December 3, 2015
In June of 2014, Jennifer Brice gave a talk at the Colgate Writers’ Conference about why place matters in writing, and how to pin it down on the page. Among the examples she used was E.B. White’s essay “Once More to the Lake,” a piece which evokes the place White visited many summers as a child with his family, and then presents it as it was many years later, when he returned with his own son.
I took several pages of notes that day. In the days that followed, I read and reread White’s piece. I began combining the idea of returning to a familiar or beloved place with the notion I’ve had for a while that the energy of things that happened in a given place is still there, and we can somehow reconnect with our younger selves by accessing that energy. By the end of the conference, I had sketched out a new project: a series of essays on the theme of “Once More to . . . .” The first would be “Once More to the Shore,” the seaside town in New Jersey where my mother’s brother lived. My sister and I vacationed there as children, and returned some thirty years later for a few fondly remembered summers with our own children.
I spent the next year adding to my notes, even going to nearby places for the sole purpose of walking around there, trying to reimagine the energy of who I was when first I sojourned there. The most extensive of these excursions was in late October, to Duke University, trying to recapture the essence of the summer of 1972.
This minor gallivant had to be then, to coincide with a reading by a friend at North Carolina State University, a place my Duke friends and I had often visited that summer. But I was concerned about Ron, whose energy seemed to be diminishing every day. He was coming to the end of a second course of treatment for what had been diagnosed as a lung infection, and he didn’t seem any better. He nevertheless insisted I go, and I did. The next week, we began the series of exams and consultations that would result in his diagnosis of lung cancer. And my writing and reading life went on hold.
The hold has been broken somewhat by our now having received a calendar that charts all of our appointments for the next six weeks. It’s a complicated matrix, especially for Christmas Eve, which calls for a blood draw, a radiation treatment, a chemotherapy session, and appointments with the general oncologist and the radiation oncologist. Having everything laid out on a grid, color coded (blue for chemo, yellow for radiation, red for consults, green for sessions with non-cancer doctors (GP, eye doctor, ENT specialist) helps me visualize what I have to do when and how I can work in progress on the writing goals I set back in August.
I have fallen into the habit of regarding this process as something “we” are doing: “our” appointments, “our” oncologist, “our” prescription regimen. I have to remind myself, and sometimes others, that I am not the patient, Ron is. I am, in this endeavor, the companion, the keeper of the schedule, the traffic manager. Though this requires a lot of my attention, I am not the one who is being pushed, prodded, shot through with poison and bombarded by beams of light designed to kill rather than energize.
I have also used, in the title of this piece, a trope I had hoped to avoid: cancer treatment as a journey. In the world of common metaphors and easy clichès, treating cancer is always a journey during which one encounters battles, and the battles are always courageous. Journalist Dana Jennings wrote of this phenomenon in a 2010 essay in the New York Times, “With Cancer, Let’s Face It: Words Are Inadequate.”
Words can just be inadequate. And as we stumble and trip toward trying to say the right and true thing, we often reach for the nearest rotted-out cliché for support.
(I am happy to report that Mr. Jennings is alive and still writing five years after his last NYT article about his cancer, seven years after the discovery of his advanced prostate cancer.)
Ron’s treatments will all take place at a hospital exactly 4.8 miles from our house, a splendid suburban facility with a broad surface parking lot and spaces reserved near the door for clients like us. Ironically, our journey there takes over a road that I had listed as a subject for one of my essays.
That’s an essay for another time. For now, know that the journey has begun, and the actual road is straight but hilly. And we are courageous.