Ovarian Cancer and a Circumcised Heart

Unemployment (1909), Kathe KollwitzCircumcise therefore the thickness about your hearts.
—Deuteronomy 10:16

 

Her dying and death circumcised my heart.

For weeks, I knew only this: she’s on a lot of pain medication; she’s hallucinating; she’s in the hospital; she’s home; she has a staph infection; she’s in the ICU; she’s doing better; she’s in rehab; she’s in the hospital; she’s coming home.

How did I know the little I knew? Mother. She conveyed what they, my brother and sister-in-law, wanted others to know.

We knew.

We thought we knew. [Read more...]

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...]

At a Loss for Words

I’m told there are words in Romanian (“dor”) and in Portuguese (“saudade”)—those two outposts in the geography of romance languages—that cannot be easily translated. The concept is a combination of longing, yearning, loving, and missing, wrapped up within melancholy and/or nostalgia, but not exactly any of those things and more precisely all of those things and then some. To see the consternation on the faces of native speakers when they fail at trying to put the idea into words is testament enough that there are some realities for which there are no easy conversions.

Of course this does not mean, as only the silliest of linguistics students likes to parrot, that the hearts and minds of those peoples are deeper, larger, and more poetic than ours. It just means that a concept we are fully capable of experiencing ourselves has never been uniquely nominated in our tongue. Why that’s the case, I don’t know; English has its own set of peculiarities and untranslatable ideas.

But the point I’m interested in is the juxtaposition of love and sadness. Here’s my theory:

  1. Love is transitive.
  2. As such, love requires an object to spend itself upon.
  3. If the object of love is removed, the current is blocked, dammed.
  4. That blockage results in pain.
  5. That pain we call sadness.

[Read more...]

An Almost Human Happiness

nabokov, butterflyA typical plot complication on reality shows involves the unexpected twist, a challenge that the credulous competitors never saw coming: The next leg of the race will occur underwater, in an eel-ridden cove, says the host; the next round of the bake-off will require the incorporation of mountain oysters in a rendition of Crepes Suzette. The idea is simple: the greater the skill, the greater the capacity to overcome.

If there were a reality show writing competition (imagine that), the curve might come by way of a forced employment of cloying conceits: “Write a profound story using a waterfall, a widowed grandfather, a daisy—aaaaaannnnnd a basset hound puppy. You have thirty minutes. Break my heart.”

Then the topper would require that it be set around Christmastime. For if anything can lose flavor faster than cheap Christmas candy, it’s a maudlin Christmas story.

Unless you’re a master, that is. [Read more...]

The Long Wait

My mother’s quavering voicemail was right: I hadn’t called in a long time. I justified my neglect with the assurance that I’d called on her birthday, I’d called on Mother’s Day, I’d made my dutiful calls even though I suspected she was mad at me. I made them and she didn’t answer. I hadn’t called in a long time, but goddammit, neither had she.

My mother’s tears always put a knot in my gut. Once as a boy I fell asleep on her bed, and woke to her weeping. On the television were men, some in brown uniforms, some wearing white sheets. They stood shouting in the parking lot of our local library. The next day Mama put a letter in our mailbox, and the newspaper published it. A week later, angry people were calling our house. Mama argued with some, hung up quickly on others. I beat her to the phone once, and a woman asked: “Just what is your mama’s problem with the Klan?”

Only God knows what my mother would have done to that woman, had she possessed the power to reach through the phone.

Years later, I wrote something that enraged a cabal of neo-Nazis. They circulated pictures of me and my son on their website. “One day,” Mama warned me, a mixture of frustration and delight in her voice, “you’re going to write something that will get you shot.”

She used to marvel at my stubbornness, as if it were some mysterious property that had settled unaccountably under my skin.

This stubborn son knew he should call his stubborn mother. I knew, I knew, but I didn’t anticipate it going well, and I couldn’t spare the emotional energy. Not before this demanding work week. Not before this big meeting. Not before I got over this early-fall fever.

The weather had finally cooled, which often summons a memory of the summer we lived in tents in Tennessee. My brothers and I lived more in a nearby lake than out of it. We sweated through that summer and there wasn’t much money and I thought maybe we would live in tents forever. One night my mother took us to a cool, dark theater, where we watched “Grease” and I fell in love with Olivia Newton-John. I don’t know where Mama got the money, but what a blessed night she gave us.

[Read more...]


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