She is standing under the overhang outside the yoga studio. It is raining. The bag with her mat and water bottle is slung over one shoulder. She is talking into a cell phone. It is her primary care physician calling on a Sunday afternoon to tell her that she has breast cancer.
Her doctor is all business, almost severe. It seems to her that she is being pawned off on the experts, the oncologists, surgeons, and radiation therapy doctors. She has passed into the realm of serious medicine, no longer the chummy annual physicals, the calibrating antidepressants. Why, she wonders, did the doctor think she needed to receive this news a day early? She could have happily waited.
It starts to rain harder, the kind of rain that comes down in grey sheets, more waterfall than shower. She thinks about going into the yoga studio, placing her mat in her usual spot, in the back right, closest to the bolsters and blocks. She imagines herself moving through a vinyasa, from mountain pose, to forward fold, flat back, through plank, cobra, and back to downward facing dog. Class is always filled with ersatz-hippies, students from Warren Wilson and UNC Asheville, with Chinese tattoos, nose rings, and dirty feet. The teacher is a wholesome girl-next-door, with a dimpled smile, the kind of woman you would find in an ad for fiber cereal.
She decides that her presence among them would be a pollution, a betrayal of all that health and glow. “I have cancer,” she rehearses. There is no way not to sound melodramatic. She had recently started doing yoga again, after years of not, and there is bitterness in the notion that she had done so to become healthier.
She gets back into the car. There is a indefinite quality to the rain against the windshield: blur, smear, blur. The squeak of wipers, the whoosh of water, the whirr of the car heater. It is a world dissolving, breaking down, a world suited to her situation. She scolds herself for self-pity, for catastrophic thinking, for making the weather about her. Still, it is hard not to feel doomed.
She calls her daughter in New Orleans and starts crying as she is telling her the news. Her daughter is calm; her voice is soothing, concerned but contained. She has always been this way, preternaturally poised, and the mother sometimes worries that it comes at too high a price. They are close, some would say too close, but now is not the time to judge. She allows her daughter to comfort her. Although she is still crying, she is winding down. The rain, too, is dissipating. There is only so long that you can go full bore.
If I use third person, if I distance myself from the situation, am I writing fiction? Does it matter that it really happened? If I were writing a story, I would feel inclined to cut the rain. It’s too on-the-nose, too cliché a symbol. I might be inclined to go completely in the other direction: make it a sunny day, with eighty percent humidity, all the yoga bunnies in tank tops and short shorts. I might drop in a few portentous lines. “Little did she know the cancer was to return a year later…” or, “She would continue to go to yoga classes for the duration of her illness…”; or maybe add a twist, like the daughter announcing that she’s pregnant.
If I were a poet, I might focus on the rain on the windshield, the distortion of the world as a metaphor for an abrupt change in life circumstance. It would be a bad poem, but it would try to do what good poetry does, which is to illuminate the abstract through the keen observation of specific detail. It would amplify great truths in a singular moment, and leave the reader dazed but moved.
But I lack the talent to be a poet. Scansion and meter baffle me. For the longest time, I thought dactyls were a kind of dinosaur, that a spondee was a British dessert.
When she thinks back to the day she found out she had cancer, she can hear the rain falling on the yoga studio’s corrugated metal roof; she sees the yogis straggling in, with their batik bags and waffle mats, their tie-dyed bolsters, and cork blocks. She sees herself on the phone. She hears her doctor’s voice. She looks out at a smeared view of a changed world.
In many ways, my having cancer feels like the fiction. For two-and-a-half years, I have experienced no physical symptoms from the disease, only from the treatment. The baldness and neuropathy, the cramps and rashes, the mouth sores, nose bleeds, scattered-headedness, and slow-healing wounds, are all the result of the toxins that are keeping the nodules in my lungs from growing. My disease is a rumor, a message from dispatch, something I take on faith, pronounced by alchemists and shamans.
One of the reasons I started writing these essays was because I wanted to understand why I lost interest in fiction writing, just like that—literally, in the oncologist’s office, at my first appointment. All my life I had preferred the porous, dotted-line indicators of fiction, precisely because they were not real. That was the point! Whether I was bored, scared, angry, or depressed, writing and reading fiction were my escape.
My change of focus makes sense, I suppose, given that what was happening to me was starting to overwhelm my capacity for pure imagining. I realized that escape was no longer possible. The contingencies of my disease, and the reconfiguring of my life span, demanded a change in priority. I felt an urgent and sudden need to gaze, forthrightly, and with the immediacy of real-time, upon my own humanity, in all its puniness and magnitude. It was less a matter of choosing personal essay, over the novel, and more a matter of choosing house-on-fire, over half-built boat. I was attending to crisis is all.
It turns out, of course, that whether you write in the intimate “I”, a story of your true, unrequited love for the rancher’s daughter, or in the head of a fictive “Reginald”, about his war with the Stinkbugs from Planet Splurk, you exercise the same control over your material, and the same responsibility. The control is what matters. With all that I am losing, and have lost, to disease, I retain the authorial power to tell my story, however I choose to. We are story-makers by design, and narrative is as natural a form to us as skin. We need it for structure, for protection. We need it to live. It is credulity that we wish for, the solace of belief, and, in the end, we take it where we can get it.
She dreams it is raining. She is standing under the overhang outside the yoga studio. The bag with her mat and water bottle is slung over one shoulder. She is talking into a cell phone. It is her primary care physician calling on a Sunday afternoon, to tell her that she has tested negative for breast cancer. She sighs in relief, and heads into class.