In the weeks following my cancer diagnosis, I took great refuge in my work. Classes and meetings and paperwork and concrete tasks brought me some control and power. These activities made sense in a chaotic world. Effect followed cause. This part of my life was bounded and predictable.
Colleagues were warm and supportive, much more so than I anticipated. I don’t recall feeling either pitied or taken for granted. One colleague even held me one morning when sobs overwhelmed me.
I am grateful for working at a place where I had a role that was empowering and where the people around me cared. These people were part of the bridge that carried me over.
I am especially grateful for one particular colleague, Matt, who gave me the gift of long conversations, both abstract and personal, about cancer as a disease and a metaphor, about the role of illness in literature and in life.
We academics like to talk and we like to analyze. We like to tease out meaning and push ideas to their limits. Sometimes we do this just because we enjoy it, and not because we’ve drawn final conclusions or made ultimate judgments.
For me these conversations are part of a process of coming to terms with complexity. I am not seeking “answers” so much as trying on possible answers to see how they fit. And, if ever I’ve faced complexity, it was cancer.
I’m writing this to thank Matt, to praise him, particularly, for being a bridge that carried me over. He is leaving to take a full-time position in another state. I couldn’t be happier for him and his family. But, I feel deep sadness, too.
The conversations Matt and I shared were unlike any I had with family or friends or with my support group. They were academic explorations mixed in with personal and vulnerable sharing on both our parts.
With Matt, I could take cancer out of my body and look at it, explore it, re-frame it, and critique it. He introduced me to Susan Sontag’s work and gave me so many new ways of thinking about illness.
Human beings need so much care and tending, whether we’re ill or not. We need food and warmth, hugs and places to cry. We need to be vulnerable and free to worry in places where we feel safe. Sometimes we need to externalize and rationalize to protect ourselves from vulnerability.
There have been so very many people who’ve cared and tended me over my life time, each in their own way. To Matt, I say thank you for talking with me about books and ideas, for showing me how these relate so closely to who I am, and for being a bridge that carried me over a terrible time.
Travel safely to your new and better place.
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