Tag Archives: happiness

12 August 2009: the visible universe

Five months exactly since I saw the surgeon for the first time. Leaving the tutorial on To the Lighthouse, meeting K. at Barons Court tube station and walking to the hospital and treating him horribly. That infernal wait in the hallway, having left K. in Main Outpatients. Shifting again and again the uncomfortable plastic seat, staring at my polka dot skirt (I’ve not worn it since; it seems a harbinger). Saying I did not want K. to come in when their first question was “Are you alone?” And why were there so many people in the room? The terror of all those eyes.

I feel foolish even still–how she knew. How the pathologists knew my terrible diagnosis–just a checkbox or a word to them, a name on a test tube, an address I’ve left, an improbable birthdate that made me 24. I wonder if it gave them pause. And I ignorant of it all, not even worried, ignorant and aloof and impatient, teaching Virginia Woolf and being horrible to my boyfriend.

They knew then, as they know now. The grading, the damage it’s done. Ignorant with a blue stain on my breast, stitches uncomfortable but no longer painful under my arm. In a few hours, I’ll know too. And I can barely begin to brace myself for the possibility of bad news, that it’s spread to the lymph nodes, because I am too beaten down by everything else to be able to process it.

This morning I picked up Virginia Woolf’s Writer’s Diary, which I’ve returned to periodically, but not for quite some time. There, it was 1927, and she had just completed To the Lighthouse. A strange, accidental circularity. I hope this week can mark an end point to this strange and terrible piece of pirated time, rather than picking up where I’d left off after the last traumatic prodding and pathology.

In the meantime the cosmos continues irrespective of my private tragedy. Physical perspective is always striking–as when my plane began its descent into London, following the snaking Thames, over Tower Bridge, the London Eye, St. Paul’s, Buckingham Palace, all discernible as a postcard. In between such experiences one always forgets, somehow–one’s self, one’s own life, becomes magnified almost to the point of distortion. And then sometimes the hills or clouds or stars or multitudes of people re-position you. You become barely discernible, even to yourself.

We’re in the midst of the annual Perseid meteor shower, our planet passing through debris from the Swift-Tuttle comet. I think of it continually, wonder how people can sit in offices and houses, drudging through little lives not thinking of it–this spectacular reminder of how we are bound by gravity to this planet, circumnavigating the sun. Last night I saw several–a spectacularly clear sky with close-seeming stars–the Greeks’ stars. Identifying what constellations I could (Cassiopeia of course, my marker–and then Ursas major and minor, Cepheus, Draco, Hercules, Pegasus’ body later in the night), I thought of everyone I have ever loved, under them, and of the whole of human history, having shared them. Very cosmical and astounding all of it, even without the occasional meteor; on seeing one I could not help but gasp and squeal. I couldn’t reconcile the incredible, breathtaking outer world of the visible universe with the inner world of tea and television–couldn’t understand, either, how K. could not be as excited as I–how anyone could not.

But I gather the memory inside my private mind, and love it. So next time the anesthetist says “think of somewhere you’d rather be” as he holds the oppressive plastic mask over my face and prepares me for surgery, it will be there–

Tonight’s the “peak” apparently, but in southern and central England it’s expected to be too cloudy to see–

the visible universe obscured, how Blakean.

[Lymph nodes are normal. She asks for a smile.]

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Oxford 2005

That moment, that photo, that spring–Trinity term–perhaps happier than I’ve ever been.

I slog through all of this ‘survival’ hoping to someday feel that kind of happiness, to have that kind of love and wonder, again.

the kinges power and is ost wende vorth
to Oxenforde aboute mielmasse
in 1297
      Indian summer
      and also of Oxford, Cambridge
      at the gret cowrtes at Mykelmas the year
     in 1493
bearing masses of small purplish flowers
the harvest

-from “Michelmas,” Veronica Forrest-Thomson



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2 July 2009: die happy

Another horrible dream several nights ago of perpetual pursuit and eventual death–waiting for the poison to work to its purpose like Act V of Hamlet, and desperately wishing there were something to say to K., something to express love that would endure past death. More and more I consider the moment of death and am left fearful and shocked in a way I never have been.

Last night I lay on my back and looked at the sky, a thing I have not done in so long–yet how much of my adolescence was spent on my back in the grass? Ten o’clock in Oxfordshire, the perfect cool of summer evenings, wisps of clouds in a sky streaked purple, intermittent early evening stars. How shocked I was as a child to learn that that star was not a star at all but Venus, an entire planet masquerading as a point of light that appears after dinner, something that now existed not only in the abstract but became tangible even from our backyard in Pennsylvania. And how impressed I was that my father–my father–knew this. To be on first-name terms with a planet!

I thought last night, lying there beside him, whom I love, aware of my position on the earth as so removed–ocean-removed–from the place in which I entered it, that I do not understand the expression “I could die now” or “I could die happy” as an appropriate measure of contentment. Because what I actually mean is, I am so happy that I do not ever want to die, that I want to extend infinitely my possibility of attaining this feeling again, this treatment to peace, this invitation to live.

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28/29 June 2009: un très petit séjour

More à l’aise in Paris this time–even despite the terrible reality of the disease I am more comfortable than last August, not plagued quite so much by the horrible anxiety and sadness. A function of not being entirely alone, perhaps–the comfort of it. Or a function of the disease–the lease it’s given me, the freedom not to care too terribly much about anything any longer. This is the fresh light of morning, its influence–having  just come from mass at Notre Dame, the fervent certainty there must be meaning.

Que ton règne vienne.
Que ta volonté soit faite sur la terre comme au ciel.

How I wish I knew what was happening in my own body.

How electric I was that year in Oxford–that “beautiful awful winter,” as A. recently wrote me–and how alive. Everything being read and returned recycled in fervent poems at all hours. I have not yet had a morning again like the one that year, waking at five, unable to sleep for thinking too much, needing to be at the desk by the window writing. It’s all rather slapdash, echoes of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, incomprehensibly punctuated and not at all capitalized of course, all that jejeune way of “edgy”–and yet, it’s vibrant, pulsing with energy, with amazement at language.

Last night: a beautiful French family, parents boy and baby, calms and well-behaved in a vegetarian restaurant. An advertisement for existence. That sewer-piss smell of Paris, reminders of Flatbush in the 90 degree summer I spent there. Taking about my love of the Hudson Valley and how H. needs to see it, it’s such a part of my existence, Poughkeepsie, Greek diners, broken-down industrial towns with Native American names. Makes me in love with America, even wonder why I’m here and if that almost-perfect French family is really what I’m after, when actually I imagine myself living on Raymond Avenue–a house with a porch-swing.

Like Rome, it’s all a hopeful fantasy–bounded by the reality of rationality, of return tickets, going “home.” Everything else, everything bad, being “back there.” Little victories of escape–Oui [j’ai dit] un très petit séjour.

I propose a return to the days of beautiful handwriting,

of a breadwinecheese and makinglove way of life.

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an abstract insight wakes

Oh my God, I thought: I’ve been happy. Happy like a human being.

And it makes me want to not take my pills. I’m not scheduling any more appointments; I don’t want to set foot inside a fucking hospital. I went to UPMC last month and the cancer ward waiting room unnerved me so much that I cried and cried in the parking garage and hated us all: the dead-eyed doctors, the pathetic bald patients, myself. 

Last night I dreamt I was having chemo–and when I woke it seemed so distant, so disparate from my own experience of being dull and dumb and ordinary here, going to the grocery store and watching television and feeling almost at home in myself, even without alcohol or weed or benzodiazepines. And I feel that spark of wanting again in so many ways. Perhaps I am not entirely resigned. Perhaps I am still electric, alive and insatiable.

Wouldn’t that be something.

At night I recite Auden like a faithless prayer–

Beauty, midnight, vision dies:
Let the winds of dawn that blow
Softly round your dreaming head
Such a day of welcome show
Eye and knocking heart may bless,
Find our mortal world enough;
Noons of dryness find you fed
By the involuntary powers,
Nights of insult let you pass
Watched by every human love.

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23 April 2009: “How do you justify your existence?”

Oxford’s full of chattering Americans. It was strange, uncomfortable, to step off the train and walk past this, my most persistent milieu, the one place in my life (the world) I’ve not quite managed to leave.

Incredulous at the thought of myself, five years ago–five years–arriving here jet-lagged and terrified. I am not surprised to have encountered the love of my life here, because I almost expected it, or even sort of brazenly intended it. What has surprised me, in the breakdown of my twenties, is that everything did not proceed swimmingly happily ever after. To have ever considered the possibility that I would still be here these years later, walking the streets happy with who I am and yet beset with pangs of jealously at all the effortless youth and brilliance and beauty in everybody else. How free, how clear and uncomplicated everything actually was, and how it seemed so insurmountable, lent itself so freely to despair–

The depression of late’s an after-effect of chemotherapy, mostly–but shocking, terrible days weeping in bed, and wanting, truly then, to die, and what’s worse perhaps–believing I will.

This terror of death is always lurking with me now, set glumly over my shoulder, and must be managed, mediated. Reading Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Dialogue on Love scares me more than uplifts me, as I’d expected. Because she is dead. Because this depression of hers occurs after the treatment is over. Because I do identify with her experience–because I identify with her, and she is dead. At a ‘young’ age, which is twice my age.

It is strange to think of thirty as only a ‘possibility.’ Even Plath had thirty. But then, there is no evidence that any more life would bring any more meaning. Still, hope is the thing with feathers, and all.

Every night I touch the lump in my breast and reflect on the absurdity that something so small should be an obstacle so seemingly insurmountable for the breadth and bigness of my body.

Still, apart from the five terrible days that inevitably follow the treatment, there is such a lightness sometimes (tempered of course by the small Death on my shoulder) as to make it a blessing. I feel none of that old omnipresent panic to (as that strange Finnish man who approached us in the pub put it) “justify my existence.” Cancer’s the trump card, the all-purpose excuse and/or explanation. I feel no more responsibility (as I should) to assess and regulate my life. I’ve suddenly stumbled upon a supreme and unprecedented selfishness that leads, for now, to happiness. Either this life is godless and purposeless and meaningless and I have cancer by the misfortune of my genetic makeup, and therefore have no ontological pressure to live up to the standard set by the divine image of my existence–or else this life is divinely dictated and I have cancer as a blessing toward some self-discovery or revelation. Either way, every problem in my life pre-March-12-2009 pales.

Composed a list last night of twenty pressing novels to get through by the end of June (though it smacks distastefully of the ominous placard in Borders: ‘100 Books to read BEFORE YOU DIE’), and it’s all I want to do–hide in corners of bookshops and libraries and make up for all of this reading I should have been doing all along, feeding my recent deficiency of Joyce and Hemingway and Melville etc.

Yesterday I was startlingly happy for its entirety. So much laughter, so at ease and in love with K.–I must remember this–[& a note inserted July 4 2009 reads, “I do not remember this]. Yet Sedgwick’s book make me worry–will I?

Fifty. I would settle so happily for fifty.

People walk down the street with children and babies and my heart breaks. I have bought so many books for my children; these non-existent beings have amassed a library. They are so completely real to me, realer than the masses of automatons on trains and pavements, Unreal City–

I believe I am beautiful and do not lament beyond reason the loss of my hair. Dead cells already. Meaningless. Absurd: healthy apart from cancer…I delight in almost Whitmanesque splendour at the strength and swiftness of my body.

A loss of sexuality despite this. After our prolonged intimacy, condoms feel so clinical–as if I am contaminated, I said; it’s like being kissed through a surgical mask.

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