Quitting the Cancer Battle

Dessicated Seated NudeI am not a hero. After my last post, some readers wanted to know how I arrived at my attitude toward cancer, which is to be found somewhere between a religious person’s submis­sion and the cordial host’s welcome. A better question—one my oncologist and I wrestle with at every appointment—is why most cancer patients tumble into a bottom­less slough of despond.

My intention is not to criticize other cancer patients. To be told that you have a disease which is going to kill you in the next few months or years is to be slammed by a violent and remorseless truth that nothing in experience prepares you for. At first you can’t even process what your doctor is telling you, because there is nothing to which you can com­pare the news in order to make sense of it—it is a monster from beyond your imagination. Denial, self-pity, panic, despair: these are the natural reactions.

I was diagnosed with metastatic prostate cancer in the fall of 2007. Just before Sukkot my doctor phoned to warn that an “opacity” had shown up on my chest X-ray during a routine physical examination. To the Jews, Sukkot is zeman simhatenu, the “season of our rejoicing,” but there was little joy in our sukkah that year. Our season was one of dread. [Read more...]

Hymn to the Fourth of July

The Fourth of July is coming up, and if there’s any time of the year to be less serious, it’s now. On religious holidays, joy is the regnant mood, but there’s always a matched reverence about the affairs; the same is true of the major secular holidays—each with a “let’s take a moment to remember the reason that we’re here today” interlude. Perhaps only Labor Day comes close for pure secular fun-centeredness.

Then again, the Fourth has the underlying commemoration of our independence, a high-minded foundation that Labor Day doesn’t share. But to me, Labor Day is a kind of last hurrah, since summer is officially ending. Personally, that makes it bittersweet, as pit-of-the stomach school dread always hits me hard, regardless of my age, and is coupled with a primordial hatred of the cold weather to come.

So I’ll give the prize to July fourth for noisy, unsophisticated, flat-out enjoyment, and these things in particular: [Read more...]

Can’t a Dad Hug His Boy?

When I sat down to work at my computer yesterday morning, I checked my email and saw the stories on the news feed: another madman shoots random people; global warming disaster almost certain; radical politicians calling for rebellion, secession; the rich hoarding everything, the poor getting more desperate. I got off the Internet and clicked open the piece I am working on, and I stared at four pictures pinned to the cabinets in front of my writing desk.

One picture is a charcoal drawing of a human skull, my memento mori every morning as I sit down to work. The other three are curling snapshots from years ago hanging by a single thumb tack each.

The bottom one is of my boys at a cookout when Evan was not yet three and Asher was so young he could still delight himself to laughter just by running, happily unconcerned about his diaper-full of poop. The boys are in front of a picnic shelter in Kanawha Forest, and they are smudged and smeared face to bare feet with the grime of hard outdoor play. They are both squatting at a dog’s metal water bowl, splashing in it with sticks.

The middle photo is of Evan on my sister Alma’s lap. They both face the camera, her arms are wrapped around his chest and their faces are side by side—that they are related is clear by their sharp Sizemore chins.

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A Feast of Love

It’s nineteen degrees today, the lakes are frozen solid, and the snowdrifts are twice my height, but the sun is shining, and last night, it streamed through the kitchen window as I cooked dinner. My friends in Virginia say the daffodils are coming up. Meanwhile I’m positively giddy to have made it almost halfway through my first winter up north.

We moved to Northern Michigan in time for the worst winter in twenty years, the natives tell me. I don’t know any better, so I figured subzero temperatures and snow that hasn’t stopped falling since November—about one hundred inches so far—was just our lot. Everyone asks how I’m holding up. I’m okay. Nobody is more surprised by that than I am.

By Christmas break I was ready to flee. I had the car packed before Dave walked home from teaching his last class. I was worn out from two months of rib-wrecking bronchitis, early frigid cold, and terrible, wrenching homesickness. I couldn’t wait to see my family. For the first time since childhood, we’d all be together on Christmas Eve.

The ice and snow chased us all the way to Kansas. Our soft Thule car topper was frozen hard when we pulled into my sister’s driveway in Wichita, a day later than planned. We’d gotten stuck in Missouri overnight, and later ran out of gas less than twenty minutes from her house. We were exhausted and our car looked like Doc’s DeLorean after a round of time travel.

I had no intention of going to Christmas Mass. When our family of Catholic and Episcopalian children and ex-Catholic, fundamentalist evangelical protestant parents comes together, the Reformation happens all over again, and at this point in my life I will do anything I can to avoid the drama—including skipping a holy day of obligation. Besides, the weather was terrible.

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Walking Toward Forgiveness

Outside our trailer park, a set of railroad tracks ran from east to west, dividing us from the police station that sat half a mile down the road. When you drove over the tracks, and felt the car pull itself over the split asphalt, it seemed like you were being locked in or released, depending on which way you were driving.

I used to walk along the tracks at dusk, singing and talking to myself, the fields stretching westward behind me as the sun sank behind the Walgreens. I practiced lines for my high school plays; I imagined what it would be like to walk with whichever boy at school I liked at the time. I tried to keep myself occupied as long as I could, tried to fill my mind with anything besides the dull dread that I knew would be waiting for me once I got back home.

What is poignant about this scene is that it is one of the few memories I have where the sensory detail is so vivid—I have bits of images, movements, but it is hard to place whole memories. I know that so much of what happened has been buried deep within me, and when something surfaces, I have to try to catch as much as I can.

What I remember, mostly, is walking: walking to the curb to meet the police officer before my mother’s boyfriend knew I had called; walking my mother to her bed with her lips against my ear, drunk and sorry and heaving sobs so big that I almost lost my grip on her shoulder. Walking in the fiery shafts of light that cut across the tracks, my voice carrying over the cornfields: But it wouldn’t be make believe / if you believed in me.

[Read more...]


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