Tag Archives: death


I’m in a study carrel at the University of Michigan library, and I want to scream and cry and kick the four walls of my enclosure.  

Yesterday during a break from class I opened up my New York Times homepage to find Elizabeth Edwards had died. This morning I woke up to Elizabeth Edwards’ voice on NPR, from an interview in which she calmly accepts her own death. She could not believe, she said, in a God who allows senseless tragedies to happen. A sixteen year old who dies in a car crash. And breast cancer. The swift erasure of so many women.

Today I procrastinate during paper writing by checking in with the blogosphere, to find that one of  the breast cancer bloggers from my blogroll, Jill, who has been living with Stage 4 triple-negative breast cancer, is in the hospital and not doing at all well. Her family is asking for prayers.

Breast cancer, I fucking hate you.

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“How are you?” *punchface*

   A question a cancer patient can’t answer.

  The problem with providing answers or “updates” is that our conditions are mysteries to us too. We don’t know what’s couched in our bodies, or where, or when it will rear up again. People want to add their own neat  ending to the cancer narrative: “but you’re ok now, right?” Most often meaning: “but you have hair.”  

How am I? I don’t know.  In inexplicable pain, mostly. I might have uterine cancer. My ribs and chest and lungs ache a lot these days; my cancer might have metastasized  and I might die before I’m thirty.  

I also might be fine.

So in response, I just say “fine.”

Recently I had to explain to my boyfriend that chances of recurrance do not decrease by year–that chance of recurrence spikes at year 5 post-treatment. Also that metastasis is The End. Also that when I go to the doctor, it’s to monitor for a second primary cancer in the left breast, not to monitor for metastasis.  That you can’t monitor with blood tests or continual scans. That there’s no benefit to finding it “early.” That you can’t find it “early” anyway. He didn’t know these things. I felt like I’d punched him in the face. I may as well have.

But the reality is too much to bear. It’s easier to believe you’re living in a permanent state of ineffectual hypochondria, and of course you will go on, forever, forever.

There’s no cure for cancer.

If I found out I couldn’t have children, I wouldn’t want to live.

If I knew I was going to die within the next five years, ie. before finishing my Ph.D., what would I do about it? Probably nothing. What could I? But part of me wants to know, because hope can be an embarrassing thing, and I’d rather get it done with.

The New York Times Book Review recently ran a piece on the book The Emperor of all Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee. Excerpt:

 The oldest surviving description of cancer is written on a papyrus from about 1600 B.C. The hieroglyphics record a probable case of breast cancer: “a bulging tumor . . . like touching a ball of wrappings.” Under “treatment,” the scribe concludes: “none.”

 In Mukherjee’s words: “dying, even more than death, defines the illness.”

The other day I was reaching up on a high pile of books and Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ On Death and Dying fell down and hit me in the face. I’ve never read it. I feel like I don’t have to now. I know what  dying feels like. Like a punch in the face.

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Dying Young

I shall live to be old, who feared I should die young
    I shall live to be old.
I shall cling to life as the leaves cling to the creaking oak
    In the rustle of the falling snow and the cold.

The other trees let loose their leaves on the air
    In their russet and red,
I have lived long enough to wonder which is best,
    And to envy sometimes the way of the early dead.

Sara Teasdale

Not all die early, dying young–
Maturity of Fate
Is consummated equally
In Ages, or a Night–

A Hoary Boy, I’ve known to drop
Whole statured — by the side
Of Junior of Fourscore–’twas Act
Not Period–that died.

Emily Dickinson

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15 July 2009: the Lord preserves the young ones

The sick cloud of the final chemo—I can hardly write or fathom the date. Barely able to function in this sick, spinning state. Unable to speak coherently to my mother—having caught me in the library, demanding a date to book my return—a suggestion I mooted yesterday as an alternative to my father’s coming here for my surgery, but now I’m unsure as to whether it is an entirely coherent idea and cannot be asked to consider it now. Everything is overwhelming.

Last night: sitting by an open window with lotioned feet, alone, reading de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter. A brown-red leaf had blown in through the window—made me feel alive and sad.

Yesterday I stumbled across Toru Dutt’s The Diary of Mademoiselle d’Arvers in the Wantage Public Library. Strange and fascinating, this young and sadly fated Indian woman writing French, her character’s deep and desperate fear of death, the clinging to conjectured concepts of marital and maternal love—and the author herself dead of consumption at twenty-one. Everything in the book clings to youth as salvation, yet admits the futility of such thinking.

“I have great faith in youth,” the doctor says—

but Marguerite’s frightful prophetic dreams; the recurring song, the buried bride—all that Ophelia-like sad youth and chastity—and her pathetic question: “The Lord preserves the young ones: he will preserve me, won’t he, my friend?”

All the time having known, from her dream of her husband with “the face of Death,” that “When the trees will flower again, I will no longer be there; I will be lying under the cold grass.”

The Epilogue sadly woven with Psalm CXVI:

I love the Lord, because he has heard
my voice and my supplications.
Because he inclined his ear to me,
therefore I will call on him as long as I live.
The snares of death encompass me;
The pangs of Sheol laid hold on me;
I suffered disress and anguish.
Then I called on the name of the Lord:
‘O Lord, I beseech thee, save my life!’

Gracious is the Lord, and righteous;
our God is merciful.
The Lord preserves the simple;
When I was brought low, he saved me.
Return, O my Soul, to your rest;
for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you.
For thou hast delivered my soul from death,
my eyes from tears,
my feet from stumbling;
I walk before the Lord
in the land of the living…

—& how cruel to have this, a supplication against her own fate. And for me to read it, somehow still believing in the sanctity of youth and its preservation, that beseeching for lifesaving is so tempting—

I walk before the Lord
in the land of the living

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13 July 2009: Insomnia

2 AM—steroid insomnia
Or insomnia of another sort of course
Statistics & mastectomy pictures
Reconstruction, Tamoxifen, Michigan
Bankruptcy, relationship, religion,
Jack the Ripper, gender/secondary sex characteristics,
the Bodleian, Haworth, Wuthering Heights,
Simone de Beauvoir, ‘writer’s block,’ the emptiness,
Mastectomy, my imaginary children
Chemo in the morning
Dr S—what to say?
The emptiness—the horror

 This is the hour when you notice clocks ticking, clocks you can’t find. Inevitably I wake him, fumbling for my glasses and bathrobe. He sits up, flustered, and says my name. I confirm. “Are you ok?” he asks. How can I possibly answer that? I will always be against this disease, afraid of my body. Will I ever be “ok” again, then?

My computer, that suggestion of connections, short circuits as per usual. I sit at the kitchen table and drink a glass of water. Consider the impossibility of Erie Pennsylvania.

 For moments I believe I could go home—sell coffee, build bookshelves, learn German. And then I imagine them dredging my body from the Thames; I am unable to cope with the slightest inconveniences of living. Why can’t I just behave like that quintessential quasi-sick-in-the-head cancer patient, celebrating sunlight and buttered toast,  ‘embracing’ the previously-ignored minutiae of existence? I’d like to believe I am too bright to be seduced by the perverse propaganda of this disease, but perhaps I am just not brave enough to live in any instance, under any circumstances.

My children are—have always been; I remember sketching their future existences as an eleven-year old—so real to me that to ever know I could not have them, could not raise them, watch them become people, I surely could not bear to live. So I continue to hope for that sake, unable to bear the consequences of the alternative. I do not want to live solely for myself. I believe I would be a good parent—God, I already love the thought of them more than my own stupid life.

I am so ashamedly cruel to wish cancer on almost everyone I see, but who, really, would not think of a stranger: better you than me?

Three AM. The unbearable certainty of going to lie beside my lover and stare fitfully into the empty space where the ceiling is. My body unable to regulate its temperature. Half-sleep somewhere near dawn, perhaps punctuated by nightmares. And the awful familiarity of what the morning has in store. It could be worse, of course—I think all the time of what could be worse. And it is precisely thinking of all that is worse in the world that undermines my faith and hope in my own insignificant recovery. Better people, younger people, people with more “promise” and “everything to live for”—what right have I to pray for my own uncertain future when a whole world of brilliant people die and have died in wars and ovens and accidents and other acts of inexplicable tragedy?

K. is haunted by the recent suicide of a former colleague from St. P’s—that college has, it seems, an extraordinary rate of tragic deaths among young alumni, or perhaps I am naïve to the preponderance of tragic young deaths in the world. First there was J, who drowned in India, then L who fell to her death in a climbing accident. Now A, on the verge of an enquiry from his employer about misuse of company resources, losing his job or perhaps prison, puts on his best suit, has an expensive meal in some London restaurant, champagne etc, then jumps eight floors.

Two weeks ago a woman jumped from the Carfax Tower. Money trouble, apparently—the headline something like CREDIT CRUNCH KILLS. And traumatizes crowds on Cornmarket Street, no doubt. How unthinkably sad and selfish.

And it troubles me, when I would so like to live.

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9 July 2009: Why is there not a discovery in life?

Another bout of this, a day wasted, hours and hours in bed, wet pillowcase. Pain in my armpit. The inability to do anything–and those horrible lines from Love Story, a movie I haven’t even seen, but which has somehow pervaded our culture like cancer itself: “What can you say about a twenty-five year old girl who died?”

What can you say? Nothing. Nobody’s wife or mother, mother of no ill-formed offspring of feeble brain. And yet you can say a hell of a lot more about the twenty-five year old girl who died than the twenty-five year old girl who lived, surely. Because death is infinitely more interesting, published in the pack of lies that accompany it. It makes me sick.

K. is embarrassed by how I snapped at him in the meeting with the surgeon. I snap beause no one listens–talk and talk and nothing happens; no one listens.

I feel imprisoned here (West Hendred’s a prison; then is the world one). It’s of my own making. It would be a wonderful place to write, were I not losing my mind. Holing up here by myself in bed. The hours, the emptiness, the dust and clutter. Wanting to be left alone, and yet terribly afraid of that condition at the same time.

I imagined of course that coming back from France everything would be “different.” That I would feel energized and inspired and finally feel the impetus to make something of all of the time. Instead, lying across the bed watching Woody Allen films and crying.


Why is there not a discovery in life? Something one can lay hands on and say ‘This is it’? My depression is a harassed feeling. I’m looking: but that’s not it—that’s not it. What is it? And shall I die before I find it?

-Virginia Woolf, Diary, Saturday 27 February 1926 

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7 July 2009: an ache

These dreams wherin everything is out of joint. Trying to take the Tube to impossible destinations, unfamiliar geographies. And a slapdash wedding, bald and ugly, the wrong flowers, no guests. Everything is wrong; I can feel it. Pain in my arm and my armpit, an ache. Meeting with the surgeon this afternoon to say nothing. Right now it’s raining, a comfort.

Four years ago now that I was in New York and people died on the London Underground. If there was a point to their deaths it is lost on me; most everything is.

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