A week ago I met a fella patient for lunch and a walk through Oaks Bottom park. W is a couple of months behind me on a very similar chemo regimen, and we're finding a lot that we share beyond our chemical tribulations. Our conversation rambled, rose and dipped with the shaded path, but there were a couple of questions that kept reappearing in the half-light and calling our attention, like birds flitting near but never giving us a clear view.
You might suspect that cancer patients keep lists of thoughtless and unhelpful things that others say, and I regret to report that your suspicion is entirely justified. We share these mauvais mots, trade them, roll our eyes, and try to laugh. I hope you'll forgive us and understand that it's a mode of self-defense. Many of us feel naked as shucked clams much of the time, and we're strangely most tender to the clumsy touch when it's well-intentioned. (My personal favorite came second-hand from Pete when I was first diagnosed. One of his colleagues responded to the news by saying, "Please tell me she's not bowing to pressure to go the conventional slash and burn route." Yup, that's me, taking the coward's way out through double-mastectomy and chemo! Sorry to disappoint.)
This is not to say that our membership in a clique none of us ever hoped to join can rescue us from our own oafishness and insensitivity - we're more than ordinarily capable of saying stupid, wounding things to anyone who dares to get close. To take but one example, I had sometimes joked to Pete before my diagnosis that I wasn't sure I wanted to outlive our beloved Barley (half dingo, half wombat, all dingbat, now nearly thirteen). When I tried out the same joke post-diagnosis, I struck flint: "That's not okay."
We're capable too, like anyone else, of saying things that are thoughtful and true to our own experience but plain wrong to others with our disease (or maybe more accurately, taking a cue from George Johnson, our disorder, our DNA-deep derangement). This wouldn't be a source of offense if we didn't feel some pressure to mirror each other, to seek solidarity in common responses to superficially common experience. For better and worse, however, many of us do feel that pressure to one degree or another; a desire to take the edge off our isolation can lead us to take the edge off our differences, which can ironically deepen whatever loneliness we feel.
W was talking Monday about one of her own "stupid shit people say" bugaboos: "Cancer is a gift." This we hear primarily from those who've "been there" - anyone without cancer saying such a thing to someone with it would probably (and rightly) get smacked upside the head. It'd be tantamount to marveling, "How great that you grew up poor... went to war... got laid off... lost your sister in a car wreck..." etc. It doesn't sound a lot better coming from someone in the cancer boat; it's too easy to hear it as a dismissal of all that's brutal and horrifying about living (and too often dying) with this derangement, or as a judgement of our individual failures to make lemonade from a bumper crop of lemons.
And yet... and yet...
Even setting aside the many ways I am fortunate in spite of my cancer (many of them in direct spite of it: the insurance, the drugs, the many doctors, nurses, counselors, pharmacists, technicians all enlisted to destroy it without destroying me in the process), even setting aside the many blessings I already had but have come to appreciate more intensely "thanks" to my diagnosis and the immediacy it lends (that's the right word) to this moment (blessings that include you, dear reader), even setting aside the new blessings that many have in mind when they say "cancer is a gift" (unexpected connections, increased clarity of purpose and value, decreased patience for trivia and bullshit), I do experience cancer as a strange bounty; with all that is healthiest and most perverse in me, I welcome it.
Back in February, two weeks into treatment, I took a three-day workshop with Karen Karbo and nine other writers who aspired to "make memoir matter." This could have been a very bad idea but turned out to be a very good one, thanks in great part to Karen's acute sensitivity as a writer and teacher and her willingness to wade with us into the muck (of trying, failing, trying again). More thanks were due to the other students, all equal to her example, a generous and truly constructive group.
I don't remember whether Karen directly posed the question of what writing meant for us, did for us, how it mattered on our end (as opposed to the reader's), but sometime on the second day of the class I found myself delivering a micro-manifesto, finding words for a truth that was only then settling on its roost.
I don't have any religious faith, any conviction that there exists "out there" a power that gives absolute meaning and coherence to life or its absence. I don't believe any power outside ourselves can or will redeem our suffering or the suffering we inflict. I believe that absurdity is essential to our condition; no one and nothing can rescue us here or in the hereafter from the painful paradox of being (in Ernest Becker's vivid phrase) "gods with anuses," glorious and beshitted.
And yet... and yet...
What I told my compatriots in February is that I believe fervently (if never absolutely) in our own powers of small "r" redemption. I believe in our ability to discover order where it accidentally exists, to make meaning where it does not, and to render beauty from chaos and contingency. If I claim "artist" among my identities, it's not in assertion of a talent but in acknowledgement of a reflex. Whatever life throws me, I will try to make use of it. I will study it, poke it, test it between my teeth, heat it in my little crucible and sear my nostrils on the stink it belches up. If I cannot make gold from lead, I will make tin. The making is all. The trying, the essaying, the testing of spirit and dross in infinite combination.
To someone of my peculiar bent, cancer is a gift because it is interesting in itself and exciting in its effects: it gives urgency to every project. Up to six months ago, I sat always on the sidelines of suffering. I have been waiting all my easy life for the other shoe to drop on me for once. It has. I own this little store of dirty metal; it's mine to smelt, mine to work. Rich stuff.
Treatment days are getting to be good enough days that I realize I'll need a new ritual and a new excuse for shameless self-indulgence when they're over... and they're over very soon! I saw my oncologist, Dr. Christine Barnett, last week, and she was bubbling over with excitement, relief, and congratulations - very sweet, even if I couldn't quite meet her at that giddy height. When she told me, "You made it!" I confessed to a superstitious fear around celebrating prematurely. Her rejoinder: "Well, you've made it this far. There's no disputing that!" Yes, I have made it this far, and I'm almost ready to revel in that fact.
Two lunches out in two days: Monday with W, Tuesday (after treatment) alone at the periphery of a small crowd of small people cavorting in the wonderful, cascading fountain in Jamison Square.