All Unhappy Families Are Alike

Russian-family-portraitIn commenting on my latest essay for “Good Letters,” a man “disabled from an odd condition” confided that, when his health crashed, he found himself abandoned by those he depended upon: “My family avoided me thinking that I repre­sented their destiny.” Years later “they still do,” he added.

Not everyone who lives with advancing death or a maladroit disability must live without his family’s succor and society. But I know exactly what this man is talking about, because my family too has avoided me since I was diagnosed with terminal cancer nearly seven years ago.

For five years my younger sister said nothing at all to me about the disease. My other sister will give a “like” to cancer updates on Facebook, but she never gets in touch with me. She doesn’t even leave a short encouraging comment. She clicks the “like” toggle and moves on. And, oh, oh, let me tell you about—but please stop me from tabulating grievances. Already I’m starting to remind myself of John McEnroe after a linesman’s bad call.

I also refuse to quote the first sentence of Anna Karenina, which is usually trotted out in these circumstances, principally because I think it is false. The truth is that unhappy families are more alike than happy families. Unhap­piness takes the universal forms of bitterness, resentment, and the symptom to which Kafka dedicated an entire novel—psychological arrest at an early stage, preventing emotional growth and development.

[Read more...]

How to Talk to the Dying

10142094Since being diagnosed nearly seven years ago with a lethal cancer, I have backed my old friends and new acquaintances into a quandary. What do you say to a dying man?

Strangers don’t seem to have any difficulty. Now that chemo­therapy has reduced me to a tattered coat upon a stick, I am routinely praised, when out in public with my four young children, “Oh, isn’t that sweet, you’re spending the day with your grandkids.” Under the guise of being nice, Americans can be breathtakingly rude. After about the hundredth time I was called their grand­father, I tried out a new reply: “These are my children. I am dying of cancer. The disease has prematurely aged me.”

Am I being cruel? Or merely repaying a pretense of frankness with the reality of frankness? The late Christopher Hitchens warned those who were blunt with their questions about his esophageal cancer to expect blunt­ness in return. [Read more...]

The Gift of Gravy Days

Education_Article_WildflowerMeadows_02Well, I’ve reached my three score and ten years.

It must sound positively ancient to those of you who are half my age—or even two-thirds. I know that when I was in my thirties, forties, even fifties, seventy sounded old: not only over the hill but way down toward the bottom of the other side.

“Seventy is the sum of our years, or eighty if we are strong,” sings Psalm 90. I’m not strong. I have a chronic form of leukemia that could carry me off any day. In fact, when I was diagnosed with it just before my sixtieth birthday, my doctor said with an upbeat, encouraging voice “You can expect to live ten more years!”—which at the time sounded like a lot. So I had scientific confirmation that the psalmist’s sum of seventy years was indeed my allotment.

[Read more...]

Amour and Fear

Guest Post
By David P. Clark, M.D.

On the day I graduated from medical school I took the oath of Hippocrates. I didn’t think much about the words: the oath was one more hoop on a long hot morning. My promise to keep patient confidences, always treat patients with justice, and never harm them seemed doable, straightforward, and common sense.

But, I hadn’t actually been a doctor, hadn’t made decisions when faced with suffering and inadequate data and unknown futures. [Read more...]

More Poetry of Married Love

In a previous post, I used Richard Wilbur’s poem “for C” to talk about my long marriage with George. Today I want to fill in some of the blanks that got us to this point.

My husband is recovering from open heart surgery. My doctor just informed me that my leukemia has reached a point where I have almost no healthy white cells left to fight infection—so even catching a cold could be the beginning of the end.

Life’s fragility: That’s what George and I are experiencing more than ever now. Of course, life is fragile from the day you’re born. But major illness can bring this reality to the forefront of consciousness. [Read more...]


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