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Monday, November 17, 2014

He kindly stopped for me

The other morning, on the way to work, I found the body of a little bird outside my door. Still warm, but stiff. Eyes half open.

A dead bird has always seemed ominous to me. A harbinger of doom, or a reminder of fragility. When you come upon them, it's often hard to believe they're dead. They are still so perfect and beautiful, usually with no apparent injury or sickness. Like they just fell out of the sky. A memento mori. 

As if I needed one.

After Sherri died in August, I felt, I don't know, adrift somehow. I only knew her online, and in a sense she'd died for me before she left her body, because her posts stopped appearing. I cried many times before her death. But when she did go, I felt lost and empty, tears all dried up. I couldn't understand it, as stupid as that sounds. 

Last year, Showtime ran a series called Time of Death. It is an unprecedented documentary about terminally ill people in their final days. When it came out, I heard about it, I registered it, I filed it away as one of those important things that I wasn't ready for. After Sherri died, I decided it was time. 

Because death is visceral, solid, hard, and it felt as though she was spirited away, gone in a puff of smoke. I knew that wasn't true. I wanted to know what her final days might have looked like. 

I watched the entire series in a few days, while I was recovering from surgery. It was hard, undoubtedly, but not impossible. It was unflinching, it was kind. It was important. Most of the people profiled had cancer. They all died differently. As differently, probably, as they lived. Some at home, some in the hospital. Some with a glorious intention, others slipping away, struggling, not ready. Some surrounded by family, friends, nurses, cameramen, and one, completely alone.

When talking with a friend over the summer, he let slip, "If I die..." Not if, I said. When. When.

I wrapped the dead bird in a paper towel and took her to the garden. A policeman's funeral was happening down the block as I buried the little thrush, and the bagpipes started up as I poured earth over her body with my trowel.

I felt a squeeze in my heart for her, and all the other lost ones.

Friday, November 7, 2014

More required reading

All That Is Limitless

Hannah Gamble

I usually wake up with acquisition
in mind.

I make myself the tallest pine;
I have more birds on me
than anybody!

The sun hits my head
first—it’s cooled a bit
by the time it gets to your head.

I thought I’d get the most

if all the good saw me first
and affably went there.

It was sound,
my lightening rod approach.

One oversight
was that when the bad was coming
it also saw me first,

and would match its force
to my height in a way
that, I’m sure, if I had a stutter
or a limp
would be lessened.

In any case,
it’s time to get lowly.

Put on a formless gown
and call it a shroud
for your vanity, a gold braid
o’re your forehead

or a word you have
to explain
to everyone at the table.

Even if it wasn’t vanity, but hunger.
Even if it was mostly enthusiasm
and affectionate regard. An invitation
to join (less like “participate”
and more like “become an actual part of,”
cutting a part off so it fits
more snugly with the other part.)

Now you have a bed.
Now you have a table.

If the wood is still living
we’ll make not furniture
but a living structure:
We can do what we call grafting.
This too requires a bit of cutting.

A dormant bud
can be cut and grafted,
as can a young shoot,
but in all cases
the point of vascular connection
can end up weak
due to the varying strengths
of the two formerly distinct tissues.

Once I blew my nose in a cafe
despite the number of approximate men
in beautiful sweaters and I knew
I’d become another thing.

Now when a block is sawed up
it is made into implements.

The finest sculptor carves
the least. In this way,
the block rests
within all that is limitless.


Friday, October 31, 2014

An ugly truth

And here's the final one. "At least we caught it early."

Finding cancer early is not really cause for celebration -- something has already gone massively wrong, when, for instance as in my case, two married people in their 20's both get cancer a few years apart. We were both stage 1, so let's go to fucking Disney World? No. Something has failed. Environmental protection, genetics...and yes, our healthcare system, for not putting enough importance on finding the causes of these diseases.

It's not cause for celebration because you're not out of the woods yet. Depending on your cancer, you may not ever be out of the woods. And that's terrible, especially when you never should have been in those particular woods to begin with.

We aren't "winning the war on cancer" when we're diagnosing more people earlier. We aren't winning when people still die. We aren't winning when people still get sick.

My friend, Sherri, who passed away just over a month ago, was diagnosed early. Stage 1, like me. Early detection is not a cure.

Thursday, October 30, 2014


"My most recent one is 'you are a failure on your fight against breast cancer without a positive and upbeat attitude.' You need to grieve, cry, and take to your bed a lot during treatment and for many times after. Your mind cannot will cancer away."
- Jo, breast cancerada

Oh yes. Oh yes. The old positivity trap.  There's so much subtle, and not so subtle, patient blaming in there. The idea that negative emotions build up in your body and make you sick -- somehow that notion survives still. Yeesh.

I think part of the problem is that a lot of people confuse "staying positive" with "getting the fuck on with it." Before I had any personal experience with cancer, I didn't think it was something I'd ever be able to handle, that I'd just cry and wail for months on end, or something. Shockingly, that's actually impossible. The cancer stuff becomes normal really quickly, and you cope with it with the tools you have. If you like to cope with a smile on your face, then do that. You might prefer crying into your dog's fur. Or you might like to listen to Rammstein and smash things. That's equally valid. For many of us, it's all of those things (though you may choose Megadeath).

I'm certainly not saying be negative. That sounds exhausting. But it's not fair for cancer patients to be harangued anytime we express fear or anger or sadness. This shit is hard! And it's not our job to make non-cancers feel okay about it.

Beyond just not telling people that they have to be positive, I think it's important not to tell people how to feel, period. So let's all agree to stop, mmmkay?

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Puking pink

Pink dish gloves, pink full-of-BPA water bottles, pink fracking drills... You know how I feel about pink as a concept, I'm sure, but let's talk merch. Cause somebody's making a buck off this shit, and spoiler alert, it ain't us.

"I hate all the damn cancer trinkets people think they need to send you... and always pink! What the hell makes these people think I want to be reminded on a daily basis that I had cancer? I don't need a pink cow bell with a ribbon on it or a plaque with a cancer poem or key chains or pins or pens... If you really want to get me something, send cash cause the medical bills SUCK!"

- Amy, breast cancerada

I received my share of pink stuff after diagnosis, though I was spared some of the worst of it. There's something weird and creepy about being initiated into this pink club, where no matter what you're actually interested in/how old you are, you're getting a pink beanie baby after your mastectomy, damn it."Here, you've got this disease, you must love to wear earmuffs proclaiming it!"
And the unfortunate truth is that a lot of the pink merch doesn't actually amount to much of a donation towards research, if there is any real donation at all.

People want to help. It comes from a good place. But like Amy said in her quote, try to do something useful. The five bucks you spend on a beanie baby could be better used on, I don't know, a yummy fresh juice, or a movie on iTunes, or coinsurance for an onco visit. Some people like the pink, and that's fine. But don't assume that we all do. 

I know a person, a man, who once for Christmas when he was a kid got a G.I. Joe from a relative. But he didn't want G.I. Joe, all he really wanted was Care Bears. But he was told all boys like G.I. Joe, and he cried because he didn't like violence and wished people would stop forcing him into a gender stereotype.

It's kind of like that.

And if you really want to help someone with breast cancer, just show up with some dish gloves and clean their bathroom. Just make the gloves green, will ya?