So I’m listening to Mahler’s first symphony, which I love and have loved for all of my entire adult life. Or since I was 20. When does adult life begin? Hard to say. I’m about to turn 50 and still sometimes have trouble understanding myself as grown up. But what is the 1st symphony about? It is about life, the business of life, the joy and buzzing business of the bees and the flowers and the animals and the fervor of everything that never ends, even when some of us die.
But standing here on the verge of my fiftieth decade frightens me, not least because my mother died of colon cancer when she was 55. She was diagnosed when she was 54. There were signs before. The winter of her 53rd year we were in Sun Valley, and instead of skiing my mother stayed home, in agonizing pain that every one of us, my father, an orthopedic surgeon, my brother, my sister, and I interpreted as gas. How could we all have been so stupid? Yet we were. What do orthopedic surgeons know about the diseases of the internal organs?
So, she died. By the time we caught it, the cancer has metastasized and spread throughout her body, including her lungs. She died of asphyxiation, fluid from the cancer building up in her lungs. It took some time…enough time for us to go on a river-rafting trip down the Salmon River in Idaho. She had had the first eliminating surgery, and some chemotherapy. We were all pretending that she was going to recover, go into remission. But she was so short of breath. And my father knew. I didn’t. Not until the very end.
It was yuk. You can’t say how awful it was so you have to understate it. I remember driving around the hills of Santa Barbara on the days just after her death, madly playing polka music, which I didn’t actually like all that much, not least because it struck me as a kind of dance of death, that mad refusal to believe in the end, that the peasants of Bruegel or Defoe are dancing. I was driving in delirium, the furious round and round of the mind that cannot take in what is.
The thing about death-dealing sicknesses, or bills of death, sentences of death, in short, cancer, is that the mind does not go there. It refuses. And death or its prognosis never makes any kind of sense. It interrupts the rational. It fucks you up.
So here I am witnessing the sentence pronounced on my dear sister-in-being-and-love, MJ, who has just discovered that she has ovarian cancer. The silent killer of women. A sort of Jack-the-Ripper of the reproductive organs, a disease for which there are few reliable diagnostic tests, and fewer cures. When it is found in the body late, as it has been with my sister, the prognosis is not good.
Everyone said that my mother’s cancer was nothing to worry about. O, people recover from colon cancer all the time, they said. It’s one of the best cancers you can get. There are no good cancers. Each one of the is deadly. Every cancer spreads like a noxious weed, a plant that, thriving, chokes out the life in which it grows. And it flourished in my mother.
My mother did not acknowledge this flourishing. This bitter root spreading throughout her. Or she did, but thought that somehow thought could eradicate it. She believed that if she could heal every one of her significant relationships, her connections to her brothers and her children, that miraculously the cancer would die. This theory infuriated me because it located the source of the cancer in other people while blaming the victim. It seemed to be a kind of mental torture program masquerading as help. If she could only fix her relationships, she would recover. And we were all enlisted in this recovery, of course. We weren’t allowed to be negative
I took this philosophy to heart, and tried to be supportive, accommodating, helpful. I quit my job as Director of State Relations at NYU and moved home to be with her. I was pregnant. I needed my mother. Nothing worked. She died. But I was not permitted to acknowledge that she was dying. As a good daughter and caretaker, I was enlisted in a program of upbeat thoughts and morale building. It was worth a shot, of course. But I never got to say goodbye, because my mother never acknowledged that she was going. When she left, I felt it was my fault. If only I had tried harder, had believed more in the possibility of her recovery. If I had had that powerful faith, then it would have been enough.
Yes, I know. This was an unreasonable fantasy of power. But we are exhorted in our culture to have these fantasies, to pray, to believe in prayer, and to blame ourselves for not having prayed hard enough when our prayers fail to come true. I did not believe that she was going to recover. Was it therefore my fault that she died? Or am I to blame for not having been more “supportive” of the fiction that she committed herself to?
My mother seemed to be the victim of a false consciousness program propounded in books for people dying of cancer–a program that exhorted that if only the mind would change, the body would follow. This program sold lots of books but also made lots of people who ended up dying of the cancer they couldn’t control anyway feel like losers, like people who hadn’t tried hard enough. I hate this program.
It seems to me–and how I hope that will not need to practice what I preach here–that when something happens to us, especially when that thing is a medical condition that we have no control over and cannot understand, that we need to accept what is and step aside from the whole program that tells us to feel responsible for the fact that we got sick and that falsely promises that we have within the power to get unsick.
Now this is not to say that we shouldn’t try to maintain a healthy body/mind connection, or that we shouldn’t eat well and take our vitamins and get plenty of exercise. We are responsible for our health every day. But my mother was the healthiest person I knew, a moderate drinker, a light but hardly anorexic eater, and an active exerciser. She played tennis three or four times a week, walked vigorously for miles every day, had good friends, a relatively happy family. As a good if lapsed Seventh-Day Adventist, she avoided fatty foods and alcohol and caffeine and ate loads of fiber. But she still died of colon cancer. It wasn’t her fault. Nor was it mine. Or anyone else’s.
I just wish she had said goodbye, that she had let me know that she knew what was going on and that she had some kind of parting wisdom for me. But she didn’t. She just left. And I felt really guilty about it, because it seemed that I had not done everything that was capable of doing. If only I had prayed harder; if only I had believed in prayer.
It’s hard. You have this life, however short. My younger sister, with whom I have a difficult relationship I guess because we lost her, our mother at such different stages in our lives, directs everyone who receives email from her to live each day as though it were their last. Nice sentiment. What if you only had a year, or six months, or two weeks, to live? What would you do?
My first impulse is to say that I would keep on working on my book. Or I would try to paint at least one painting, that “tree of life”painting that I’ve had in my head for all these months. But what if I didn’t have the energy? What would I do then? I would like to think that I’d write letters to all the people I love, in order to tell them how much I appreciate them. I would explain what they mean to me, and how they have changed my life. Maybe I would do nothing.
My mother did not write any letters. She just left. But that is not quite right. She had been telling me all her life how much she loved me, how much I meant to her. What more could she say? Probably something. But that was not her style. She would have frowned, as I would, on some perfunctory expression of love, since she would have known that no singular declaration could possibly encompass all that she felt.
In short, we forgive the dead whom we have love, we make an effort to understand how they went, under what circumstances, and to appreciate them over the course of their lives. We do not measure them according to their last moments, or years. We remember them fondly, openly, with love.
Does everyone who leaves us remind us of this primal loss, the death of our mother, the woman who bore us into the world? Probably.
I don’t have the faintest idea of how to process this new confrontation with death, this reminder of my own mortality. How are any of us to know that we do or don’t have ovarian cancer, the silent killer of women? Why don’t we as a nation or world have better tests for detecting this killer? This, too, is a woman’s issue. Why should the silent killer go after one of the great woman leaders of my time, my friend and sister, MJ? How do I know that it has not also invaded my body? Why don’t we have better technological understanding of this disease?
I am frightened.