I was at a book reading recently, chatting up a woman about all my book ideas about cancer, being a single Muslim mother in Tribeca (it goes on and on). The woman is an editor so it seemed like an opportunity. Been out of the literary world for so long that I am grasping at any straws I imagine. Now, instead looking for possible third husbands at events, I hunt down anyone who has anything to do with writing. I hope that somehow, my story will seduce them. People who have nothing to do with books seem fascinated, anyway.
She told me about a novel that everyone was talking about, [SIC], written by Joshua Cody. What she found fascinating, she said, was that he was so interested in sex. His book is a raunchy and musical ride through his romantic and occasionally drug-addled adventures whilst undergoing a very difficult treatment.
Reading more about the book – I am sorry to say I haven’t read it entirely yet - I find myself both cowed by the beauty and poetry of his writing and shocked by the sheer nakedness of it. He writes about his experiences vividly.
My own version of cancer seems tame and predictable in his shadow – he sneers at the pastel-covered cancer memoir genre: diagnosis, realization that life is wonderful, and eventually moving to a little cabin in Vermont . I would inspire only disdain. His is a dangerous, vicious, thrilling book. All the things I once thought I was. Now I’ve unwittingly fallen into the standard cancer-memoir-protocol though I’ve never read one. (Albeit with no cabin in Vermont. I am still in my leaky, garage of an apartment in Tribeca).
But I find myself relating to his book in another way. If nothing else, when you are single when you have cancer, you long to have someone chronicle the transformation of your body. In the same way that when you are pregnant, your body bloats and ripens and turns into another beast entirely, your body when you have cancer, morphs and betrays your expectations again.
It is both frightening and beautiful, in the way that a Francis Bacon painting is - a beautiful ode to the human form, even in its most grotesque condition. While having chemo, one’s skin turns pale. At times, blue, at times, mottled with red spots. The flesh seems to fall off the bones. And the bones, those bones, become so sharp and apparent. You lose your hair – and people forget – but that means ALL your hair, on every inch of your body. There is something alien about the body so hairless and pale, I wanted to take pictures to explore the strangeness.
In my case, my fingers and tongue took on a blackish tint as if stained with ink. I had tiny, burning sores on my cheeks and wide swaths of little blisters on my ribs, like stripes. I think about the woman in the cancer support group in Fight Club. Bald and wasting away, she was dying to find a one-night stand before she left the world. When I first attempted the occasional date again, not long after I stopped treatment, a guy told me I reminded him of her. I protested, I was so mild-mannered – but the desperation and loneliness must have been obvious.
My cheeks and eyes were sunken and my lashless eyelids were burning and swollen. My eyes stayed bloodshot for months afterwards. While I didn’t approach anyone, I longed for a warm body in the bed beside me. To be held and kissed by a being still surging with life, still pliant with flesh. I felt like a succubus, yearning to feel someone else’s life force inside me.
Perhaps, though, because I refused the steroids and tried to keep up with Pilates, I never had the adrenaline-fueled energy to roam the streets at night or to go to parties and bars, like the character in [SIC]. I generally was in bed by 9, usually with Rara, who was just 10 years old and frightened, wrapped around me like a scarf and my mother sleeping fitfully on the sofa, a few feet away.
And then of course, there is the movie, 50/50. That very funny Seth Rogan comedy about a young guy (played Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who gets cancer. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/starsandstories/8824832/Joseph-Gordon-Levitt-How-I-made-cancer-funny.html Since his insane girlfriend cheats on him, he is forced to go to bars with his buddy who uses his friend’s cancer as a pick-up line.
This is where the cancer experience of women and men parts ways. The line, as everyone knows, would bomb. Basically, women (not all, but most) are hardwired to want to take care of people. A woman will sleep with a man because she feels sorry for him. A man? Not often.
The statistics are something like this: three out of four men leave their wives/partners within a year of their cancer diagnosis. http://www.politicsdaily.com/2009/05/07/marriage-and-cancer-a-fairy-tale-it-aint/ A woman is six times more likely to be separated or divorced after a cancer or MS diagnosis. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/11/091110105401.html
While the narrator in [SIC] had an encounter with a fellow cancer patient, she was an exmodel. And even then, she didn’t come looking great.
For the most part, if you are a woman, telling a potential suitor you have cancer (or even HAD cancer) is akin to telling him you’re a leper.
Add to that, three very tough and fashion-fascist daughters, very involved parents, complicated exhusbands and the disastrous ruins of my financial life post-cancer and mid-recession; and almost anyone I met would run screaming in the other direction.
I did have one date, not long after the chemo finished. I did my best to ice my eyes and tried to use make-up to make up for the pallor and lack of hair, eyebrows and eyelashes. Upon shaking my boney hand, he looked pale himself. He tried to squirm out so quickly. He had barely received his order before he looked at cellphone and remembered another appointment in Williamsburg that he was already late for.
Perhaps that’s why I watched the first season of “The Big C” with such satisfaction. Laura Linney chose to simply live with her cancer. She chose to enjoy the languid pleasures of summer without disclosing it and live as if every day was her last. Luckily for her, her cancer moved slowly enough to allow her to drag it out.
Perhaps that’s why, only months after I finished treatments, I fell head over heels for a sweet 27 year-old.
Now that I am well, possibly temporarily, but I like to believe, at least long enough to see my daughters out of college. I find myself longing for someone who knows my history. Who can appreciate the transformations of my life and body and appreciate, with satisfaction and understanding, where I am.
The same way in which, you call your old friends after you get run a marathon or lose 10 pounds, you want to someone who can really tell you how far you’ve come. Someone who recognizes the “you” in your new form. Someone who has patience and gentleness with your kids.
No house in Vermont yet. No new love story. Or nothing with legs. Despite that, as it turns out, I am still the cliché. Hopeful and optimistic. Looking at the life surging through the plants and animals and humans around me with awe.
Of course, there are times, when life hits me in the head so hard, I wish I’d had a ticket out of here. The material world can be harsh when you start slipping. People get tired of someone who goes on struggling. I get tired of it myself.
But on a strangely spring day in the middle of February, I am very grateful to be around for just one more.