Tag Archives: keats

7 August 2009: awaiting my own tragedy

Day after biopsy–sitting bandaged in the backyard. An excruciating experience all around–less from the pain of the surgery than the hospital inefficiency, in a corner alone for hours afterward, told I’d see the surgeon–that I must see the surgeon–before leaving. “Before six.” Near seven I’m confronted with a registrar who does nothing, looks at my bandage, asks, “Are you always this pale?” Refuses to answer when I ask how to take care of my stitches, dressings, etc. Says the nurses will explain everything. She goes home. The nurses don’t know. Seven days or one, covered or left exposed? So I am still bandaged, taking painkillers and waiting.

What an absolute mess I must seem–and am, snapping at everyone and crying. Jetlagged still, having managed to sleep half an hour before going to the hospital, my first time under general anesthesia, terrified and alone. And back for the mastectomy, the “real” surgery, in a week. The seemingly impossible process of recovery.

The girl in the next bed was laughing, joking with the hospital staff. She was in to have a fibroid cyst removed. “As long as no one cuts my nipple off,” she says to the nurse, smiling. And I think–this is wrong, a grave mistake, shouldn’t it be me there? Instead the urgency of my situation is amplified. Five months ago, it is now almost, waiting for the diagnosis which was almost certainly, they assured me, fibroadenoma. Then cancer. The giant leap for womankind. Now this radioactive, surgical biopsy, more serious, but somehow less horrible than the first because it wasn’t a surprise, an invasion of that magnitude. Now waiting to find out not whether I have the horrible disease, but how horribly I have it. Grading. I always got good grades. And despite my perpetual pessimism about most things, I have a strange optimism about biopsies. Which is dangerous of course, because look what happened before.

So the doctor I met with in Pittsburgh says he’d be “surprised” if it had spread to the lymph nodes. But then, that’s exactly what they said here, only to find it was cancer. Surprise! After “I’m sure it’s nothing.” Sure. That roomful of people, looking at each other, nodding in unison to confirm how surprised they were. Me, stupid, faint, childish in my polka dot skirt and Mary Janes. What does their surprise mean to me? Should I feel honored? At their optimism, if that’s what it was. Dr. S. saying, “we’re hopeful.” As if hope were a treatment, a cure. As if it were anything.

It was raining then too, the day of my diagnosis. I was clutching my blue raincoat in the hospital hallway. Raining the day I began chemo, when I climbed into the loft bed of my little flat and vomited. And a downpour yesterday; we drove to London, dangerously, in it, and it began again fourteen hours later in time for us to leave. K. ran to the car while I stood outside the hospital, holding nothing and sobbing. “Are you okay?” someone said. And I nodded, because what do you say to a stranger?

“How old are you?” the nurse asked yesterday. “Twenty-four? You’re a baby.”

Of course I am. I have never felt younger or more helpless, never. And my body has never felt older, more decrepit and disgusting.

The bandage is not so bad, it’s everything else. My hair of course, getting patchy, falling out steadily, the pathetic covering I regrew over the past few months littering the pillows. Lost hair, gained weight. They made me strip off my nail polish yesterday and I got a look at my cracked yellowed nails. All to complement the fake, nippleless, Franken-stitched breast they’ll make me. I feel sorry for K. I wonder how he can stand it. Maybe he can’t.

At home, I flipped through my high school journals, and was not as embarrassed at that self as I imagined, but amazed at my intensity. Perspicacious pessimism–and actually prophetic in it, or at least realistic. I wrote at seventeen: “I am awaiting my own tragedy.”

Everyone has one, surely, coming up, sooner or later, I supposed. To varying degrees, maybe. But I’ve always been waiting for it. Or maybe  pessimism causes cancer, that holed-up negative energy. Maybe. Either way–awaiting my tragedy? Here it be. Continue reading

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this living hand

 

This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou wouldst wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calmed—see here it is

I hold it towards you.

John Keats

***

In Italy (or What I Did on my Cancer Vacation), I found I agreed heartily with Percy Shelley; the non-Catholic cemetery is indeed the “holiest place in Rome.” This, though the previous night, I’d had mass with the Pope.

I’d bought a nice little hardback volume of poems in the Keats house; I sat by his grave in a sweltering silent heat and read this poem. How chilling it is, the physical presence of death–and comforting too. The pervasiveness of poets who thrust their tubucular bodies into their verse, and the image of that outstretched hand–as in Whitman:

Mon enfant! I give you my hand!
I give you my love, more precious than money,
I give you myself, before preaching or law;
Will you give me yourself? Will you come travel with me?
Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?

and in Crane’s reply:

My hand / in yours, / Walt Whitman — / so–

***

I am enamored of cemeteries, and I guess a little of death. And of the irony of Keats’ poem: the “icy silence”  interruped by the near violence in the image of his outthrust hand. And of the omnipresence of Whitman beneath our boot-soles and Plath’s Lazarus unwrapped “hand and foot.” I’m considering the continual trope of the post-mortem voice–

as in Hardy:

Ah, are you digging on my grave,
My loved one? — planting rue?

and Dickinson:

Until the moss had reached our lips,
And covered up our names.

I developed a new respect for Keats’ lyric sufferings after understanding the science of his disease, the awful physical progression of tuberculosis. In the abstract, in an anthology, it is all nightengales and whining. But then the reality of blood and ugliness underscores so strongly this search for beauty. Ie, how can anything as ethereal as the pursuit of art persist against something as demanding and decisive (derisive?) as corporeal decay?

Still, despite the chill of Keats’ hand stuck up out of his grave like a flag or a flower, despite Tennyson’s elegaic temper and Milton’s pastoral mourning, I prefer death in American verse (& perhaps as a newly-inducted 19th-century Americanist, I am obligated to say this).

I cannot imagine two views of death as disparate yet individually visionary as Dickinson’s and Whitman’s; in each, there is a distinct kind of kinship. For Dickinson, a kinship with Death:

We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
And I had put away
My labor, and my leisure too,
For his civility.

–and for Whitman, a kinship with audience which transcends it:

What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?

They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceas’d the moment life appear’d.

All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.

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14 May 2009: Fatal Flaw

“I have two luxuries to brood over in my walks, your Loveliness and the hour of my death. O that I could have possession of them both in the same minute. I hate the world: it batters too much the wings of my self-will, and would I could take a sweet poison from your lips to send me out of it.”

John Keats, letter to Fanny Brawne, July 1819

All day the sky has been threatening rain and there is a faint unfulfilled excitement in it. I feel heavy, unhealthy. Yesterday in the Radcliffe Camera, reading Keats’ late letters to Fanny Brawne (‘think of nothing but me’ etc–pathetic).  The entire day’s dwindled to this familiar six o’clock feeling. Everything so slow-going, so half-formed. Reading Maxwell’s stories which are so fresh and beautiful and effortless-seeming. How jealousy-inspiring (rather than simply ‘inspiring’–that’s what’s wrong with me).

“There was a fatal flaw in his character. Nobody was ever as real to him as he was to himself. If people only knew how little he cared whether they lived or died, they wouldn’t want to have anything to do with him.”

William Maxwell, “Over by the River”

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4 May 2009: A posthumous existence

Briefly at least there was the fantasy of escape, of brilliance and meaning. Yesterday we bought lottery tickets and dreamt up delusions of what we’d do with the winnings–travel, and study, and open an English pub in Michigan. My disappointment at other numbers was such that I even felt wronged by it–because why can I draw the impossible odds of having cancer at twenty-four, but not win the lottery? This sick injustice: and why, and why, and why…

So I wait to be poisoned again, or worse, to be told that there is no point in poisoning me, but that I must be sectioned surgically into diseased and not (yet) diseased pieces.

How I wish I’d gone away. But it’s more than that–it’s wishing I were some other self, one who would have been brave enough.

The same restless frustration of wasted days. Have begun reading The Grapes of Wrath, fiction of dust and dead pigs. Staring listlessly out the window at the English countryside, flames of green against an ever-gray sky. There’s always a radio on; the whole place reverberates with words, all incomprehensible. I feed pages of the travel section into the fire, places I will never go to up in smoke with colour photos. I touch my bald head and fear myself. Then spend a long stretch of time in the shower with fantasies–choosing flowers for my wedding, naming my children, my lectures, decorating an imaginary home in my imaginary life.

It’s a familiar feeling, the desperation to do something and the sick pit of my stomach knowing I won’t. Not wanting time to continue. Sitting with my withered hyacinth and row of unread books. All this emptiness. I just want to begin to have something to stick to, to fill the time with, to progress. But I have no agenda, no plot, nothing to say. And filling the time is not a problem, somehow. It goes by effortlessly. Already four, already the end of another chemo session, of the ‘good’ days. Almost two months since diagnosis and no more meaning in it; almost a quarter of a century alive and no more meaning in that either; nothing to show. I always thought I’d have that–whatever it is–something to show for having existed.

From Keats’ last letter– 30 November 1820:

“I have a habitual feeling of my real life having passed, and that I am leading a posthumous existence.”

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