Five years ago I was between my first and second chemotherapy infusions. My friend Laura was about to arrive from Oakland. Together we would see a snake skin on a dappled path, and with Cara we would cut off my hair and leave little bundles of it all over the city. We invented a new ritual of intersections and strip-mall-bar mailboxes, a spell for whatever, a spell for laughing together and that the world could be more than this, cast it while I was newly shorn and aching from Neulasta and wearing a silk leopard print dress from Goodwill. I wrote in my journal about nurses in American flag scrubs, wrote "I don't want to die of the mortal stupidity of my native land." And I didn't. I knew I wanted this thing -- life -- and knew I would not ignore this thing -- death. I also wrote "I want to think about death outside of the cage of statistics." And I did, and I didn't die, but to live cost a lot. I once had breasts, hair, sex hormones, a quick mind, vitality, a body I experienced as pleasure. Now I don't. To die, however, would have cost a lot, too, cost poems and books and adventures, cost my daughter her mother. It was a toss up. Then the coin landed on the side where the dishes must still be done.
Because I know that people who have been through cancer often know this and people who have not had cancer often don't know this, I will write it down plainly : I've survived five years, almost all of it disabled with exhaustion and mental fog, and most of it in pain, mutilated. Opportunities drifted past me, too tired to reach out for many of them, and friends drifted past and away from me, too, me too exhausted to explain how exhausted. Also in that pain and exhaustion and grief and disfigurement, and also among all the parts of life like going to work and raising a child and falling in love and out of love and getting on airplanes and dealing with bureaucrats and losing my parents and planting a garden and having some strokes of luck and disappointing 83% of anyone who writes me an email, I wrote a book called The Undying, which is finally in the world.
The Undying is a book about being upset by the world, and it is a book that is possibly itself upsetting. I worry that the people who need and want all the pink-ribbon platitudes might hate it, might hate what they perceive as my ingratitude. I know, for some people, I didn’t have cancer in the right way. But even the wrong can write, and so we often do. If you think you might need something agreeable, maybe don't look beyond the book’s cover. But if you don't need or want that, if you get angry at the way this world is when you know there are other ways it could be, this book might be okay for you.
I'm done. I want to peel cancer off me like cicadas peel off their old paper suits, to leave it on a tree branch and take off singing into the dusk. If you know anything about cicadas, you might think this is a double-edged fantasy. You also, though, might know this story from Socrates:
When the Muses were born and song was created for the first time, some of the people of that time were so overwhelmed with the pleasure of singing that they forgot to eat or drink; so they died without even realizing it.
It is from them that the race of the cicadas came into being; and, as a gift from the Muses, they have no need of nourishment once they are born. Instead, they immediately burst into song, without food or drink, until it is time for them to die. After they die, they go to the Muses and tell each one of them which mortals have honored her.
If I could join any club, it would be one for those on this earth who sing until death -- Cicadas, Violetta, John Donne. To sing until death is a form of life in which all remembering is forward-facing: we can never forget what should exist -- art’s collective "and yet" to the world. The thing we always remember is there is so much left to be done.
I would rather have written anything else, but I wrote this book instead. I wrote from a debt of love and rage, thinking if I wrote a book with as much truth as I could get in it as beautifully as I could and doing all I could to make it available to the most people, I might be able to start paying back the world. So I lived, in data's dreams and cancer's nightmare and my own, dreamed of life and dreamed up a book and dreamed of a time when I could leave that book and write all the others. Already my wildest dreams are having their wildest dreams -- last week a snake left its skin on the pavement near my house, making, when it did so, both a finality and a promise.