I was diagnosed with breast cancer just shy of my 41st birthday. I had an eight-year-old daughter and twins, a boy and a girl, age two-and-a-half. I was lucky. I’d caught it early; my prognosis was excellent, although I still had to submit to the dual assaults of chemo and radiation. With each round, I felt my energy wane. By the end of my treatment, while it was good to know I’d done everything I could to combat my disease, my body was thrashed. I needed to get my strength back. So I decided to hike.
Runyon Canyon became my gym. Occupying 160 acres of parkland and trails two miles from the Chinese Theatre, Runyon is known as “Hollywood’s StairMaster.” Famously there are dogs—lots of them. It’s one of the city’s few off-leash areas. There are also all manner of humans. Almost every day I would encounter Basketball Boy, a skinny, long-haired guy who wore athletic shorts down to his shins; the Sisters, two women of a certain age who seemed delightfully absorbed in a decades-long dialogue; the Sherpa, a compact, broad-shouldered man I imagined at the top of an 8,000-meter peak; Trach Guy, a fit middle-aged man with a bandanna covering the hole in his neck; the Red Russian, a buxom blintze of a woman with hair the color of Hawaiian Punch; and Almost Mary-Louise Parker, a mysterious waif in a floppy hat and sunglasses, who I thought might be the actress until the day the real Mary-Louise Parker breezed past.
After a few months of hiking the main route, pushing myself higher until I reached Mulholland Drive, I realized that I had become a Runyon regular myself—Furrowed Brow Woman, perhaps, or Bad Haircut Lady (my hair was growing back in), or the One in Black Champion Sportswear from Target. I also realized that I needed a new challenge. So I set my sights on the Ridge.
Officially called the Hero’s Trail, this dirt path ascends higher than the regular paved loop, up the spine of the western ridgeline to a panoramic spot at the top. Web sites claim it’s an 18-degree slope and rate the hike “difficult.” I rated it “impossible.” Gradually I made it to different goalposts of my own designation: Condom Cove, the first flat expanse and the location, I presumed, of many a late-night hookup (Base Camp 1); the Giant Tree (Base Camp 2); the Summit of Doubt, the penultimate plateau where you seriously consider turning around (Base Camp 3); and the Final, Into-Thin-Air Summit (aka the Top).
At the Top my Runyon story took on a new dimension, for I happened upon the Wishing Box. A metal contraption with spikes protruding from its roof like the Statue of Liberty’s crown, the box was just there, unannounced and unexplained. When I first discovered it in 2011, it was painted with the message “Give a Prayer, Take a Prayer” and adorned with rainbows, flowers, and a geographically accurate globe.
Over the next year graffiti crept in like kudzu and obscured the original designs. It told me that Kyle loves Wendy, that Bego was here, and that Jeanie is not a nice person, to put it mildly. Some graffiti messages touched me—“Why does the night hurt so much?” someone asked. “Don’t stop,” said another. “More Love,” one wrote in a heart next to “Bob + Rita.” Kudzu can be beautiful in its own way.
Yet it wasn’t just what was painted on the outside of the box that captured my attention. It was the messages inside, scribbled on scraps of paper. At first I hesitated to read other people’s wishes, as any polite person might. But soon enough, curiosity trumped decorum:
Dear God—Thank you for 23 wonderful years of life. I can’t wait to see what you have in store for the rest of my time here.
Today we deserve to smile! :)
I pray for the healing and recovery of earth.
I’m one month sober & celebrating by hiking with my 2 best friends. Loving new life.
Miracles happen when you give more energy to your dreams than your fears.
You are the oldest you have ever been and the youngest you will ever be again. Try not to waste it.
Sure, some people might see simple prayers and fortune cookie aphorisms as woo-woo, but after years of awaiting test results, monitoring tumor markers, and wrestling with the whole “mortality thing,” I didn’t mind. The act of taking a worry and morphing it into a positive thought felt empowering. According to the medical journals, positive thoughts can reduce stress, boost our immune systems, and even prolong our lives. The Mayo Clinic’s Web site includes tips for flipping our bad thoughts into good ones. Bad = “It’s too complicated.” Good = “I’ll tackle it from a different angle.”
During my treatment, I have to admit, I didn’t gravitate toward daily affirmations. I was more partial to Ativan. But having emerged on the other side of my chemo and radiation, I felt the pull of the positive. Along with something else—a desire to connect to others on a similar path. So after weeks of reading other people’s messages, I threw in one of my own: a prayer for a friend who had been in a car accident. Writing it down was more official than whispering it to the wind. Soon, emboldened by my new status as a Wishing Box contributor, I went a step further, bringing paper and some pens, which I left under a rock on the front lip of the box. “Your wish for today…” I wrote on the top sheet. Two days later I returned to inspect my yield:
I want to fall in love. To which someone replied: Love is all you need.
Abundance, Wealth, Joy!!
May you experience gratitude and love always!!
Get a new good, longstanding job. Get own apartment.
Energy. Focus. Imagination. Fun. Love.
In subsequent weeks I left other prompts, like “What’s your wish?”
I wish for my mom to get over her breakup and realize how strong she is.
I pray I become rich!
I pray that God will create a path that is best for me. Show me if this relationship is going somewhere and that I am loved by the one I love so much.
In my afterlife I hope I become a cat.
Some wishes were distinctly Hollywood:
Dear Heavenly father, I want to be an actress so I need to continue on a healthy path. Give me strength not to be tempted by drugs and partying—love you!
Dear God, Please let me die a legend. Let me become a famous actor & singer & save the world from itself.
Other messages expressed loneliness. After Thanksgiving, someone wrote:
I’m super fat. I want to lose weight. I want to find love. I don’t want to die alone.
By the beginning of this year I planned my hikes around what I might wish for that day. Patience was a frequent request (I do have young children), followed by strength, compassion, and humility (I repeat: I do have young children). One day I climbed to the top, intending to leave a prayer for my older daughter, who was struggling with an illness. I ended up depositing a prayer for myself:
Help me help my daughter get better.
It felt good to write it down.
My pilgrimages to the Wishing Box continue. I am surprised and not surprised by what I find with each visit. Sometimes a wacky wish catches me off guard; more often a prayer mirrors my own. I take comfort in that. We’re all in this together, the messages seem to say, so keep climbing, keep dreaming, and keep putting yourself out there.
I wish for…happiness, love, health and success.
Strength + clarity + joy + peace for all people.
Cancer free. Please.
I couldn’t have said it better myself.