I have every intent on joining my friends, family and comrades-in-cancer to fight the good fight and push this boulder as close to the cliff as possible even if it will not fall off into the abyss without taking me with it. It’s funny how much I wrestle with the language of cancer: battles to be fought with valor, courage, ferocity.
Nearly every day an obituary will share the passing of a loved one whom, after a “valiant, courageous or brave” battle with “XYZ” disease/illness mental or physical was “laid to rest, met his/her maker or shed his/her mortal coil.” It’s a harrowing thought and the moment the tiny meteor in my head decided to show itself, it has been a struggle to find the right language without falling into cliché. My years of Quaker Schooling has made wary of language with militant overtones. After all, I was raised, gratefully, in a household which banned even water pistols. While it seemed silly at the time, I salute my parents for raising me with conviction. At Abington Friends, as part of our Quaker studies, we participated in a seminar on how to register CO (conscientious objector) status should we be drafted into one of Reagan’s crazy escapades.
So implementing the language of war with my diagnoses was at first awkward. How quickly I realized what it was: a good war. There are good fights. A battle. I’ll take it. That said, one of the most valuable pieces of advice shared was from a friend who recently visited with her own story of struggle, pain and loss: “the hardest thing is to embrace the unknown.” How true. It’s a refrain that has been with me now every day and every hour.
As an aside, there have been, and will be many words of wisdom and advice. So many of us have been touched by struggle and loss. Frankly, I really don’t mind as intentions are heartfelt even if it means someone suggesting I partake in a raw-food diet (no, thank you!) or that using a cellphone will result in a tumor in the shape of the cellphone itself. (iTumor?)
Actually two of my most desired sections of my daily bread of the New York Times, aside from Tuesday’s science section, Wednesday’s food/dining section and the Sunday Book Review are the wedding announcements on Sundays and the daily obituaries. The juxtaposition is often poetic. People beginning new lives and existing lives coming to a close. I find it especially intriguing to read of the passing of individuals who have left some sort of indelible mark on the world that most of us have never heard of. In just the past few weeks we have lost Robert Breer, a “pioneer of avant-garde animation,” Nancy Wake, “proud spy and Nazi fighter,” Ruth Brinker who “gave AIDS patients meals” and Marshall Grant, Johnny Cash’s bass player. Locally we may read of a neighbor who lived a life we never knew, or maybe we did, and their passing makes us appreciate their own journey whether filled with struggle and challenge and/or joy and happiness.
Yesterday was the first time I lost all control. It started last evening as I went to Harlow’s Farm Stand to see Rusty Belle play their terrific folk-boho. (Love them!) Two of the band members, Matt and Kate, also happen to be the children of my former boss and continued confidante Steve Lorenz and his wife Nancie. The scene was perfect: beautiful music, fine food, great company and a beautiful sunset accented by the green hills and farm fields. I took a walk. I was at peace but emotionally fragile. I began to contemplate my eldest daughter’s words as she shared her feelings one evening. She wanted me to promise that I would be there for her wedding. To see my grandchildren. Not that this is anywhere near the immediate horizon, thankfully, but such events as this tumor surgery/cancer force-feed all you to think about the past, present and future in ways never imagined. I bawled as I looked out upon the fields of corn and squash. It was a moan I don’t think I’ve heard myself make. I felt nauseous and my body began to shake. And suddenly I stopped. I had to. I’m still not ready for this and not ready to let it all out. I’m scared as much as I am strong. Sad as much as I am happy. To draw on that fear and sadness every time I see friends, neighbors and family would be physically, emotional, and spiritually impossible. It would drain me to nothing. So this website is a way for me to share this experience both as a purging, a purification, a tool for learning as I try to un-bury myself from a library of material that I did not ask for and a hope that it might help others understand. We have all been touched by loss and we all need to be touched by the human element which makes us just that: human.
While I know I can be exceedingly sentimental and even mushy, there are few times I have a good cry and yet I believe it would be of great benefit if we could all have a good solid cry on our emotional calendar now and then. Some are better at this than others. It feels good, a release. All that submerged emotion spewing out of the normally dormant volcano.
I can think of a few catalysts, for now, which will invariably make me quake with sadness. Certainly a certain strain of Mozart, Bach or Haydn. Cello Suites, violin sonatas. It’s a physical and spiritual reaction and given the right circumstances, can send me over the cliff. On a visual basis, there is a scene in the final episode (at 1:08) of M*A*S*H in which Hawkeye has been institutionalized with PTSD and is speaking with the beloved psychologist Sidney Freeman (expertly played by Allan Arbus, former husband of photographer Diane Arbus) after recalling a horrific incident on a bus.
Another, also M*A*S*H, is the very dear, paternally loving Lieutenant Colonel Henry Blake’s honorable discharge in an episode entitled “Abyssinia.” The resonance here is multi-faceted: M*A*S*H reminds me of my youth and my parents as we all watched the series as a family, that Alan Alda, an avuncular figure, so acutely channeled his beloved character to a place we all fear – that of losing our minds, and the loss of a fictional yet very real character in LC Blake. (who reminded my mother of her father, Captain Arnold Bennett, DDS). Really good television, of which there is little, is often best when there is an ensemble in which you feel a part of, rather than apart from.
Another overwhelming moment which pushes my insides to collapse is the last scene in the last episode of Six Feet Under. The song “Breathe Me” by SIA alone is exceedingly powerful. If you have watched this series, which deals directly with our own mortality (among other themes), the ensemble cast is extraordinary. In the end, it looks into the future and shows the final moments of each cast member. It’s quite simply awful and moving and is a trigger for an avalanche of emotion. To be fair, as a spoiler alert, if you have not watched this series, I suggest not watching this clip unless you have no intention of starting the series.
Finally, since I am on a tangent of digging into a space I normally cover up with humor and strength, I want to share, before Barb and I head out for some Tex-Mex in the very hot, humid, concrete sprawl of Houston, (we go to MD Anderson tomorrow) that in the June 13th issue of the New Yorker, there was a piece of writing by Sarajevo-born, Chicago-based author Aleksander Hemon (Guggenheim Fellow,”Genius Grant” MacArthur winner and author of The Lazarus Project, The Question of Bruno, Nowhere Man and Love and Obstacles) which shook me to my deepest core.
I make every attempt to digest each New Yorker issue on a weekly basis but from time to time they do pile up. His essay “The Aquarium – A child’s isolating illness” is a sink-to-your-knees account of his 9-month old daughter’s succumbing to a rare form of brain cancer and his family’s devastation. I held on to this piece. Ripped from the magazine, there was one paragraph I had to keep. It was a brilliant and profoundly devastating work. With a sad twist of irony, as I read, riveted, I had no idea at the time of my own expanding tumor/cancer, one which normally afflicts children in their earliest years. Last night I read the entire piece aloud to Barb. It was midnight and we cried together until 2 AM, needing to arise at 6 the next morning for the trip to Texas. The tears, I suppose, were a major step away from the sticky web of shock, fear, bewilderment and denial in which we are still caught. I cannot think of any loss in any form, of any kind, like that of losing a child. None. Ever.
After reading Aleksander’s horrific journey into the abyss of loss, that of his wife Teri, his other daughter Ella, and the beautiful Isabel, I have every hope of raising awareness of such brain cancers (which represent 1% of all cancers) so that others might gain knowledge, power and resources to fight the good fight. As Aleksander emailed me today, after I shared with him my gratitude for his moving, painful share: “I hope you beat the bastard soon!” Thank you Aleksander. I will. I will.
Aleksander Hemon excerpt from The Aquarium as appeared in The New Yorker 6/13/2011:
“One of the most despicable religious fallacies is that suffering is ennobling–that it is a step on the path to some kind of enlightenment or salvation. Isabel’s suffering and death did nothing for her, or us, or the world. We learned no lessons worth learning; we acquired no experience that could benefit anyone. And Isabel, most certainly did not earn ascension to a better place, as there was no place better for her than at home with her family. Without Isabel, Teri and I were left with oceans of love we could no longer dispense; we found ourselves with an excess of time that we used to devote to her; we had to live in a void that could be filled only by Isabel. Her indelible absence is now an organ in our bodies, whose sole function is a continuous secretion of sorrow.”