You will not be spared, nor will what you love be spared.
A friend posted a fragment of this poem by Louise Glück last week. I keep coming back to it again and again. It has been a sad autumn. A family friend died after an eighteen-month struggle with cancer. Another has relapsed after being treated last year for lung cancer. One friend has just been diagnosed with a rare and severe blood disorder; her youngest child has been living with leukemia since last winter. Another friend emailed to say that her father's lymphoma has returned. I came of age with AIDS awareness, in the 1990's, but cancer is the dark shadow that has touched everyone I know. No one I love has been spared.
A wind has come and gone, taking apart the mind;
it has left in its wake a strange lucidity.
You would think that cancer would have been conquered by the beginning of this century, the way tuberculosis had been the century before, as Susan Sontag wrote in Illness as Metaphor. Not so. AIDS came closer to a cure, or rather a kind of temporary sanctuary, with expensive drugs that delayed disease progression and managed symptoms. Which for now is as good as it gets. That is not enough for us, for those friends and family who are now only memories I hold close to me. Their shades walk through my dreams and disappear when I wake.
How privileged you are, to be passionately
clinging to what you love;
the forfeit of hope has not destroyed you.
Cancer entered my life for the first time with the death of my grandmother in the late 80's. I did not know her well. Family stories tell me that she was not easy to know, but I regret that I do not remember her. Then, when I was in high school, my father returned from a meeting in Washington, D.C., having gone to the hospital with pains and discovered, via x-rays, that there was a mass in his chest. Further tests revealed a tumor, so rare that one of the pathologists who diagnosed him still remembers the case, fourteen years later. He had lost one brother to a heart attack and was watching the other fight the liver cancer which would kill him seven or eight years later. Lately I have been returning in my mind to that year. Last Friday was the fourteenth anniversary of my father's surgery.
This is the light of autumn; it has turned on us.
Surely it is a privilege to approach the end
still believing in something.
I came to poetry late. I was 25. I have told this story too many times; surely I do not need to say again that I was going blindly into the dark and Bukowski pulled me back from it the way a fireman pulls a child from a burning building. Now I understand what poetry is for, to find in someone else's words a kind of map of my own innermost emotions, dark fears and sweet elations, to lay them bare before my eyes. Now I see in Glück's words that weight of despair, and yet the will to keep going, as I have seen in those who clawed their way back towards another Spring against the bleakest of odds.
you are not alone,
the poem said,
in the dark tunnel.
Louise Glück, October. Averno. 2006.