Sunday, December 7, 2014

Close to the Bone

I never intended to write about this, not again.  I wrote about it in my novel A Twist of Light, but that was years before it happened to me.  I recall thinking, if only for a moment, when I heard the diagnosis that my writing had brought it into reality.  Nonsense of course and way too much like a bad Twilight Zone episode.  Even Rod Serling wouldn't have kept a straight face as he announced that a writer writes about her own breast cancer fifteen years before it appeared.
       Yes, as of four years ago I joined that sorority that no woman wants to belong to.  I'm fine now, better than fine, but I find myself getting slightly nauseous whenever I see a pink ribbon.  From the minute I was diagnosed I knew I wasn't going to let that wretched disease define who I was and what I might do.  I have cheerfully refused to be labeled as a survivor.  Survivor is too much of a proactive term for someone who is alive because of excellent health care and top shelf health insurance. And  it's not a big secret.  It's part of my history and I've tried to own it, but I never intended to write about, not again, but I thought I'd changed my mind.
         A few days ago a man I know through a local board approached me and mentioned that he had a friend who was recently diagnosed.  I immediately offered to talk to her as I'd talked to others and a couple of phone calls later, we met.  I've spoken to a number of women about breast cancer and I've been happy to tell my story.  I'm in a state of ridiculous good health, have almost as much energy as my young Golden Retriever and just bought two pairs of jeans in a size two sizes smaller than I've worn in years.  My story is a good one.
        I talked to her, did my best to encourage and inspire and she said it helped.  Still, all that fear and uncertainty boiled up inside of me as though the last four years of ruddy good health hadn't happened.  It's still too close to the bone to write about.

The follow is an excerpt from A Twist of Light, published by Little, Brown UK in 1996 and re-issued this year as an e-book.

Liz, a writer who is debilitated from breast cancer is talking to her daughter Mary who is trying to complete the book her mother is unable to finish. (American readers and spell-check will have to ignore the British spelling and punctuation.)

        'I think this is quite good actually.' Liz handed the pen and the stack of papers back to her daughter.
       'But?' Mary sat sprawled in a chair next to her mother's bed.
       'But what?' For almost a week she'd been able to cut back on her pain medication.  Knowing it was nothing more than a short reprieve, she'd had her bedside table piled with the tasks she planned to finish while she still could.
       'I know you too well, Mum. "But" hangs heavy in the air.'
       '"But" does not hang heavy in the air, darling,  I think it's quite good. I do think Andrew needs to be more clearly defined. You've made him a bit too nice and that takes tension away from the story. Don't be afraid to be a little vicious. Was it Hemingway or Faulkner who said, "Don't be afraid to kill your darlings?"
       'I think I've become too attached to this lot.'  Mary laughed and put her foot on her mother's bed. 'I want to go easy on them.'
       'That happens. It's easy to forget what's real and what isn't when you stare into that screen long enough. It's one of the nicest things about fiction, writing it and reading it. Even now I can go anywhere I want.'
       'I think I know what you mean.  I've had times when I'm a bit fuzzy on where my "alternative reality" ends and where the real world begins. I'm starting to understand why you seemed so bizarre sometimes when you were working.'
       'Bizarre? Me?'
       'Distracted is probably a better word. I realize now how hard it is to shift from one reality to the next. It's kind of the ultimate escape, isn't it?'
       'When things are really cooking, it can be.  I think you may have caught the midnight disease.'
       'What's the midnight disease?'
       'The curse of the writer. The incurable virus that pulls you out of a warm bed because you've just figured out what a character really wants. It can cause you to leave parties early because the conversations in your head are so much better than anything you're hearing via your ears. In my case it was responsible for piles of dirty laundry, and my family eating a hell of a lot of cold suppers. I suppose it's a bit like being an alcoholic, except there isn't a twelve-step programme for it.'
        'Oliver says one can't write fiction until the age of thirty.'
         'Nonsense. Utter crap. He's just saying that because he's a technical writer who probably wants to be a novelist.'
         'I don't think he does. He's terribly down to earth. I can't imagine him spinning yarns in his head.'
         'Good. I'm glad to hear it. I think you need to have personalities that balance each other in a relationship. If you had two people who spent a good part of their lives in fantasy worlds I think it could get awfully sticky. There needs to be someone who's good at reading maps.
       'Reading maps?'
       'It's one example of what I mean. Your father reads maps and we get to places in a fairly reliable fashion. I, on the other hand, tend to head in the general direction and enjoy the ride. Some of the nicest things have happened to me what I got lost.'
       'I suppose I should be grateful I've reached this age without any major mishaps or injuries, what with a mother who spent a lot of time God know where, literally and figuratively.'
       'I suppose that's the main reason I didn't start writing again until your brother was eight.  Being a mother required all my concentration and creativity when you two were younger.'
       'Any regrets? Do you wish you'd spent more time on your work?'
       'Oh God, no. Once I figured things out, I wanted a family more than anything.'
       'What things did you figure out?'
       'After Ellie and my mother died, I thought nobody could get close to me. Nobody but the aunts and Mrs. Harper, that is.'
        'Then you met Jim?'
        'I met Jim, but I didn't get involved with him right away. I'd convinced myself that I couldn't stand another loss, another death. Bad luck, but the one guy interested in me, that I was interested in back then, was headed for Vietnam. From the minute I met him, I agonized over what would happen if he died. Then Jim died and I survived. After that I slowly came to realize that loss is inevitable, all kinds of loss. Jim's death freed me to take chances with myself and everyone else.'
       'Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die? That doesn't sound like my mother.'
       'That's because it isn't what I'm talking about. When Jim died it made me realize that nothing is permanent. Everything is going to be lost eventually. Everything, the good as well as the bad. The bad has to be accepted and dealt with, but the good is there to be treasured and enjoyed. The only way to live is to live without looking ahead and worrying about what's just around the corner. Whatever is around the corner is not going to change just because you worry about it.
       'Do you still feel that way?'
       'More than ever. This crap that's taking over my body simply confirms my belief. If I thought too much about my death, I'd forget about what's left of my life.' She adjusted her reading glasses. 'Let's take another look at this. I think I have an idea about what you do to make Andrew a little rougher.