I carried one folder. Inside this folder I kept the loose leaf collection of the awkward stories I wrote and let no one see. They were halting, haunting and very likely unfleshed. At the time I thought writing could only be an organic process – an unplanned and unsupervised ride powered by some punch-drunk muse.
The stories were universally dark… about suicide pacts, deadly car accidents, people wasting away with horrible diseases. If I had known what Goth or Emo meant, I might have found a niche. Perhaps not… I was horrified by the nightmare highway my muse continually chose. I was afraid and fascinated by my own propensity for darkness. It was manageable, however, because no one else knew.
It was eighth grade. That was the year terrible things began to happen. A classmate, already socially shunned and ridiculed, found out that his mother died during the school day. He disintegrated before our eyes into a mass of howls. That same year another classmate’s obese sister was found dead. There were rumors; she’d overdosed on diet pills, she’d had a heart attack, she’d choked on a sandwich, her brother killed her with emotional abuse. I felt I knew the truth then. These horrible things happened because I wrote them.
I remember so well the feeling that the events around me were like a camera’s iris, closing into tighter focus. I was choking inside that aperture like it was a 360 degree guillotine. Now I see that my brain was ready for all of it. I was an open soul, begging to be trod on and tried. I didn’t create the events; they blazed inward, highlighting pre-existing sensitivities. It was as though I had an acute sunburn in the winter time and was utterly surprised when dishwater scalded me.
I think of this today because my vocabulary of this life has expanded once more and opened me to new sensitivities. Where before I thought of cancer as a general, unfathomable disease, I can now hear the word cancer across a crowded subway train and it sets my brain reeling. I think of the women who call me at work begging for an earlier surgery. I think of the wheelchair-bound patients in the elevator with their wigs askew and their fragile, bare ankles. I think of how a nurse talked of one of her patients, how he already smelled like death.
So at my brother’s wedding my ears twitched open to the family friend, the woman we call “Aunt” and whose husband we call “Uncle.” Her cancer, I hadn’t known, was one I deal with daily. She asked me if I could pull strings to have her seen at Mass General. I told her, honestly, that I’m new there, and I have no idea. I didn’t want to discuss it further. I hated the immediacy of knowing the possibilities.
And now, a month later, another family friend was claimed by cancer. I saw the
area code on my work phone but it didn’t click until halfway through my, “This is Jo, how can I help you.” My dad told me to call my mother tonight. Our old neighbor died after a long and strenuous fight. I asked about the kind of cancer, how long it’s been going on (and no one told me). She had a gynecologic cancer, the kind I deal with. She had metastases in her lungs. New York
Is it possible I was so self-involved before that I never noticed that the women I love on this earth are dying? Is there some energy in the world that draws these coincidences together? I want to believe that it has to do with this sensitivity, like the honing of a musical skill. I can hear the pitch and color of the word cancer in its full spectrum now. It existed before I could hear it and won’t stop its cacophonous echo now that I can.