In the NY Times last week, writer Susan Gubar, who is living with advanced ovarian cancer, tells us about her “dark nights.”
How is this news? It indeed is, but news of another kind than we’re normally used to finding beneath a headline. It’s news from a bedroom. It’s news from the interior of a disquieted mind woken in the middle of the night. It’s news of the intensely personal psychological experience of imminent mortality. It’s a dispatch from a place no one wants much to contemplate much less enter. But I believe it’s news our souls need to be fully awake. Poetry provides that kind of news also, as William Carlos Williams (who was a doctor as well as a poet) so beautiful stated in a famous poem: It is difficult/to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there.
I can’t help but think that Williams was thinking about his patients as well as his readers when he wrote those lines. People do die miserably every day, or face the prospect of death, alone, with no one to witness their journey. People fear this as they age or fall ill. I’m thinking of how people seek out poems during the darkest times, as Joan Didion did after the sudden death of her husband (see her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking). I’m thinking of my writer-friend Tom, whose wife died of ovarian cancer years ago. I loaned him my copies of poet Donald Hall’s books about the loss of his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon. Tom kept those books for years. I don't know if or when he read them. Perhaps they were too painful, and at the same time, I hope, their existence reminded him that his own dark nights were not solitary. Similarly, Susan Gubar’s dark nights ask us to witness her journey, to at the same time to know that we’re not alone in ours. Others have gone before us, with grace, fully present.
It is a bright day where I sit contemplating dark nights, the sun splashing against the pale yellow shingled wall of a building, against the branches of fern trees, hibiscus and ti-plants and window-awnings painted dark green. I sit in shadow, on a plastic chair at a plastic table. The Nambu courtyard is my favorite place to work in Hawaii. Behind the tiny café, a door opens to a garden with narrow covered wooden walkways, like funky boardwalks in some remote Alaskan village. It’s a cool morning, and I wear a sweater. A gray-green lizard emerges from a gap between the window trim and the wall of the building. Myna-birds chark-chark in the palms, and the lizard jumps onto my table, watches me type. It’s a green-brown gecko with iridescent green eyes, the inside of its mouth pale peach. Now, astride a leaf, it turns a little more greenish. I watch its finely scaled skin expand below its underarms as it breathes. It hops to the railing, disappears around the corner. A crab spider bobs at the center of its web. At the web’s edges, there is one blonde hair and a few bundles of insect cached for later. The spider looks like a crumb of dried-up black bread. It sits motionless and content in the center of perfectly woven death-trap. It is morning in the land of the living. Sunlight roots out the murk of shadows. Things appear clear.
Susan Gubar’s dark night is familiar to me. She describes waking at 1 am, staring at the band of light across her ceiling (from a night light), troubled by the thoughts that wait there, the fears, regrets, the darkness we mostly outrun, chasing daylight. I can hear my older brother’s voice as I write this, chastising me for being too morbid, for dwelling too much in those places. I’ve learned a lot from that brother, how to spin a disappointing experience around to find its hidden bright face. Once, when I was in the midst of chemo, he and his wife drove Craig and me to the Bronx to visit my childhood neighborhood, along Fordham Road, in an old Italian neighborhood. But being Sunday, and the neighborhood still being Italian and Catholic, as it was when we lived there, the market where my mother shopped was closed, as well as my brother’s favorite Italian restaurant. We settled for a dimly-it, nearly empty joint with so-so fare. But my brother acted as though it were a five-star. I don’t remember what we ate, but I do remember his graciousness toward the waiters, his hearty consumption of everything on his plate, his proclaiming it all excellent. I used that trick with my step-kids when they were small and hungry and cranky. When he does that, plowing past hints of disgruntlement, I feel grateful and touched and also a little sad.
I remember another afternoon at the hospital. My brother had driven four hours from Connecticut in the middle of his work-week to take me to a chemo infusion. A lawyer, he had a case coming to trial, so he was planning to drive me back to the Cape and then turn around and head back to New York City that night. As I drifted to sleep during the infusion, he sat beside me typing madly on his computer. When the volunteers came around offering sandwiches and soup, he accepted with great enthusiasm, taking time with his choice. And when the oncologist came in to tell me that my red blood cell count was too low, that I’d need a blood transfusion, and that we’d be there for several more hours, I remember looking over to Andy with a sinking feeling. He glanced up from his computer, grinned, and gave me two thumbs up, as though it were the best news we could have. He stayed on the Cape that night, got up at 5 am to drive back to the city.
My brother is not a Pollyanna (I don't think a lawyer can be). I see his attitude as a conscious act of will, a resistance to pettiness and ingratitude. He grew up with the same dark-dwelling father as I did. He knows the consequences of viewing life as perpetual suffering, which was my father’s mantra. I recognize that lingering too much in the valley of the shadow is unhealthy for me, too. But shunning the valley isn’t an option either; at that edge between dark and light is the habitat of poetry. And a cancer diagnosis lands you squarely in that ecotone, that mixed-up thicket, life on one side, death on the other. I don’t find reading Gubar’s writing about her fears, her experience of the dark night disturbing, even though the thought of my cancer coming back in a terminal stage is my greatest fear. In fact, I find her words strangely reassuring. I am grateful to her for writing out of that place that I dread going. I am grateful to hear that lonely voice, to know that it is the voice of a woman fully alive, fully present, even with her fears, no matter how short her remaining time on earth. She still writes. And her voice is one of many crowding my own dark nights. There is an intense isolation to cancer and I imagine to any serious illness. I felt it when I was undergoing treatment, and when I was recovering from treatment, and now, when my fears rear up, and I stay silent, because expressing fear might dismay my loved ones or make people uncomfortable.
I saw that isolation in the tears leaking out of the harrowed eyes of Cloud, a man I know who is recovering from an excruciating ordeal of treatment for lymphoma that had morphed into leukemia. He sat with us at the kava bar the other night, and told us about what he’d been through. He held himself stiffly, as if he were looking out from some kind of straight jacket we couldn’t see. His voice didn’t break or falter; at one point the tears just trailed their slow way down the landscape of his face, like trickles of water across an arid plateau. There must be so many tears in there, pushing against his skin, a whole aquifer. I saw him the next day buying produce at the farmer’s market, out in the daylight, eyes hidden behind sunglasses, just like anyone. Perhaps all we need is for someone to bear witness, in the time it takes to converse over kava or tea. To really mean it when we ask “How are you doing?” To really mean we are willing to hear the truth. Perhaps that’s enough for the isolating shadows to pull back from our feet.
After cancer, the body is one big shadow-trigger. Every ache, every twinge. I tweaked a nerve in my lower back last Wednesday. My hip went into spasm right before a yoga class. I spent that hour and a half with tears not leaking but pouring down my face. I couldn’t bend forward to grasp my ankles. I couldn’t do boat pose or canoe. Even lying flat on my back in corpse hurt. I felt damned sorry for myself. A couple days later, I asked Craig to massage my sacrum. I bent forward grasping the edge of a table, stretching my back out. As he worked his thumbs into the muscles along my spine, I started sobbing. A well of terror and grief -- the unsaid -- gushed from that place my body, the place that holds up my spine, my base, my bedrock.
Sometimes out of the blue I turn to Craig and blurt, “I still can’t believe I had cancer.” Even the word cancer feels dissociated from me, blank and white-washed and impotent.
Once, my mother broke a glass in the kitchen sink, while washing dishes, and a splinter imbedded deep in her knuckle. She didn’t know it was in there. The cut healed, but the knuckle continued to throb. In my memory, I see her holding the thumb as the splinter breaks out and emerges. A tiny glittering piece of shrapnel, a hidden pain made suddenly visible.
I see why my childhood Catholicism is effective. If you believe that this earth is a temporary dwelling place, that our real home is elsewhere, then it’s easier to let it go. It’s easier to either dwell on life as suffering, as my father did, or to live only for the moment, only for the light: “life is short,” “carpe diem” and all that jazz. If this is our true home, what does it mean, this short time we have here? Reproduction? Leaving a legacy? Making a name? Me, I don’t know what’s on the other side. I trust it’s the right place to be, whether another world, or absorption into this one, body into earth into water into breath into molecule. And here, right now, is the right place to be, at this green plastic table. Over the years, I’ve heard my optimist brother quote “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” the villanelle by Dylan Thomas: “Rage against the dying of the light.” It's not about going gentle, for me, but fiercely awake. “The darkness around us is deep,” wrote another poet, William Stafford. To be willing to look that into the darkness without flinching, and to tell of it, as Susan Gubar does, is an act of courage, and a gift. “I have been here,” I imagine she tells us, in that place you fear. "It is not what you think. It a road, and it is the same road we all travel."