I can state with supreme, complete confidence that I'm supremely, completely tired of reading warm and moving and inspiring memoirs written by famous people who have come down with cancer, not because the books are bad, because they're not, but rather because they're good, and inspiring, and invigorating, and yet most of their authors passed away the same year that their works reached the shelves. They didn't make it. They lost. The cancer got them. (Cancer does that. It gets people.)
Gilda's Radner, the Saturday Night Live star, wrote a book called It's Always Something, and it was published posthumously after her death from ovarian cancer. It's sad and funny and full of life, and it came out after her death.
Liz Tilberis, former editor of British Vogue, wrote a book called No Time To Die: Living With Ovarian Cancer, and it's sad and funny and full of life, and it came out a year before her death.
Evan Hunter, the brilliant mainstream novelist and screenwriter (under his own name the author of The Blackboard Jungle and the screenplay of Hitchcock's classic The Birds) and even more brilliant crime novelist (under the name 'Ed McBain') wrote a book called Let's Talk: A Story of Cancer and Love, detailing his struggles with cancer of the larynx. It's sad and funny and full of life, and it was released only months before his death.
You see the pattern.
I'm not the one with the cancer, and it's something I rarely blog about because, really, who wants to read a blog about cancer? I mean, shit, I sure as hell don't, so why would you? But considering cancer is pretty much most of what I've been thinking about for the past two years, I figured, fuck it, let `er rip.
The thing is, these books lie. Not the books themselves, but the effect of the books, the ripple effect, the concentric rings that seem to indicate that anyone and everyone with cancer will slip through the water and keep on falling.
That's the point: They lie because they're so warm and wonderful and infused with the delicate tapestry of life, and yet their authors' ultimate fates makes one think that the cancer was waiting, waiting, waiting until the most ironic, opportune moment to strike hardest and strike last, but that can't be the case, because how many people have cancer, and are living with cancer, and surviving with cancer?
In the States, about 1, 300, 000 people will be diagnosed with cancer every year. That's not a typo. That's a hell of a lot of people. (Or, as Burgess Meredith would say in Rocky II: "A hell of a lot.") And that's just in America. How many people in the world have it? Glad you asked. Over 24, 000, 000. Twenty-four million. With more being diagnosed every, single, day.
So I realized: the books lie, in the sense that their authors' outcomes are both tragic and anomalous. Because the writers of those wise and moving books died, quite soon after, or before, their books were published -- but so what? There's 24, 000, 000 people living with the disease around the world. (And I stress 'living'.) Hardly any of them have ever, or will ever, write books about it. And they're still here. I just don't see them, and I don't read their stories.
Most people don't think about death every day, I don't think, but cancer forces you to, and it telescopes life, and it makes you realize that a lot of the nonsense we strive for and look for and long for is somewhat redundant and random. When you think about death a lot, life becomes all the more vivid. The good and the bad. The messy and the sleek.
I wish for once the bookstores were flooded with books by people with cancer who are still here, alive, working and shopping and trying to figure out how to work the remote control, because that's what people with cancer do: they live their lives like everybody else. And maybe there are a lot of books like that; I don't know. It just seems like the celebrities get all the press, and their books seem to be the ones that are eerily timed to coincide with their own deaths.
Sometimes I'm on a train, and I'll see somebody, anybody, a random person, and I'll wonder: Do they have cancer? They might. Or their sister does. Or their brother. Or their grandfather. I mean, damn, 24, 000, 000 people in the world got some form or another of the disease. And every day more and more folks are joining this not-at-all-exclusive club. ("Come on in! The more the gloomier!") So I look at the businessman or the schoolgirl and think: Maybe they've got it. Maybe it's there, growing inside of them, but they don't know it.
A morbid thought, but shit, if cancer isn't morbid, what the hell is?
And yet it's not. Not really. Because, if you think about it, what does cancer make us fear? The big 'd', death. And why do we have that fear? Because cancer makes it seem as if death is closer. Approaching. Gathering speed like a bullet train.
But death is all around us, all the time, and we start dying the moment we start breathing, and so why do we forget that? Life marches on, and we pretend that it's not going where we all know where it's going.
So what we're really talking about here is truly a matter of momentum. Cancer tends to accelerate our own fears of mortality. That's all. It makes the hey-everything's-going-good-I've-got-it-all-figured-out-pass-the-chips certainty of life come grinding, screeching, shrieking to a halt. (Cancer's momentum can do that.)
But I think that there's something, if not exactly good, at the very least mildly illuminating this sudden, almost debilitating paralysis. You're forced to reconsider life, and its values, and how you should start to prioritize your own do's and don't's. You see that life can turn on a dime, and that to think otherwise is to hold onto the blessed ignorance of a child. You begin to understand the absurdity of a world where American Idol's Simon Cowell can make thirty million dollars (U.S.) a year simply by entertainingly putting other people down. (Not counting the other thirty-eight million dollars (U.S.) he makes from doing a similar job on Britain's X-Factor talent show.)
The question remains: How can Simon Cowell, and all of his his fortune, and cancer, and all of its horrors, exist in the same world? (Science-Fiction writer Philip K.Dick once wondered a similar thing while reading the children's classic The Wind in the Willows and hearing that John Lennon had been shot -- how can those two events possibly coincide? But they do.) Grappling with these nonsensical things, you can better understand, dimly, that life sometimes has its own erratic plans, both absurd and alarming, and that yours, in turn, must change. Now. Immediately.
As 24, 000, 000 people around the world realize.
(I don't, of course. Not really. Again, I'm not the one with the cancer, and I feel somewhat silly writing about it. You can't understand what you haven't got. Take everything with a grain and a shaker full of salt. These thoughts are simply those of somebody who has been around the disease a bit in the past two years. I'm extrapolating, basically, trying to get a handle on the slippery unhandable nature of the beast. I'm failing miserably to do so, I think, but I will keep trying.)
So, in summary, these are the thoughts that sometimes swirl in my head: a lot of people have cancer; this is not right; Simon Cowell makes too much money, despite his undeniable entertainment value; and the fact that cancer and Cowell exist, together, is absurd and ridiculous. It's proof of the universe's madness. The untimely deaths of numerous writers only months after their books are published detailing their disease is another sign that something is askew in the fabric of the cosmos. Which is a long-winded way of saying that I don't, understand, anything. (Which you might have guessed by now.)
And yet the fact that millions around the world live with the disease, live with it, live with it, and deal with the disease, deal with it, deal with it, refuse to give in to its persistent advances, gives me a glimmer of hope, which is more than enough.
For cancer is but a microcosm and distillation of the fears that ground us all. As I said, it's life, speeded up and shoved in our face. And if one can live with that ultimate fear, that impending rush, and grapple with it, gripping it in a headlock as best as one can (and possibly even giving it a noogie), and then even move forward, step by cautious step, than perhaps that says something about us as humans, about us as a species. Life is fucked and the world is unfair and cancer arrives with a random, vicious glee, but we go to work and pay the bills and do what has to be done and thus tellingly, in our own small way, inform our ultimate maker that no, no, no, we will meet another day, certainly, but not today, motherfucker. Get out. I'm shutting the door to you. Go away. Not today. Not today. Not today. There's somebody else at the door, so step aside. There's a cake waiting to be baked. There's a book waiting to be read. There's a lesson that needs to be taught. The humdrum bullshit of life, humming its glorious hum. Perhaps it's enough.
So step aside, you cold and heartless beast. It is chilly outside, almost frigid, and there are friends ringing the doorbell, and we must answer it, now, before it's too late, before night falls and the dusk descends. We must invite them inside, where the room is warm and the lights are bright.