Monday, June 30, 2008

The Hour of Our Death

When I "went public" with my cancer diagnosis in October 2006 on this blog; and when I wrote two "op-ed" pieces on cancer and blogging and the consumerism of the pink ribbon campaigns ("Shop for the Cure" -- urrghh) for the Sunday Age, I was unprepared for the correspondence that ensued.

My blog was only a few months old and was only just starting to expand beyond its intended readership, when I suddenly had to start thinking of myself as a sick person, when I became a somewhat different person from the woman who had begun the blog. Moreover, I don't think I fully understood the nature of blogging; or rather, the engagement with readers that would follow.

So in addition to comments on the blog, I received many letters, emails and phone messages, because of course I have never been a pseudonymous blogger, and am easy to find. Most people who made contact were very sympathetic. Some were less so, especially after my criticisms of the schmaltzy, sentimental marketing of unhealthy or infantilising products to women in the name of "breast cancer awareness".

Most were simply heartfelt messages, from people who were similarly struggling with cancer, or who had nursed partners who had died, or were living in fear of the disease with mothers or sisters who had been ill. I am by nature, I think, a person who finds it very easy to empathise with others, and so I found these stories very moving. But I also found that being ill had shaken me up completely, so that I had very little emotional strength, many days, to hold myself together.

Going back to work last year, re-appearing in public, was immensely difficult. There was only one day when I got as far as the car-park, sat there for ten minutes then drove home again, but there were many other days when I felt the same way.

So while I might have wanted to help others, I felt pretty much unable to do so.

One of the things about sickness is that one develops a very sensitive antenna to one's disease. You see it everywhere. And when that disease is a very common and highly publicised one, like breast cancer, the problem is magnified. So the death of people like Jane McGrath and Belinda Emmett strikes hard. And you know pretty clearly that other people with cancer will be feeling the same shudder, asking the same question of how much time we'll have left, and what will be the nature, and the hour of our death. And yes, even people like me, in (relatively) excellent health.

But today I heard of the death, earlier this month, of Graham, from another faculty at Melbourne. He had written to me after one of the pieces I wrote in The Age, and we exchanged a few emails. Graham was suddenly diagnosed with a brain tumour; and seemed to be doing ok, until he collapsed with another inoperable one. He wrote to me in April:

After a couple of days they moved me down to a general ward, as the risk of another seizure diminished, but I'll probably not be allowed to drive for the rest of my life. I'm currently having daily radiation therapy to my brain to try and slow these down a bit, but it looks like I have only months to go. This is upsetting, obviously, but I'm ok - I'm cherishing every day with my family, as much as they'll let me, you know how it is! ;-) I'm still enjoying a bit of work, you know, replanning the entire university's strategy, solving all the world's environmental problems, that sort of thing! ;-)

I'm going to fight this hard - I believe in benefits of faith, and have it by the truckload. Sometimes I get weak, and falter, but most of the time I'm strong. You know, its about being there for the kids, being strong for the kids, so they remember me that way. I don't want to falter too much in front of them - they need to learn something from this about life, but sometimes its inevitable to break down and look weak.

I never met this man, but his death reminds me that in addition to the high profile deaths around us, there are hundreds of people like Graham who face death with quiet dignity and courage, still teaching, even in their dying. I couldn't do anything for Graham. I could have made an effort and gone to visit him, but I didn't. There was an instant ease and camaraderie about our correspondence, an instant recognition, if you like, but there were also huge limits to what I felt I could do, by way of reaching out. Tonight, though, I'm holding his spirit here for a moment.

5 comments:

Pavlov's Cat said...

*Hug*

I also think you need an hour in the Butterfly House. (For non-Melburnians: this is not a metaphor. The Melbourne Zoo has a butterfly house full of brightly coloured hothouse flowers and the faint sound of running water. You walk in and tiny exquisite creatures fly over and alight on your head.)

Stephanie Trigg said...

what a lovely idea! A different kind of flying in store for me today, though: a 23 hour flight to London.

Pavlov's Cat said...

We can has Londonblogging?

Eileen Joy said...

I'm way behind on my blog reading and only just got to this post today while hanging in a, how shall I put it?, coffin-like "berth" in a Yotel in Gatwick airport after the Leeds Congress. Just before reading this post I read a book review my friend Michael Moore sent me that he had written on a new book:

Allen Mandelbaum, Anthony Oldcorn, Charles Ross, eds., Lectura Dantis: Purgatorio. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.

I never cease to be amazed at weird convergences, but in any case, having read your piece here, after reading Michael saying this,

"The panorama of salvation, for Dante, never involves a vague, abstract humanity. We always have to do with particular historical persons, many of them known to the poet. Memory is vital to the connection between the living and the dead. The readings in this Lectura Dantis capture these subtleties, in a neo-humanist approach, similar to what I elsewhere proposed under the title ‘Miloszan humanism’ – a scholarly humanism which does not try to project an ideal humanity, or an historical plan, but which attempts to preserve and declare the delicate traces of past human existence, in order to humanize and liberate the self."

Michael's "Miloszan humanism" is an idea he developed as part of BABEL's "critical humanisms" project. In any case, after reading his review of a book on Dante's "Purgatorio," and then, again, reading this blog post here, which tries to grapple [I think], with the very act of "holding" a spirit, which is always fleeting, always death-haunted, and already gone, and all this in relation to the ways in which disease profoundly alters one's life, and also both magnifies [but maybe also] narrows the connections between what I would call different "freedoms" under assault, well, this is just to say, I was very moved by this piece.

Perhaps I'm tired, but I think posts like these are one of the best things about this blog.

Stephanie Trigg said...

Thanks, Eileen (and what a buzz to meet you, finally, in Leeds). I'm going to look for this book soon. Yes, this was hard, indeed. But I kind of like where this journey is taking me.