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Thursday, November 10, 2005

Dying young

My heart literally aches when I read stories like this primarily because it puts words and images to my worst fear — dying young.

Marjorie Williams died last January at age 47 from liver cancer. Way too young and cheated of seeing (on this earth anyway) her son and daughter grow. I’m sorry I didn’t pay closer attention to her work because she strikes me as someone to whom I could relate.

Meghan O'Rourke of Slate writes:

Imagine being told, at 43, that you have a few months to live. And imagine—among other things—that you have a career deepening in new ways, and two young children, a boy and a girl, who still believe that Santa Claus is real. The truth is, most of us can't imagine anything like it. But this is what Marjorie Williams, a Washington Post columnist who died last January at 47, describes in her extraordinary essay about being diagnosed with advanced liver cancer, "Hit by Lightning: A Cancer Memoir." It appears in The Woman at the Washington Zoo: Writings on Politics, Family, and Fate, a new collection of her journalism edited by Slate's Tim Noah, her husband. Reading the essay, one is rocked back on one's heels not only by the steady summoning of detail—including the split-second thrill she felt when the doctor first discovered a tumor—but by the fact that she wrote the essay in the first place. " 'I don't want to end my life in some hospital barfing in the name of science," " she recalls telling Tim. " 'I mean it: I want to be realistic about what's happening to me.' " And she was. The essay is the distillation of the gift that Williams, whom I never met, displays throughout the volume: total engagement inextricably connected to a comic detachment—a stoic determination to make the most of her tragic, and at times absurd, situation.

Williams first hit my radar a few weeks ago when David Brooks, of all people, wrote an incredibly moving column about her short life. I reached for my heart as I read his words and even as I write my hands tremble with the fear her story evokes in me.

Several years ago that fear was so intense that I found myself sitting opposite a psychotherapist trying my best to deal with so many things out of my control. I’ll never forget pacing in my room, Kleenex in hand, sobbing and trying to articulate to Danny what was scaring me. “Everything!” I finally blurted out. “I’m afraid of everything. My mom went to the doctor because she felt bloated and she came back with ovarian cancer. I’m afraid of cancer. I’m afraid of dying. I’m afraid of someone kidnapping my kids right from the bus stop. I’m afraid of failure. I’m afraid of success. I’m afraid of everything.” My husband, who loves to make my world better, knew at that moment that this was something he alone couldn’t fix.

But in a way he did because just verbalizing my fears out loud made them slightly less scary.

I'm prone, however, to relapse. Whenever my life begins to go well I can’t help feeling as if it will all be snapped away because on some level I am undeserving of happiness. It’s irrational perhaps, but there it is. And it keeps me from fully enjoying life — that fear haunting me in the darkest hours of night and in my most vulnerable moments alone. Rarely does that fear find a voice. Instead it festers inside my brain, a cancer of its own, hurtling me headlong into morbid agony.

I’ve found myself looking at my children and my husband and thinking:

“Would they be okay without me?”

“What would they remember about me?”

“Would there be time to leave them plenty of letters to share a lifetime of love before I die?”

“Would they be able to love fully without my steady presence?”

“Will they be happy in life?”

I fight back tears every time someone talks about people and families suffering with cancer. I want to run from the room and hide the fear that I’m sure is visible on my face. This even after my own mother has survived cancer. But it seems to strike the young with a vengeance.

My thoughts, never voiced, turn to how I would handle treatments, how much and how soon I would tell the kids, how to ease my parents’ grief, what my epitaph would read, readings and hymns for my funeral. My brain can jump from zero to 60 in a nanosecond. It’s not healthy, I realize, but it’s there, lurking. Sometimes to the point where I feel it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It takes tremendous mental agility to downshift into the here and now instead of racing headlong into a worst-case scenario. Perhaps it sounds as if I'm a little crazy and maybe I am. Maybe I don't have enough faith in the goodness in life to think I'm worth any of it. Maybe that's why I'm such a seeker. I pray daily that all this internal dysfunction will at least allow me to cherish those in my life more deeply. Mostly, I pray...


Jill said...

Wendy -

Just a couple of weeks ago, I explained to someone close to me that I thought and will think about breast cancer everyday of my life, because I'm less than a year away from the age at which my mother received her diagnosis, and just a few years younger than the age at which my grandmother died from the disease.

Is it crazy that I cry on the phone to the mammogram scheduler that she damn well better find a place to fit me in because I've found a lump and my mother had it and my grandmother died of it and I don't care what she has to do to fit me in?

I don't care. You know why? Because it's my reality. That craziness is part of my reality. To the extent that it's not healthy craziness, I need to tone it down. But otherwise, the occasional boughts of sobbing I have in my car when I'm driving and I think about what will happen if and when I get cancer will just have to continue.

My biggest frustration is having to live with not knowing whether or not I'll get breast cancer, like five of my female relatives (the mother and grandmother included). I hate the not knowing.

So, unless I can be cured of that not knowing (and I know I don't have any of the genes that have been identified), I'll just have to accept be crazy, and cancer-less, for now.

You are not alone, and you are not dysfunctional. Promise - I know dysfunction. ;)

Wendy Hoke said...

Ryan squeezed my hand in church two weeks ago and looked at me with such love in his eyes that I nearly fell to pieces on the spot. It took enormous will to keep composed. All I could think of was how devastated he would be to lose me.

A friend of mine once said of a cancer diagnosis: one moment cancer is not in your daily lexicon, the next it is always there.

It's comforting to know I'm not alone in my morbid obsession. Most days I can keep it in check, but it's always there.