– Eli Loomis, Bellingham, WA
I first read about the purple sea urchin while I was visiting a friend with brain cancer. I thumbed through her collection of books, searching for something I could use to bolster her dwindling energy. The shelves bulged with writings on genetics, copyright law, and natural history, and finally my eye settled on a field guide to the intertidal organisms of Southern California. I read to her about purple sea urchins.
- Purple sea urchins move around. They do this with thousands of tiny tube-feet projecting from the bottom of their test (their shell). These little tube feet stick to things with suction, and with glue. Each tube-foot is equipped with a powerful fast-setting adhesive, as well as a chemical to deactivate it. By secreting one, then the other, they walk. They have sucking glue-feet.
- Purple sea urchins eat algae. By the bucketload; they love the stuff. But they don’t just eat algae, they can also live by absorbing nutrients straight from the water if the right stuff is there. Sewage, it turns out, has the right stuff. There have been examples in coastal areas near major cities of urchins cleaning an area entirely of algae and then living on dissolved waste. Sickly, sewage-fed urchins then devour any little algae sprout that makes a go of it.
This is sort of like how I imagine the tumors growing now inside my friend’s skull. Soaking up the same nutrients as the rest of her cells. We have no way to starve the tumors, which grow complete with blood vessels that deliver nutrients and take away waste. Their steady growth destroys tissues and organs from sheer pressure, crushing my friend’s brain from the inside. So I see her transformed. Here, a woman with a PhD in evolutionary genetics and now a brand new law degree. Her brain the center of her sickness. She lies in bed, visibly mustering her strength to deliver wisecracks, and depending completely on the care of her parents. I read to her.
- Purple sea urchins are little fortresses. Each of the sharp palisade of spines is covered in living tissue that continually deposits more hard material. Attached in between the spines, appendages very like clawed tube feet pinch and sometimes poison – pedicellariea. They do not draw from the digestive system of the urchin, nor connect to its nerves, but live almost as separate organisms on the test.
My friend’s exhaustion and nausea are eating her, though the seizures have mostly stopped. Ironically, it’s not the cancer causing these problems, but the treatment. She has become a chemical-saturated war-zone. The same stuff that might save her life is pushing her underwater; I see a woman remarkable in her tenacity, intelligence, and humor, now with half lidded eyes. She’s all there, but swimming in poison – 13 pills a day. We worry that she will fall down the stairs and break herself. Her parents look on with desperation; what can they do but listen to her doctor (a very good one) and scour southern California for her medicines, which are surprisingly difficult to attain. These kinds of desperate situations beg us to acknowledge that impossible victories do occur. Almost daily you hear of someone who’s beaten cancer against all odds, of someone buried under earthquake rubble for ten days or a child who survived an hour submerged under the ice of a frozen pond. We keep hope and stand vigil.
- Purple sea urchins can bore holes in stone. They have five sharp little jaws pointed inwards, together called Aristotle’s lantern. This is what you hear rattling around inside of a dried test if you find one on the beach. Those five little scraping blades constantly re-grow from the inside, allowing the urchin to slowly, persistently bore its way into stone. This action is assisted by the movement of their spines, twisting and rubbing in the flowing ocean water. There are reports of urchins digging so consistently and from such a young age that their shallow depression becomes a hole, and their hole a tunnel that expands as the urchin grows. The urchin is then stuck, in a cave it is now too big to leave, its own growth crushing it against the walls.
Four months later and my friend can’t write, can’t read her own emails. Every report I get from her sister gives a shorter timeline. Six weeks is too long to wait, then three weeks is too long, so I fly back to California to say goodbye.
I land late, and after renting a car I drive east to camp out in the mountains on the way to her apartment. On the trails climbing steep up into those mountains early the next morning, swimming through the piney, acidic smells of those tenacious shrubs, I find myself on the trail of a mountain lion – a small male by the look of the tracks.
I arrive at her apartment to find her withered, completely paralyzed, eyes open to the sky. She is wracked periodically by either pain or frustration, and that I can’t tell which panics me. When we speak, it takes her visible effort to form words, which I can only understand some of the time. I find myself apologizing again and again, “I’m so sorry, but I didn’t understand that.”
Sometimes she comes through loud and clear. When I tell her about the mountain lion tracks, and my flight down the mountain and into my car, she says clearly, “A small male looking for small males,” slack lips giving way to a smirk. Her resolve seems to have strengthened as her outlook looks worse and worse. Where once her parents tried to fill her with their optimism, now she props them with hers. As I weep and sing and say my goodbye, she gazes fiercely at the wall where her eyes are fixed, and says in her slurred, barely-there words, “something could still happen”.