February 2009

Richard Wirick

nonfiction

The Adventures of Cancer Bitch by S. L. Wisenberg

Mid-way through my life -- thirty-three to be exact -- I found myself lost in Dante’s dark wood. I was diagnosed with cancer of the thyroid. It is a fairly treatable, in fact a curable cancer, and I have been in remission for 22 years, approaching my fifth 5-year remission cycle. Despite the high cure rate, it was and remains nothing less than the Big C. The internist who brushed his thumbs across the throat nodule (“Son of a bitch!” he cried) later told me, when prognosis was clearly life expectancy, that it “was, after all, cancer, and was to be respected.” Odd but apt, that “respected.” A great percentage of diagnosis is accident; a fair percentage of treatment is how the news is delivered.

I am a trial lawyer, and the principal (though outside) surgical risk was severing the autolaryngial nerve, which would have caused me to lose my voice. But overall I did well, and though time has sealed the bleakness of that journey inside a kind of affectless amber, I have never been able to write about it, not to this day. The darkest memories were from the greenish, hazy cancer pre-op corridor, which seemed to me some lost quadrant of Hell itself. (Again Dante, again his “cold hell/this thicket.”) I noticed that morning that almost everyone on the gurneys around me was a woman either losing her first or second breast, and so I saw myself as up in the Inferno’s first, mildest circle, far luckier than those in the third, fifth, or seventh that I looked out upon.

S.L. Wisenberg has written a memoir from these lower depths. Winnowed and expanded from her blog of the same name, The Adventures of Cancer Bitch leaps out at you with all the bracing varieties of fear. There’s the leaden, heartsick kind accompanying first diagnosis; the jarring, funhouse-mirror variety of seeing oneself bald, of gathering clumps of hair in your hand; and there’s the karmic doubt of wondering why it was you that had your ticket punched, being singled out by perhaps a dio boia, a punishing God. Or worse: a careless, indifferent one, the One Lear saw as a crude boy grabbing and killing flies for his sport.

Defiance and courage are key to withstanding any grave illness, and these are here in abundance. Seemingly an atheist or agnostic, though culturally Jewish (as explored in a prior memoir, Holocaust Girls), Wisenberg battles her weepy predisposition with bold, cold-eyed marshalling of statistics, a healthy skepticism of faux treatments and facile, ginned-in hopefulness. She keenly observes that Freud -- father of inter alia, the death instinct -- first confronted mortality with “the tools of understanding first given to us by the Enlightenment.” She then goes on to perform a deft, very learned and wide-ranging self-analysis for 170 pages.

For this reason, the book is far more selfless than most illness memoirs. Its eyes rove outward more than almost anything else I’ve read in the genre. As a Jew, she sees ennobled suffering as the heart’s essential enterprise and a sort of primordial experience, an unearned membership in the tragedies of history. (The Christian version would, I suppose, be salvation through Grace.) As a friend to others who are sick or who have watched their children die before them, she is abashed by the dark abyss separating victim and observer. It is a sort of black planet she flies over like a pilot, unable to reach down but guided by small, scattered tribal fires of compassion: Wordsworth’s “tiny acts of kindness and of love.” Her pain med ear-ringing is the Bell Tolling for Thee; the singularity of self -- of the aching, pain-bearing self -- becomes paradoxically self-effacing.       

One sees this best in her self-portrayal as a writer and teacher of writing. She wants but doesn’t want to tell her students. She doesn’t want her illness to be her only content, her latest “project,” but what else can you think of when you are Up Against It? Her pupils see the journey of sickness as perhaps the essential story, Graves’s “one story only,” that is to be mastered and remolded and finally written on the page as disease has written it on her body. The search starts in the underworld of first diagnosis, sails through storms and islands of outwitted monsters (unsympathetic orderlies, doctors who are “too good looking”). And it ends with a homecoming, letting Penelope know you are the same person who first set out but one who is wiser, stronger, battered but leavened by sheer animal stamina.

The book is funny, damned funny. Much more Rabelais and Woody Allen than Homer. “I don’t know why pubic hair is considered obscene in the first place,” she muses, “because it’s the stuff that covers the genitals.” Wildly replicating cancer cells are “uninhibited: they wear lampshades on their heads and run through public fountains.” Vasectomied men lose recall of substantive nouns, so we should prepare for a spate of “late middle-aged mimes.” When she herself can’t muster which years contained what in her life, she resorts to the universal marker of Cher’s hairdos, or when she (Cher) had tattoos on her butt.

But all is not levity, and as she holds death at bay, stiff-arming it downward with her will to live, she settles into a register of high seriousness without a trace of self importance. It is accomplished by wresting the deepest insights from the quotidian, a fallen world ready for her farewells. Is it the pain? Is it the pain medicine? Maybe it is the years of reading (Walter Benjamin, Kafka, Aleichem) or teaching others to read these disciples of privation. Whatever it is, we’re blessed with an abundance of rich, stately passages, offhand but dignified, resigned but shiningly serene:

One story about Eden, said the rabbi, is that Adam and Eve were pure light. And then when they were exiled from the garden they were given skins. To contain them, to separate them from every other thing in the world that they had not been separate from. Another story is that everything in the world was made of light. Then the light became fragmented and we are trying in this life to collect and connect all the light, to restore and repair the world. The way to heal, I think, and I mean heal the soul, is to train yourself to see the light everywhere. Until you know without looking. Until you feel it without pointing it out to yourself, mouthing the words. It’s just there. Like it’s been all along.

The Adventures of Cancer Bitch by S. L. Wisenberg
University of Iowa Press
ISBN: 1587298023
160 Pages