I’ve done the maths- for my most recent bout of treatment, which lasted 166 days, I spent 63 (in all, not consecutively) having chemotherapy. If you want to know what having chemotherapy is like, here’s how Christopher Hitchens described it in Mortality, his posthumously published collection of notes on dying:
Myself, I love the imagery of a struggle. I sometimes wish I were suffering in a good cause, or risking my life for the good of others, instead of being a gravely endangered patient. Allow me to inform you, though, that when you sit in a room with a set of other finalists, and kindly people bring a huge transparent bag of poison and plug it into your arm, and you either read or don’t read a book while the venom sack gradually empties itself into your system, the image of the ardent soldier or revolutionary is the very last one that will occur to you. You feel swamped with passivity and impotence; dissolving in powerlessness like a sugar lump in water.
63 days feeling like a dissolved sugar lump, then, and an additional 40 days or so dealing with the horrendous after-effects, of trying to reconstitute myself back into human form. A 100 days of feeling awful for the 66 remaining days of feeling not-awful.
It’s on one of those not-awful days that I wandered into Foyles on Charing Cross Road and chanced upon a sizeable hardback called The Most of Nora Ephron.
The cover is unimaginative, like some of her movies- I always wondered, watching those syrupy Christmas montages in her films, why she didn’t inject more of her famed tart intelligence into them-but the contents are a joy, and the book has found a treasured place on my bedside table.
Nora Ephron once wrote about her alma mater Wellesley College:
I was still amazed at the amount of Christian charity that school stuck us all with, a kind of glazed politeness in the face of boredom and stupidity. Tolerance, in the worst sense of the word…
Ephron was a Jo. I thought I would grow up to be a Jo too, but I’ve been stuck with being a Beth because that’s what people expect people who are dying of cancer to be. “Glazed politeness in the face of boredom and stupidity” was essentially Beth’s motto, and was grudgingly adopted by me for quite a while, but I am tiring of it now. The trouble is that most of the stupidity I encounter comes in the guise of good wishes- whenever people tell me that “this too shall pass” or “you just have to get through this”, for example, forgetting that “this” is going to go on for as long as I’m alive, and what I will be getting through to is my death. It seems churlish to point this out, just as it seems churlish to remind people when they tell me to “get well soon” that getting well is a medical impossibility for me now, and to remind those who insist that I “fight on” that the fighting is over and I’m now a prisoner-of-war of the side that lost. It doesn’t matter how ignorant their remarks are, runs the Beth school of thought, the main thing is that they’re thinking of me, and for that I should be grateful, and not correct people when they’re wrong and I’m right (always a challenge for me).
Only I get the feeling that they’re not thinking of me-they’re thinking of themselves and their own discomfort with the subject of dying. Or they’re just not thinking at all. I already have to face the indignity of approaching the end of my life just as my peers are starting out on lives of their own; to be grateful for all the frightful nonsense that people spout at me along the way is an expectation too far, I have come to believe. There could be people out there who enjoy being patted on the head and told how brave they are, but I find it patronising, and I don’t even think it’s true. I’m not being modest-it is human nature to adapt as best as one can when presented with a set of unalterable circumstances, which is what I’m doing. I had no choice-there was nothing I could do but get on with it.
Going back to the 100-days-for-66 ratio, it means that the price of one day of feeling well-not even being well, just feeling well, what would have been an unremarkable day in my pre-cancer life-is one and a half days of suffering. None of this is for the long term, I should add-the pain I’m undergoing is not for a healthier future, those days of chemo are not going to pay off in the long run. They are only so I can snatch some individual days of contentment here and there. So when I tell people I’m due for more chemotherapy in the coming months, and they tell me to “stay strong”, they’re missing the point completely. I know I have to stay strong. But what they never think of, or refuse to think of, and which I struggle with a lot, particularly on the awful days, is – for what? The price of those not-awful days is going to inch higher; sooner or later the answer is going to that question is going to be “not much”, and then after that, “nothing at all”.
“Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim”, runs one of Ephron’s most famous lines, taken from a commencement speech at Wellesley. The people who, whenever I bring up the news of my illness, talk over it or around it or immediately leap to dish out advice or to cheer me up might think that they’re helping me be more heroic, but it’s the opposite- they’re treating me like a victim, someone who doesn’t have the intelligence to see things as they are and who needs to be constantly distracted from the reality of what is happening to her. I’ve decided that it’s best to shut these conversations down instead of enduring them, even if it means losing some well-wishers in the process. In any case, I reckon that this is the time of my life when I can get by with the least number of friends.
Ephron herself died of cancer two years ago, which she hid for years from all but her family. One of her eulogists theorises that she did so because:
She hated complaining. She did not want to become her cancer. She did not want her illness to change the weather of any room she entered. She did not want to spend every day fending off an onslaught of concerned questions. She didn’t want to be thought of as a lesser person. She did not want friends to see her falling apart.
Or, more simply, she didn’t want to deal with the stupidity of it all. Glazed politeness was not her style. It was her way of remaining the heroine, until the very end.