Bone marrow biopsy and other things
Yesterday I heard tow accounts of a book I want to read—a review on Fresh Air and an interview on All Things Considered, both of course on NPR. The book is called The Woman at the Washington Zoo; it’s a posthumously published collection of essays by Marjorie Williams, who died on liver cancer this past January. I find myself drawn to such texts now, much as I was drawn to personal narratives about blindness 25 years ago as I made my first attempts to imagine what my life might be like as my sight deteriorated, and to come to terms with that imagining. It’s odd, though—when I think back, I think I read those books mostly so I could tell myself that I wasn’t going to be “like that,” whatever “that” was. It must have been a way of mobilizing my defenses cleverly disguised as a search for models and information. Most of the authors seemed to be caught in a double bind: on the one hand they were writing because the mere fact of blindness and the circumstances attending it made them special; on the other hand, they wanted very badly to present themselves as normal people living normal lives. That bothered me a lot, probably because I was (and often still am) caught in the same bind. Or maybe it was because very few of them seemed aware of the doubleness – the books I liked best and still tend to think about are the ones that did find a way to acknowledge the situation, as Ved Mehta does in the extended autobiographical project that he began in the 1970s, 15 years or so after a first book that was very much caught up in the double bind. I haven’t read enough cancer books to know if the same problem haunts them or not, and of course I don’t know either whether reading them will become part of a process of denial for me. The answer will probably turn out to be yes and no.
On Sunday afternoon Anna and I went to a memorial service for Sarah Sweetser, founder of Pure Luck Farms, winner of many national awards for its wonderful goat cheese. Sarah was 52, about eight months younger than I am; she died of cancer. We didn’t hear about it till after we got back from Spain, though she died on November 9, well before we left town. Anna had known Sarah for 30 years—they had been neighbors in Dripping Springs before Anna and I met, when Sarah’s daughter, Gitana, and Ledia were babies (Ledia’s about a year older than Gitana, who’s now married and has a young child of her own). Anna hadn’t been in close touch with Sarah recently, but we felt it was important to go. One of the most important things we’ve taken from my illness has to do with the importance of staying connected to friends and family, and of taking the time it takes to be connected. Sarah and many of the other people who turned out for the memorial had been at our wedding nearly 22 years ago; we had been there when Sarah married Denny. And there was the fact that Sarah was my age and that she had died of cancer; that was another powerful connection for me—ever since I got sick I’ve become extremely aware of (and shocked by) the number of people who have cancer, and I keep being struck by something Lance Armstrong says in It’s Not About the Bike: that as soon as you hear the words you’ve got cancer you become a member of what he calls the cancer community, and you never leave it. It’s not a community anyone chooses to join, of course, but it’s there nonetheless.
Sunday had turned into a beautiful, beautiful day. It had started out gray and cloudy and threatening rain and thunder, but by noon the clouds had blown away, the sun was out, and it was quite warm. It must have been 80 degrees or so by the time we parked near the farm at 1:30, and the air smelled good, a mix of grass and flowers and manure; there was a good breeze. We milled around for a while, greeting each other—there were a lot of people who hadn’t seen each other for years—and then moved on to the tent for the memorial. It was a big tent—there must have been 150-200 people there. Surprisingly, the first part was a religious service, strongly Christian. It felt very Texan, sitting there under that big tent in the middle of a big field on an absolutely gorgeous day in late November; it made me think of movies like Tender Mercies. Then it shifted over into remembering Sarah—people stood (or sometimes just sat) and told stories about things they remembered. Almost all of the speakers were women; their anecdotes were about kids, and gardening, and cooking, and goats, and about Sarah’s ability to get things done. Some of them were very touching. When the memorial was over we stayed for a little while, chatting with people who remembered Anna from her time in Dripping Springs; some I knew, some I didn’t. Then we headed home; we had friends coming for dinner, people we’d invited before we left for Spain; it was time. And we’re both very glad we went.