But first: The Massachusetts Poetry Festival begins tomorrow! The poetry world will descend on Salem and it will be awesome. (Aside: I was researching parking etc on Google, and, as I began to note the many paranormal/witchy shops, wondered, What’s up with that? Yeah, that’s me, just a little slow on the uptake.) Saturday is the small press fair, my favorite event of all. If you’re planning on being there, be sure to stop by and visit me at the Tupelo table!
I read The Emperor of All Maladies in the fall, but never talked about it after, though I meant to. It’s a perfect counterpoint to The Long Goodbye. The first is a fat compendium of all things cancer — the history of its discovery, the evolution of our understanding of it as a varied disease, the progress and perils of cancer research, as well as the stories of researchers, doctors, and patients themselves. The second is a memoir of love and loss of a mother to cancer, intimate, exquisite, and painful. Both are essential reading.
Cancer is a topic you’re only allowed to discuss within a certain framework. You must be positive, talk about fighting it, be plucky. What we don’t consider by blithely subscribing to this terminology is how doing so proscribes a value judgment on the way patients handle their diseases. Every cancer is different, and while being optimistic may be a good way to get through a shitty day, it’s not the liminal factor in survival. A patient who receives his diagnosis with depression and despair isn’t weak, just realistic. My mother was cheerful and determined, but that didn’t keep her alive; her handling of cancer was an extension of who she’d always been, and we should accept that of whoever is dealing with illness, not demand that a life-threatening diagnosis suddenly effect a personality transplant, and then blame the patient when that doesn’t happen. Folks are dying, the last thing they need is our expectations, or worse, directions, on how that should proceed.
One of the things I love about The Long Goodbye is how honest M O’R is about her and her family’s flaws as they fumbled through her mother’s illness. The mistakes, the flares of pettiness or just plain selfishness. Because we can’t always be our best selves in the best of times never mind the worst of the worst. Illness is hard work, caregiving is hard work. Brutally elementary and elemental. This is life, this is death, and while there are moments of amazing transcendence, losing your mother is permanent, final, and nothing less than awful.
Ask anyone in mourning and they will tell you how alone and isolated they feel. They will have countless stories about inane and insensitive remarks, or other peoples’ avoidance of them altogether – the death cooties. Too often, people in mourning are made to feel like they must worry about appearing too sad so as to make others uncomfortable. You always need to be pressing on, firmly in one of the designated grief stages. And if you haven’t “gotten over it” in a year, well, what’s wrong with you?
Live long enough, or not! — death touches us all. And, statistically speaking, cancer as well. The Long Goodbye hurts to read. It should, the story it tells is deeply human. But it’s funny, too, and anyway, isn’t reading about opening ourselves to the wider experience of what it means to be human? M O’R marshaled her inner resources to tell this story, and in the telling, honors her mother’s memory. To read it is to lose her mother with her, and your own as well, the emotion is that palpable. But what a mother she was, and how glad I am to have met her, even though that meeting was in the pages of a book. And the conversation M O’R has started about grief is long overdue.
The nature of cancer is as protean as the nature of grief. If you take only one thing away from The Emperor of All Maladies (though there’s so much more), it should be that there can be no cure-all. This is a critical shift we need to make in our thinking about cancer — we’re so obsessed with magic bullets. But cancer is wiggly, and adaptive, and endlessly varied. Cancer isn’t even cancer, but cancers. The most we can hope for is cancer as something we live with, but don’t die of. Cancers as chronic diseases, akin to diabetes, or COPD. Not curable, progressive even, but treatable, not immediately fatal. Not any more of a death sentence than life itself.
I’m not afraid to remember my mother as she was at the end of her life, weakened and frail. She wasn’t less just because she was sick. Any moment more was precious. Her smile still lit her careworn face.
I mention this because many people said to us that they were sorry they hadn’t visited my mother as she became ill, but they couldn’t bear to see her “that way.” I understand, but.
They lost out. They lost their chance to be with her and be there for her.
And I want to urge you (all three of my readers): if you’re ever in that position, go. Go often. You’ll be needed, in a thousand little ways, and you’ll be making memories, memories you’ll draw on in a thousand little ways later, after.
As I’ve said, critical illness has a way of burning away the inessentials. Visiting someone you love, someone who’s dying…really, what could be easier?