My friend Jonathan, an American who has been teaching in Canada for some time now, has been experiencing the horrors of thyroid cancer … I’m not sure he’d use the word “horrors,” but he certainly wouldn’t say he was happy about it. In early December, he added a new wrinkle to his blog:
For some people, illness is an intensely private and personal matter. I have chosen the other route: being “out” about it in all the ways that a queer or trans person might be “out” about his and/or her sexuality. I’m not sure if it’s been a transformative experience for me (time will tell) but it certainly has been moving. The blogging will no doubt be a very public part of the coping or coming out process, but that’s what a blog is for, no?
I have found his subsequent posts to be based in kindness, kindness towards us, his readers, with whom he shares things we don’t usually talk about. I’m sure there are details he’s leaving out, things that are personal enough that they don’t need to be made public. But the progress of his treatment, about that he has been forthcoming, informative, funny, and, for those of us who read him, necessary. I realized some time ago that I have the misfortune of knowing too many people who are very good at dying … they humble me with their approach to death, but I wish they weren’t gone. Thankfully, Jonathan’s cancer is not life-threatening, but the same thing goes for him: he is very good at being sick, and humbles me with his approach to illness.
In his most recent post, he notes that “People who haven’t been through it imagine how they would or wouldn’t act.” I feel something more specific and, I admit, creepier: I wonder how I would or wouldn’t blog if I had cancer. I have no idea how I would act … I’m capable of anything from abject terror to utter nonchalance, I imagine. But how much would I tell you, my dear readers? This blog is, at its core, an attempt to, as the Pauline Kael quote atop every page explains, “write my memoirs” without actually writing my memoirs. I am known by my taste preferences. The kind of honesty Jonathan has offered is not something I practice much on this blog. I am usually one step removed from the honest moment.
Meanwhile, there’s Jonathan, making a difference just by writing about what is going on. Here’s the section from his latest post that inspired me to write today. I don’t often read something contemporary, from someone I know, that I’d slide right next to my favorite Camus quotations, but this one sure does fit:
There’s a certain seriousness and sanctimony to cancer language that is also debilitating. People have asked about or commented on my sense of humor through this thing and while I’ve managed to maintain it at least in this space, there are other times it has not been so funny … Still, there is something fundamentally and existentially absurd about the experience, both because cancer puts you in positions you didn’t imagine (there’s that mortality thing again) and because it doesn’t actually have a given cause or meaning. Especially in the US, but even here, I feel like there’s a way that people want the sick or disabled to be somehow responsible for their afflictions or morally elevated by them. But this is rarely the case … There is nothing I personally could have done to not get thyroid cancer or to save my now-MIA vocal nerve. Cancer has not arrived with a moral message of any kind, and yet the symptoms and the treatment certainly have their punishing dimensions. As far as I can tell, my suffering has no pre-given meaning except that which I make for it. So we’re in absurd and existential territory. And absurd things, like nurses backing away from me and iPhones in latex gloves, are kind of funny when you write about them in a certain way. And why not laugh at it?