When I was a child I was so eager to command your attention, to tell you all that was in me to say, that I would tug on your sleeve, hop up and down, and say, “Oh! Oh! Oh!” My words would tumble out like so many bits and baubles, and disengaging yourself from the torrent would require the kind of rudeness that grown-ups only exercise with children. “That will be quite enough of that, thank you very much!”
I feel like that child now, wanting to tell you everything that is in me, all the things I have experienced, seen, felt, and thought, over almost six decades. The urgency comes from having Stage 4 breast cancer, and not knowing if there will be enough time for me to say it all, to let you know that I was here, that I existed, that I was paying attention. I want you to care, of course, but that’s not my primary motivation. It’s an acceleration of the impulse to be a writer in the first place, the burning desire to make a record of a life, be it one’s own, or one’s characters—to leave behind some evidence.
Because we are all special snowflakes, straight up and for real. Each of us lives a particular life and a specific death, and most of us do it without much more than a smudge on the page of human history, a name on a birth certificate, a Facebook page, an obituary. Also, and equally true, we are all interchangeable. Our experience of the human condition is similar, regardless of the circumstances—love, hate, rage, fear, jealousy, depression, selfishness, wonder, and vulnerability—we all working from the same palette, and because this is the case, most of us are capable of connecting, across the confines of self, with another person’s experience.
The part of the human condition that is hardest to confront wholly, is death. (Obviously, because those who know, can’t speak, and those who speak, don’t know.) On this side, we can only bear witness, hope for the fulfillment of some sacramental contract, or fear the great void and mystery. We all know death is coming, but we avert our eyes, like viewers of a scary movie at the advent of monsters. We whistle in the dark: buy things, watch TV, go on vacation, take drugs, get tattos… anything to forget that, in the end, nothing is permanent. We are not permanent. Our bodies are on loan, with a definite return date. And this is immensely touching to me, lately. Because, when you have a grave illness, all these activities, the everyday occupations of ordinary people, seem sweetly consoling. I may be set apart, but humanity goes on, in all its trivia and grandeur.
So, here I am, tugging on your sleeve, hopping up and down, saying, “Oh! Oh! Oh!” Because what I want to say to you is this, that once you’re up against it, it’s really not so scary—or, at least, not most of the time. Not if you have time to consider, which is the luxury I am afforded with this disease. Here on the brink, I can appreciate the preciousness of life, the fragility and brave face of it. I can see what is important, (love, connection, meaningful work), and I can see what is not, (most everything else). And I can tell you that looking at death straight-on will not kill you, but it might make you stronger, or at least more attentive, humbled, but grateful that you are here now, in this strange and teeming instant, where there is no tomorrow, but also no regret, the moment being sufficient in itself—and no matter how corny or simplistic that sounds, it happens to be true. We are, all of us, having an unrequited love affair with life; it breaks our hearts over and over, but the human capacity to have our hearts broken is a sublime gift, and death is what makes us bold.