wounded jaw’s ability. But I was excited to welcome home my prodigal taste buds, so I put ambitious groceries in the cart —like canned soup with vegetable chunks.

A few weeks later, I went back to work, part time. I crept slowly across the sky.

They say no one can peer into the face of the Sun God and survive. So, when you get to the edge of the pit, Mokopuna, you must seek shelter. Sometimes a storyteller will take your cruel sentence and dilute it with another tale, so you can shelter there in story.

They said it was a myth: How Maui Slowed the Sun, but now I feel I’m part of its story. And when a story claims you, you find more truth each time it re-tells you: fragments of your reflection re-connect and make you someone new, and whole again.

In one fragment, I was reshaped like a warrior. Time to leave my sleeping village behind. Time to fight. We had a plan.

In another, my doubts followed me like a reluctant band of brothers coming on a journey, anxious, challenging everyone to tread carefully.

In another, I reached out a hand to hold on to a magic jawbone, carving through the spiraling koru of its regeneration.

And in another fragment, I roared like the Sun, facing a hailstorm of blows.

I surrendered. Now, I am learning to move more slowly across the sky.

It is because Maui and his brothers captured the Sun and made it move more slowly that your days may be long enough to do what you feel called to do.
And the question of what you must do, Mokopuna, as your precious moments stretch into days. This is up to you.

People have their battles. This was one of mine. The Sun raced across the sky and my family banded together to follow our plan. We waited at the edge of a pit before taking a leap to slow down the Sun. Sheltering in story, we were wrapped in the love of friends and whanau. Recalling the healing power of their kindness makes my story sweeter than bitter.

You ask, ‘How am I?’

So far, so good.

Looking at the face of my reflection, I see someone new. Familiar, I still have your mother’s eyes as I look ahead to you. But now I have your grandmother’s magic jawbone and we both have something to say.

If you listen Mokopuna, we will tell you the rest of our story.

For my part, I have given you the facts: it makes a skeleton.

You have listened to the myth as it begins to re-tell us.

And Jawbone’s tale, that is bone true.

Continue to Part II

How Maui Slowed the Sun is Part I of a four part tale. Follow me if you would like to read more.