June 2005

Susan Chenelle

nonfiction

Lessons in Taxidermy by Bee Lavender

Kneeling on the wooden floor in the middle of the night, Bee Lavender opens a cabinet holding various collected artifacts of her life, trying to escape into the memories they evoke and to hold on to the "good life" they evidence. She stretches out on the dining room floor in order to hold back the intense pain and dread welling up within her. It is a deeply visceral scene that most anyone who's ever been seriously ill can identify with, a mental, emotional and physical dance between fear, suffering and denial. For most of us, our fears come to nothing or at least nothing close to the frantic speculations we torture ourselves with; for the publisher of the online edition of Hip Mama, such nightmares and worse, have repeatedly come true.

In Lessons in Taxidermy, her taut, elegant, and stunning memoir, Lavender recounts how she has spent much of her life simply trying to survive her own body. A cancer diagnosis just before her twelfth birthday was followed by the discovery of virulent cysts in her jaw and a rare genetic disorder; then her appendix exploded, the infection spreading to produce gangrene in her stomach. At sixteen, she suffered a bruised heart and fractured pelvis, among other injuries, in a car accident; at eighteen, she became pregnant and contracted lupus. Even more astonishing than the fact that all of the above calamities and more have failed to kill her is the extraordinary individual she has survived to become in spite of -- and because of -- them.

Now, after several years of relatively good health, she waits in the emergency room for hours in excruciating pain, because she refuses to cry or betray any sign of the depths of her agony. Deftly interweaving the past and the present, she relates her harrowing history and how her stoic stubbornness has both seen her through and put her at risk.

Her frank descriptions of the grisly operations she has endured, and of the "incandescent" pain that eventually causes her to disassociate from feeling almost entirely, are withering. Her cancer ordeal leaves her with a fragile new voice and numerous scars, cut off from her friends, not allowed and too tired to play outside, but dreaming of fighting off alien creatures as a "glamorous and dangerous girl spy." The doctors give her six months to live, but she promises her mother, after spending two days searching for books about children and cancer, that she "will grow up and write a book about a kid who lives."

Despite her own wishes on many occasions, as well as a near-constant onslaught of savage procedures and treatment regimens and tragic misdiagnoses, Lavender has survived to do so. But she doesn't just tell her own tale; she also pays deeply moving homage to her parents' sacrifices and their fierce love and devotion. Readers will find their awe of the author's resilience trumped only by their awe of her mother's.

Perhaps a manifestation of her "compulsive need to put everything in order," there is nothing extraneous in Lavender's well-wrought narrative. A more self-indulgent writer would have spun these tales into several best-selling memoirs, but Lavender's reserve makes her story all the more impressive. Rather than parading all of the great things she's done as a writer, activist, mother, etc., she boils everything down to a simple, well-told narrative. Her final triumph in the book is not just over another sickness, but in allowing herself to become reconstituted as a whole human being, one who can feel not only pleasure, but also pain, and even admit need and weakness.

Lavender's memoir is exquisite, precise and deeply affecting from beginning to end. The title is well chosen, as the book's brevity lends itself to instruction. Anyone in need of a little steely resolve once in a while should keep it handy in order dip into a few of its pages for a lesson from someone who has ridden out to the limits of human endurance and back again, and not only survived but lived to tell the tale.

Lessons in Taxidermy by Bee Lavender
Akashic Books
ISBN: 1888451793
225 Pages