by Susan Gubar
Although we reside sixty miles apart and will never visit each other’s homes, if I am frightened or fraught by a fever or ache, I email her with confidence that she will advise me. I know next to nothing about Alesha’s personal life, but I feel deeply grateful and connected to her.
Passionate attachments exist between cancer patients, too. A person I hardly knew now resides in my heart. A colleague a few years younger than I at another state university, she had produced scholarship I admired. But we had met only a few times before she confronted the cancer with which I struggle. Why should having the same disease bond people? Every week, I looked forward to our Sunday phone conversations about teaching and parenting and debilitating treatments.
After a recurrence and bouts of depression, my friend overcame her resistance and embarked on another cycle of chemotherapy. Yet, at the start of April, she said on the phone, “I am divesting myself. I can’t endure another miserable winter like this one.” I was glad she had found a palliative care physician, but her decision to give away her scarves deeply unsettled me. No, it tore me up.
While I considered various yarns for a warm cowl she might enjoy wearing, I realized that, as with Alesha, I would probably never know the color of my friend’s coat. Yet, we closed our weekly phone conversations with heartfelt attestations of devotion. How strange that the evils of cancer beget the blessings of such ardor.
When I delivered the sage green stole to Alesha, she opened the recycled Macy’s box and exclaimed, “Oh, it’s an infinity scarf” as she looped it around her neck and then pulled up the back to make a hood.
Thinking of that conversation, of casting on as well as casting off, and of the coming fair weather, I went to my closet and chose a paisley silk sent decades ago by my collaborator and a lightweight pashmina brought to the hospital by a well-wisher. At my desk, I addressed a mailer and then found a card in which I wrote my message:
“Darling, I am divesting myself of these scarves to invest them with you so you can divest and invest for us both. Love, Susan”.
Only weeks later, when my friend’s chemotherapy failed and she enlisted the aid of hospice, did I find the words that convey what I really had wanted to communicate. A “Prayer” by Galway Kinnell expresses, much better than I could, my aspiration for her and for myself.
Whatever what it is is what I want.
Read these words aloud to yourself and slowly, I would have implored my undergraduates (before doing so myself more than once, even as they rolled their eyes).
Kinnell, urging himself toward acceptance, encourages us to pause, to settle on all three iterations of the word is. He wants to embrace existence, its joys and its miseries. The final phrase, tinged with stubborn defiance, asks at the very least for the recompense of hard-won assent. Admittedly, his mantra remains challenging for those of us living or dying with cancer and for those upon whom we depend. Yet, I cherish the moments when it wraps me in changes.
Oh, beloved friend: Though you were not given the time you needed, though I realize how bereft your husband and children and friends feel, I hope the transient peace these words instill in me finally enveloped you, as I now struggle to endure your absence from the world your presence graced.
But you, with your keen sense of injustice, might have wanted me to close by railing against the grievous losses inflicted by the detestable disease and inadequate treatments we decried together, and honoring your bright spirit, so I fervently do.
Susan Gubar revolutionized the study of literature by co-authoring the classic feminist text The Madwoman in the Attic in 1979, followed by four powerful anthologies on women’s literature. An acclaimed author and distinguished retired professor of English, Susan has recently turned her fierce talents to writing about ovarian cancer in her Memoir of a Debulked Woman (2012), and in Living with Cancer blogs for The New York Times.
Susan received the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award of the National Book Critics Circle, along with her long-time collaborator Sandra M. Gilbert, in 2012. Her influence as a truth-teller continues to grow.
The New York Times