Several months ago a friend in her 70s told us that her lymphoma had returned. She has had several battles with cancer, followed by bone marrow transplants, chemotherapy, Chinese medicine. She has congestive heart disease and an elderly mother with dementia and leukemia, and some days it seems like only sheer force of will keeps her moving forwards. The most recent round of chemo worked, in the sense that it got the lymphoma back under control. What people don’t always understand is that “in remission” is not “cured.” There is no “cure.” There is only a sleeping giant called “cancer” that may or may not reawaken before something else manages to kill you - old age, car accident, a tree falling on your head. You monitor your body and manage your symptoms the best you can, and sometimes you buy yourself more time, five years or ten or twenty or thirty. And sometimes you don’t.
A famous man committed suicide earlier this week. It was shocking that someone who was so funny, and so beloved, could be weighted down with so much pain that death seemed like the only choice left. And yet it was not shocking at all; he was open about his own troubles, and then I remembered that often the funniest people have the most demons, and they live with the hope that the laughter of the people around them can drown out the voices in their head that tell them, “you are not worthy of survival.” For these people who have those voices in their head, there will never be enough love, never enough laughter. Then I remembered, too, that depression and mental illness, like the heroin addiction and alcoholism that killed Philip Seymour Hoffman, are like cancer in that they are manageable if you are lucky but not something that can be cured if by “cured” you mean “completely eradicated from your body.” That shadow of the valley of death recedes and reappears at the edge of your vision, waiting.
I keep coming back to something that Marion Cunningham says to Ruth Reichl in TENDER AT THE BONE: “Nobody knows why some of us get better and others don’t.” This applies to so many things, cancer and mental illness and addiction. You can do all the right things - chemo and radiation and therapy and antipsychotics and rehab and yoga and macrobiotic diets that seem to be mostly consisting of seaweed. You can be positive and forward thinking and looking to the light and eternally hopeful. And you may still die sooner than you are ready for, certainly sooner than anyone who loves you is ready for. This is why I hate the language surrounding death and illness of any kind: it isn’t a battle you lose or win. It’s such bullshit. The body is at war with itself, no winners, no losers, only the understanding that each day is no guarantee of a tomorrow. Mike Daisey calls it “wrestling with the devil,” and he would know. How true it is, there are days when you are standing triumphantly on the belly of this beast, and there are days when you are flat on the mat with some asshole’s elbow on your throat.
Maybe some day those of us who wake in sunshine every morning, more or less, will understand what people who wake with demons shouting in their face go through to shout back even louder in order to get out of bed. The shame shouldn’t be in their feelings and daily struggles, but in our inability to comprehend their despair. Even then the only thing we can do is say, you are loved, you are loved, you are loved. And understand this: so often this is not going to be enough to pull someone back from the darkness.
A line by Joseph Conrad, an oft-repeated refrain in Salman Rushdie’s JOSEPH ANTON, comes to me: “You must live until you die.”