Monday, June 3, 2013

Journeys to the Land of Sickness

I have stayed up half the night reading Nora Gallagher's Moonlight Sonata at the Mayo Clinic.  I read a bit before I went to sleep, and then I woke up 45 minutes later and read some more.  I slept a restless sleep for about 5 hours, and then I couldn't fall back asleep.  I thought I might get up, read a bit, feel sleepy, and go back to bed.  But I never really felt sleepy, so I kept reading.

It's a good book.  It tells the story of Gallagher's journey through an illness.  She begins losing her peripheral vision, and her doctors can't find the cause.  As they do more exploring, they find more cause for concern.

I did something I rarely do, which was to read the last 20 pages before I got very far along in the front of the book.  I couldn't take the anxiety.

When I was young, illness narratives didn't disturb me, except for the rare book I'd read about a young mother with cancer--and then, I didn't identify with the mother so much as with the child who would be left motherless.

Now, as I move through midlife, I find myself terrified at the ways that illness cuts us down.  Once I assumed I wouldn't face much illness until the last 8-10 years of my life.  Now I know it's only the lucky ones who escape that long.

Gallagher paints a vivid picture of how lonely it is to fall through this rabbit hole.  She makes me think of all the ways I've failed friends facing similar crises:  the one whose house burned, the one who had her hip replaced, all the friends who faced the loss of those they loved.  I have tried to be present in the face of tragedy, but it's not a skill that I feel I'm good at it.

And yes, I know that I've thought of becoming a hospice chaplain, and that the skill of being present in the face of tragedy is very necessary.

Obviously the book is compelling, and yet, it left me wanting more.  She talks about losing part of her faith, and she gives the outlines of that part of her journey, but I wanted more.  Maybe that will come with her next book--but it's such a long wait between books!

Even though I couldn't put it down, it's not a book I can imagine returning to again and again, like I do with her previous memoirs.  Would it give me a kind of comfort if I find myself in the land of illness?  Or would it be unbearable?  I do not know.

I think of the poems I wrote in a time that feels very long ago, poems where I take on the persona of a sick person.  My undergraduate self would have declared that we shouldn't create a black narrator if we were white, that men couldn't tell the stories of women.  My undergraduate self would have hurled accusations of appropriating stories.  Did I do the same thing with the poem below?

I wrote it about 15 years ago, when I was young and didn't really know anyone, except for my mother's cousin, who had suffered breast cancer.  Now I know far too many people who have been afflicted.

This poem first appeared in the journal Lynx Eye.

Radiation Sicknesses

All through adolescence, I longed to be lean.
I tried every diet, existing on a concentration
camp allotment of calories, trying to ignore
my fierce cravings, waking up with covers in my mouth
or sleepwalking to the refrigerator.

Now a skeleton stares back from my mirror,
eyes I’ve only seen in photos of Hiroshima victims.
I have achieved thinness, successfully svelte
beyond my wildest imaginings. I crave
no nourishment, cannot force food on myself.
Radiation treatments and chemo work miracles
my teenage mind could not create.

I spent my younger years dreaming of thinness, dreading
nuclear holocaust. I scanned the horizon for the flash
and mushroom cloud that never came.
I expected to lose my hair and vomit away my adult
life. I just didn’t expect to expose myself intentionally.

Bomb my breast with radiation.
The only thing missing:
the wail of air raid sirens.

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