you?" I would hear this refrain 10 times in a morning, each time the phone rang. No one realized I'd already delivered the report a half dozen times that day, or that I was at my desk trying to hang on to the semblance of a working life. Sometimes I had to stretch for news. Frequently, nothing was happening. Most often, cancer is boring, like a tedious second job that demands extreme amounts of drudge work, time, and patience.
I hated when I got cast as someone's soap opera. If the interest was vicarious, the concern made me recoil. "I'm fine," I'd say, and be exasperated when someone would insist, "No, really. Tell me. How are you?"
I was exasperated a lot. Partly I was to blame, being much too judgmental of responses. It took me forever to understand that we were, all of us, winging it. My friends and I were young. We hadn't yet moved into middle age, with its repetitions of illness and loss. We weren't practiced. It wasn't my fault or theirs if I was the virgin, the test case. But if I was being made an example of, so they were to me, for we are all of us examples to one another, all the time, during crises and while in the muddle of the commonplace. Looking back, I think that the kind and the cruel (and there were a few of those) were, in one regard, equal. Though in different guises, they appeared as teachers, and what they both taught me about was love.
From the kind, I learned about love for others.
From the cruel, I learned, the hard way, about love for myself. In a few stinging instances, I had to decide that if I was ever going to love myself, I would have to be selective in who could come near. Until I became sick, I didn't know that some people really could be cruel to the point of evil.
In between the kind and the cruel, there were the bumblers, and in retrospect, I love them the best. They were there, I think, for respite.
"God speaks through events," the theologian Frederick Buechner writes, and during cancer, I was treated to a few divine comedies. One time the humor was of the black, battlefield variety, the kind that, in cancer support groups, keeps things rolling. "There's someone I want to fix you up with," a woman, a writer and shrink I'd met only once before, said over lunch. She'd called because my new boss had asked her to. She'd had cancer once. He thought she could help.
"No kidding?" I said, my head swelling at this testimony to my charm. Regard--even without hair, I was a magnet for matchmakers.
"Yes, and he's wonderful," she continued. "He's about forty, and good-looking, and really spiritual. Clarence and I taught a death-and-dying workshop together. That's how we met. He's really evolved. He went to theology school."
"Me, too," I said. "I was a religion major."
"And he's got red hair, and he's really cute, and best of all"--she paused--"he's one of us."
One of us? She can't mean--
"Yes, he is. He has leukemia. Can you believe it? After teaching death and dying, he gets leukemia!"
I was at a loss for words.
"I've told him all about you, but he's a little reluctant." She shook her head, smiling at his silliness. "He said, 'Janie, leave me alone. I've got leukemia. I don't want to go on a date.'"
"Well, you know, if that's how he feels..."
"He's worried he might be a burden to you. I just said, 'Clarence, you let her be the judge of that.'"
"Oh, no, no. It's probably better if he decides."
"Really, he's doing pretty well. He's just a little florid from the chemo. And he gets winded when he goes up hills," she said. She was giving new meaning to the phrase, "You two have so much in common."
|Cancer humor is like the Zen laugh; it's a way of gathering back forces, a means of breathing in absurdity, darkness, and pain, and blowing them out in one great, joyous guffaw.|
There is no way this is happening, I thought. It was, but the date didn't. Clarence never called. Either he couldn't be prodded or he wasn't up for taking the hills. Or worse--I didn't really want to know how much.
Afterward, the whole thing struck me as funny. Cancer humor is like the Zen laugh; it's a way of gathering back forces, a means of breathing in absurdity, darkness, and pain, and blowing them out in one great, joyous guffaw. It is, finally, a form of power, laced with machismo. F--- you, death. I laugh at you.
It doesn't always translate across the divide, however, as I discovered when I tried to entertain my father with the story.
"This woman did what?" he said, appalled. This was the man who wasn't up yet to saying the word, much less hearing outtakes from the dating lives of cancer patients, especially not one who was his daughter.
"Yeah, and the guy had, like, leukemia," I repeated, laughing harder. His silence told me he thought I was cracking, not cracking up. Maybe I was. It wouldn't have been the last time cancer made me crazy.
From "The Red Devil: to Hell with Cancer--and Back," by Katherine Russell Rich. Copyright 1999 by Katherine Russell Rich. Excerpted by permission of Crown Publishers, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.