One of my beautiful sisters lives with cancer. She comes to our family gatherings. She and her husband even host some of our gatherings. It is never easy for any of us, but especially not for her, or her husband. How do you live, truly live, as if you’re just like everyone else when you’re not? How do you interact with others who have utterly no idea what it’s like to be you, and who try, spasmodically, and in our clumsy ways, to bridge the distance between us?
I offer heartfelt thanks to this woman with ovarian cancer who helps us to see/feel inside her sensitive, vulnerable skin.
January 23, 2014
by Susan Grubar
nyt, via Ivan
Rich Legg/Getty Images
The prospect of a party frightened me — probably because the enforced isolation of cancer treatments has rendered me hypersensitive. It was raining outside and festivities would not begin until after 8 p.m. But my husband and I had promised to attend the celebration of a book publication. So we dragged ourselves to Judith and Aidan’s house where I hoped to find a comfortable chair in which I would not look like the battle-ax at Mrs. Dalloway’s party whom everyone had thought long dead.
The house, crowded with people clutching drinks, pulsed with their robust vitality. Before the cancer diagnosis, I would have moved around the room schmoozing with a series of acquaintances while getting a tad tipsy. Now I was determined to have a drink, but I would need to sit down, and I could not control who might sit with me or indeed whether anyone would. Still, sit I had to do while dealing with a hideous mix of nostalgia, jealousy and self-pity. Exhausted by five years of surgeries and drugs, I have spent too much time alone and have nothing to exchange in return for tidbits of gossip.
My colleagues, kind people, took turns as sitters. Unfortunately, the atmosphere of jollity only underscored my worries: fears that thinning hair would not hide my scalp, qualms about not recalling the names of graduate students I recognized but could not place. The cumulative effect of treatment also left me bereft of the prevarications and censors that ease everyday interactions. The membrane between internal feelings and external expressions (on which I used to rely) has worn thin.
I have neither the time nor the energy to maintain buffers between me and the limited world I inhabit. Cancer has made me porous and susceptible to others — those I know personally, and those I do not. A friend in mourning, or runners and spectators maimed in Boston, reduce me to tears. Have other patients experienced this permeable sense of self when the barrier between the person we present in public and our private sentiments erodes? With few filters, I really do not belong in polite society.
Just when I decided to give my husband a signal for us to up and leave, two guests started to sing in a corner of the room. I settled down, pleased at not having to make chitchat with my current sitter, a very young woman with a crew cut. A succession of musicians followed, producing that vivid vibrancy only live music in an intimate space can create. By the time Jason Fickel stood up to sing, accompanying himself on his acoustic guitar, my exhilaration knew no bounds.
Live music should not be reserved for memorials. Musicians ought to be allowed to play in infusion centers, hospital rooms and hospices. Or so I think as my body feels sprayed and bathed, plumped and pumped by the rhythms of a melody that comes from Jason’s mouth and hands but courses through me like currents of energy.
The wine helps, undoubtedly, but it is the thrumming strings and the wry yet sonorous voice that delight me, galvanizing my attention and quickening my spirits. I sense the vibrations on my skin, in my bones, massaging the synapses of my brain: “music, sweet music, music everywhere.” Let there be trombones and guitars, flutes and pianos, singing and, especially, cellos for the sick and the dying. During my mother’s last months in assisted care, she would have loved to have heard a string quartet: harmonies returning her to pleasures displaced by old age and disease.
Awash and exultant as the music ends, I recall a line of poetry — “we feel that we are greater than we know”— and turn to the girl on my right. I did not remember her because, apparently, I had never met her before. But, she explained carefully, she works out with a member of my cancer support group … in a special class. A beat, a pause, and I understand.
The crew cut has to do with cancer. I shake her hand to wish her well. Her fingers are icy. A surge urges me on: the need, the palpable urgency, to pay tribute to her resolute stamina. I clasp both her frozen hands and kiss them, overwhelmed that someone so young has had to go through what she has gone through, though I scold myself too, for these eruptions of extravagant emotion are sure to make me look like a fool.
By the time Don and I got home, I realized that there are liabilities but also benefits of being thin-skinned. At the party I had felt the beauty, felt the fun. Lucky, lucky, lucky, I thought as I drifted off to sleep.