En route to our nation’s capital to join my sister and (finally) bring our book club to a prison there, I watched the sun rise this morning from the Logan Express. Today, six years to the day I was first diagnosed, I was thinking a lot about paradoxes. It wasn't just nerdy English teacher thinking, but rather, an internal conversation spurred by one word that a kind person presented me with yesterday. Bittersweet.
A thoughtful man from the communications department at Dana-Farber wanted my patient perspective for a short publication, and we spoke over the phone for almost an hour. We covered the necessary details of my own treatment but more so, I told him about Kristin and Steve and Dr. Ng. I told him about our Jimmy Fund Walk team, my students, and my family.
Towards the end of our conversation, he asked me if my six-year mark was bittersweet. I have been thinking about that word ever since. Or maybe, about the two words, and the space, or no space, in between. Bitter. And sweet. I thought about that space this morning when I woke Annabel up to put her hair in a ponytail (despite a serious lesson yesterday, she insists Brian won't be able to do it in my absence today). I thought about that word and that space as the dog skipped back to our bed once she realized I was leaving. I thought about it as I drove by the restaurant in Braintree where I first met Marisa.
Now, waiting for my flight to board, I wonder, am I bitter? Actually, yes, I am. Not for myself, of course, but for others. I’m so deeply bitter that cancer is the relentless murderer and thief that it is. I’m bitter that Kristin is not in the passenger seat while her husband and kids travel north for a week of summer vacation. I’m bitter that this winter, Steve will not see his son play hockey nor his daughter play basketball. I’m bitter that the day after tomorrow a surgeon will remove a large tumor from my neighbor’s innocent body. I’m bitter for mothers and fathers who buried their children, for siblings aching for their brothers and sisters, for sons and daughters who no longer can call mom or dad, and for grandbabies who never got to be spoiled by their grandparents. I’m bitter because of the permanence and depth of a loss that I can only barely comprehend. I’m bitter, with deep fibers of my soul, at the enemy that is cancer.
Meanwhile, I don’t identify with the word “survivor” and I don’t feel a sense of victory today or any day. I hate my blog URL because really, I didn’t beat anything. I just got lucky. That’s it. In the words of the poet Wislawa Szymborska, I was closer or farther away (see poem here). Or maybe I survived because I was first or last, maybe because a shadow fell. Really, I have no idea why I’m here six years later and so many others are not. Maybe it was because somewhere a straw was floating on the water.
When I think of today, of six years, one word comes to mind. Humbled. I am humbled today and every day by life and by death. Maybe because of cancer or maybe just because it’s in my blood, I notice with sweet and with bitter detail the love and the loss that surrounds me. This week I am especially aware of those senses because right now, in my town, there is palpable pain.
Like countless others in my hometown and beyond, I remain shocked by the week-old news that a young man – a human being as good as they come – died by accident in a reservoir a mile from my childhood home. Cancer didn’t take Jimmy but water did. Why? No mortal could ever begin to explain it. A frame, a turn, an inch, a second. They are gone and we are here. Straws floating on the water. Full and broken hearts. Contradictions never to be sorted out.
I saw a billboard on the expressway this morning that read, “Real Christians love their enemies.” I can think of no better example of a paradox. But can someone ever love an enemy? If I love my enemy then that enemy is no longer my enemy, so doesn’t the statement swallow itself? Similarly, in this life, does the sweet swallow the bitter or the bitter swallow the sweet? Are we to expect Kristin’s family to cultivate a love for cancer or for Jimmy’s family to ever feel anything but anger and regret when they look out at the rez? That seems offensively absurd.
Rather, it seems to me that as humans, we are forced into a life of incomprehensible contradiction. Of fear that makes the night a ghastly monster, and of hope that somehow clears a passage to breathe when the air seems to have turned solid. Of love that, under the hot summer sun, forms a long orderly line down a small town’s main road, a line leading into a funeral home where a strong and kind 26-year-old rests.
Today feels especially bitter because I can’t shake the injustice of lives lost too soon. I am also especially grateful because soon (God willing) my plane will land, I will see my sister, and we will spend the evening talking about books with a group of men who may enjoy the pages we hand to them. But really, I am once again humbled. I’m humbled by the worry that still haunts me – that I could eat something (a strawberry?), breathe something (air near a turf field?), or do something (use deodorant?) that could cause another tumor to grow. Every day I know that death’s net could catch me or someone I love and, despite my daily anxiety medication, the realization of that vulnerability makes some moments feel unbearable. Indeed, the mesh of death’s net seems ever so arbitrary and suffocatingly cruel. For some reason, I squeaked through the mesh to be blessed with this day. But I will be forever humbled knowing that really, it may just be because somewhere a straw was floating on the water.