Tag Archives: travel

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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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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26 June 2009: absence

Sleepless nights and strange morning-dreams. This free-floating anxiety shot into overdrive with the nurse’s call last night: yet another meeting with the surgeon on 7 July, and nothing to be planned until after. There is always this great sickness in the pit of my stomach; there is always this oppressive fog I can’t think through. Tomorrow I’m going to Paris, yes–and all I can feel is worry and discomfort. Guilt and bitterness. What is this compulsion for Paris?

This morning I rubbed some shampoo in the coarse fuzz that’s grown over my head–what unprecedented pleasure! The smell of the shampoo and comforting enclosure of soap suds. For an instant anyway.

A part of my body is to be cut off: the meaning, at last, of “absence.”

I dreamt of Vassar. In my dreams it is always so removed from me. Inglorious disarrray, columned like the Pantheon. And always this set of stairs I cannot seem to climb.

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15 June 2009: what’s waiting

Sitting in the back of a classroom devoid of students. London considerably quiet–exam time for sixth-formers. Our brief holiday in Rome was so strikingly wonderful–the usual tedious-brief arguments always instigated somehow by food; the urgency of expectation–but otherwise so beautiful, so full. Mass with the Pope, outside San Giovanni in Laterano: hundreds of people kneeling in the dirt while the Last Supper is recounted in Italian. Touring the Forum & Palentine Hill, the Colosseum, Vatican City–the worst of it aching, blistered feet and supreme disappointment in the Sistene Chapel: hatred for humanity, shoving and talking and taking photographs. The most wonderful day the last: the non-Catholic cemetery verdant and calm and unspoiled. An afternoon’s unhurried wandering around the Pantheon, pizza and gelato, fountain water, conversation. It is a place in which I was so surprised, and perhaps more than any other most desperately did not want to leave.

Of course, a good part of that comes from the fear of what’s waiting here. Two appointments scheduled for tomorrow afternoon: 1.30 with Dr. S’ “team” (Dr. S., of course, will not be in clinic; I’ve not seen him in the entire course of my treatment) to discuss the results of last week’s ultrasound, then a foreboding 5.00 appointment with the surgeon. I’m sick with worry that’s been stockpiled in the back of my chest during those unreal few days in Rome. Beset by dreams of death, fear of death: a Keatsian distemper.

Please say “chemo” tomorrow. If I have chemo, I may have Paris. If “surgery,” then I am thrown into a mess of uncertainty and helplessness, depression and desperation.

“Your trouble is you get greedy,” K. said yesterday on my ineptitude at chess, losing my king in pursuit of a pawn. Maybe that’s my most sincere flaw in all things–too hungry for experience, for lovers, for recognition and attention, for perfection. Selfishness and ingratitude magnified by the disease–self-righteous indignation at having it all upon me; contempt for everyone else.

I was somehow charmed by the madwoman in her overcoat who shouted and sang outside our hotel window–bent, aged, wirey gray hair all out at angles–singing like an anachronistic Ophelia who’d misread her stage directions and neglected to drown. Flesh no longer “fair and unpolluted,” but “a document in madness” still.

For awhile the disease felt real. Lately it’s swung back to its removed position. K. touches my hand in the car when people on the radio start talking about “cancer patients.” But I do not feel these words are particularly meaningful to me. Cancer patients are still other people.

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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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