I grew up on a farm in Connecticut, went to college in Rhode Island, and have lived my entire adult life in small-town Vermont, so the mores of rural New England are deeply engrained in me.
That means Robert Frost’s poetry is part of my vernacular. (I own two hardcover copies of You Come Too, a collection of his most popular poems: one copy was printed the year I turned ten and bears my name on the flyleaf in childish script; the other bears a notation that I bought it used for 25 cents the summer after I graduated from high school. I can’t bring myself to deaccession either copy.) Some Frost excerpts are quoted so often they’re clichés, especially hereabouts. If you’re leaving an evening gathering, “I have … miles to go before I sleep” is a typical throwaway line. If you’re off on a quick errand, “I sha’n’t be gone long” is what you say as you step out the door. If small-town politics rear their head, “good fences make good neighbors” is the expected prescription.
The most quoted of all Frostiana is, of course, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by.” That line gets trotted out whenever someone is deciding which of two paths to take, as a reminder to consider uncommon choices. Sometimes, however, one ends up on a road “less traveled by” as a matter of chance, not choice.
Two years ago, I was diagnosed with a rare form of Stage 4 oral cancer, despite having no risk factors for the disease. An onerous course of treatment offered a chance of a good outcome, however. Suddenly, Frost’s platitude acquired new meaning. I realized the biggest choice I faced was not what to do—I’d be dealing with cancer, no matter what treatment decisions I made—but how to deal with this unsettling turn of events, what mindset to adopt.
It’s usual to frame an experience with cancer as a battle: “You can fight this,” people say. “She battled cancer valiantly,” obituaries proclaim.
Instead, I decided to frame what lay ahead of me not as a battle but as a deviation in my path. Not like a win-lose proposition, but like a steep stretch on a trail “in a yellow wood.” Today, I feel well and grateful. I credit that to science. To unwavering support from family and friends. And to my framing of the past two years as a path, not a battle.
“That has made all the difference.”
Dana Cook Grossman
East Thetford, Vermont