An insightful, experienced oncologist told me that cancer need not be a person’s whole book, only a chapter. Still, novelists know that some chapters inform all others. These are the chapters of your life that wallop you and teach you and bring you to tears, that invite you to step to the other side of the curtain, the one that divides those of us who must face our destiny sooner rather than later. –Alice Hoffman, Writers on Writing, New York Times, August 2000.
Cancer need not be a person’s whole book, only a chapter… I often return to this sentence in Hoffman’s essay, written out of the experience of her struggle with cancer, and yesterday, as my Moores’ UCSD writing group mourned the loss of one of our members, Dave, to cancer, I did again. As we remembered him, his presence in the group and the writing he had shared with us, I reminded everyone that his family had invited us all to his “Celebration of Life,” held on Saturday.
“I don’t understand,” Donna, recently here from Korea, furrowed her brow. “Why is it a celebration and not a funeral?”
“Dave had a rich and full life before cancer,” I explained, “and rather than focus on his death, they want us all to remember his life.”
I read from Hoffman’s essay once again before inviting the group to write. Not surprisingly, memories of Dave were woven into the writing shared aloud and the difficult topic, his death, brought into the open to sit side by side with his life. He, like others before him, lost his cancer battle, but his memory stays with us; his stories intermingle with our own, and his passing allowed us to speak openly of the shadow that trails after anyone living with metastatic cancer.
We come together to write, but as cancer patients and survivors, and for so long, cancer dominates the narrative or poetry that is written. So much of the rest of our lives are not revealed until later, as we rediscover hope, gratitude or pleasure in the life we have. Then the other part of our book, the rest of our lives, begins to make its way into what is written and shared.
In “There is No Going Back,” Wendell Berry begins by telling the reader,
No, no, there is no going back.
Less and less you are
that possibility you were…
It’s not just cancer that makes it less possible to be who we once were, nor is it the deaths of those we care about and love. It’s life: the process of aging, the necessary acceptance of physical and bodily changes, and the ways in which we see and respond to our constantly shifting worlds. Yet some of those life experiences, as Hoffman stated, wallop us and change our lives more dramatically than the ups and downs are part of the average human life span. Cancer is one of those;, bringing us up short like a horse’s snaffle bit and forcing us to pay attention, admit that the self we were before cancer is not the self we are now. We must learn to pay attention to the present, to truly live for whatever time we have left.
Leroy Seivers, who had a long career as a journalist covering war, genocide and natural disasters, was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2006. After decades of observing other people’s deaths, he contemplated his own by documenting his fight with cancer on the NPR blog, “My Cancer blog” and podcast. “After that day, your life is never the same,” Seivers wrote. “That day” is the day the doctor tells you, ‘You have cancer …’ that sentence [your life is never the same]…only tells a fraction of the story. As a cancer patient, there are so many days that change the course of your life…”
Despite the agony of treatments, waiting for scans, even hearing that he had more tumors, Seivers wasn’t ready to give up. He quoted Hunter S. Thompson, “Buy the ticket; take the ride.” His stomach may have been a little queasy, he admitted, but he wasn’t ready to get off the ride quite then. “…it’s still life,” he said, “and it’s a life worth living.”
“There is no going back,” the first line of Berry’s poem echoes in my mind, and yet, there is much about life to cherish. We learn to hold what was, those who were once part of our lives, even our younger or healthier selves, in our memories. Their stories become part of our stories. They intermingle and become, in a very real sense, part of who we have become.
More and more you have become
those lives and deaths
that have belonged to you…
Berry reminds us, just as Larry Sievers did, that even though we cannot return to the selves we once were, our lives are worth living. Indeed, it’s possible that in some ways, our lives are even fuller.
Now more than ever you can be
generous toward each day
that comes, young, to disappear
forever, and yet remain
uniting in the mind.
Every day you have less reason
not to give yourself away.
(From: A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems, 1979 – 1997, by Wendell Berry)
At Dave’s memorial yesterday, some of his writing was read aloud, his life remembered, his pottery was on display, and for each of the people who came to honor him, a piece of his pottery given to each person to take home. It was completely fitting for a man who gave so much of himself to others, working to improve circumstances for Families from Afghanistan and the health and well-begin of the LGBTQ community in Chicago. Dave showed us, even in death, what he had shown to others in his life: compassion, generosity and grace.
Cancer is not the whole book, but it does impact our lives in many ways—some of them difficult and soul-wrenching, but in other ways too, ways that shape the life we want to live for however long we have. We all die, sooner or later, but it’s not the fear of death that should occupy our waking moments. The most important question is to ask ourselves how do we want to live? How do we give ourselves away each day?
This week, write about what have you learned from cancer. What has changed in the way you think about life? How are you writing the next chapter of your life?