Martha kept a breast cancer diary, and we published it as her memoir. The following is excerpted from her memoir My Eye Fell Into the Soup. Additional excerpts have been published.
Martha began writing a journal before I knew her, and she wrote consistently for the 31 years we were together. My own habit of writing a record of my life began in my early twenties—in 1970. We might have said, as did Anaïs Nin in the first volume of her published diary, “I needed to live, but I also needed to record what I lived.”
Sometimes, usually on the weekends, we would sit together in our living room to journal, morning coffee steaming on a low table between us, but most often we wrote separately as I was an earlier riser.
In the last years of Martha’s life, her writing time was likely to be at the Central Maine Medical Center’s Infusion Center in Lewiston, as she spent interminable hours receiving a weekly dose of some “chemical du jour.”
It is from that time that her journal could be called her breast cancer journal
The whole family journals
Our children, Zoé and Maxim, saw us writing, and it took little encouragement for them to take up journaling. It began when they were young. For Zoé, it came sooner than for Max as she learned the mechanics of writing at a younger age. (As homeschoolers, they acquired “school” skills during teachable moments. Max preferred climbing trees and creating snow forts to reading and writing. His teachable moments, when it came to literacy, occurred when he was slightly older.)
In our family, we always left our journals lying around. In this way, any of the four of us could pick ours up anytime to continue recording our life’s narratives. I am not aware of any incident of snooping in someone else’s journal because “you shouldn’t have left it around if you didn’t want me to read it!”
The privacy of the journal was an explicit, articulated agreement we all adhered to.
Speaking to Martha about this book
On August 16, 2008, a day that was to be Martha’s penultimate full day with me, she lay in the hospice bed with her eyes shut, but she was not asleep. It had become her habit to keep her eyes closed—I sensed it was perhaps to conserve her energy, and perhaps too, she no longer needed to see the outside world as much as she needed to gaze inwardly.
I sat on a rocker close to her on her right. The night before—the fifteenth—when I had gone home, I had asked myself what I needed to discuss with Martha if I were to survive her and be at peace with myself. While it was now clear that Martha would not continue to be with me long, I could not yet imagine a time without her, a time without her voice reaching out to me to offer sage counsel. “Denis, I was thinking…” How many times had she prompted me into action or induced me to hold back with that phrase!
That afternoon, as I sat next to her, her voice had not yet been silenced.
I had two questions that insisted on being asked. One will remain between Martha and me, but the other is important for you to know.
I asked her if I could use her journals to write a memoir about her illness and our experience of it.
“Yes,” she said, opening her eyes wide. “Perhaps it will help you to heal.”
Then, she smiled slightly. “You’ve got to remember that I often wrote to vent my anger or frustration. I hope you will read the journals with some sense that it was often therapy—not necessarily how I felt about you in the long run.”
“My journal’s got a lot of that, too,” I answered. How could we both not smile? In 31 years, there is a lot of venting necessary if two people are to stay together.
She looked at me, her lovely, blue eyes—the eyes I would soon not see anymore—penetrating into mine.
“I love you, and you love me. That’s all there is.”
“Yes,” I replied, and she closed her eyes again.
During the hours while she lay eyes shut or when she slept, those last days she was with us, during the days she was beginning to be gone from us even before she died, I sat next to her, often writing in my journal or meditating. It was not easy, during those days, to stay in the present, to resist running away to some other place in my mind, to some fantasy where my Martha was healthy and we had a long future together.
But, that day, the 16th of August, our future together was to be very brief.
She died early Monday morning, 12:15 AM on August 18, 2008. In the weeks that followed, I wrote in my journal and I spoke my memories into a digital recorder. The writing and the speaking assuaged the pain, but nothing could take it away.
In November, knowing that Martha was right that writing about our experience of her cancer would help me to deal with her illness and death, I opened one of her journals. Never in our 31 years together had I ever opened one.
The writing voice in her breast cancer diary was clear. Reading her journal, I felt again as if she were with me, and I were listening to her, but it was terrible to have her with me and not with me. I read only a few paragraphs before feeling the weight of loneliness pressing down on my chest, feeling how the air had suddenly been sucked out of the room. In those months, after her death, the air was often sucked out of me, leaving me frightened, desperate to fill my lungs with life.
Lest you think this is a metaphor, let me be explicit: in my grief, I used to feel the air disappear and I would gasp for breath.
I both wanted not to live without Martha and to live somehow this precious life that was still mine to live. I felt shame in surviving and a desperate longing to live.
After that first foray into Martha’s inner life, all that winter and the following spring, I put off reading the breast caner diaries. They were piled on a table in the bedroom Martha and I had shared. Sometimes I would touch one of them, place my hand on a cover or perhaps hold a journal book, but I would not allow myself to read what she had written.
How could I expose myself to having her so close and so far?
Creating a memorial booklet
Zoé, Maxim, and I held a memorial ceremony for Martha on August 22, 2009. I wanted to contribute something special to this event, and I knew instinctively what that had to be—a memorial booklet of her last months from her breast cancer diary.
It was early July—almost a year after her death—that I set to this task. Although anticipating the difficulty living in her words would continue to present, I began transcribing text. In this way, I was with her words without feeling their significance. I would not let them affect me. I was intent on merely transcribing.
But, of course, (surprise!) as I transcribed her journals, I found myself beginning to read them consciously. It was as hard a task as I had feared—and had tried to avoid. Once again, as in November, her literary voice, present and vivid in those pages, brought her to me so clearly that I would often break down, weeping. Being with her words was so traumatizing that, after a few days, I would have to take many days off—often more days than I had spent transcribing. Then, I would pick the task up again, knowing I wanted this booklet for the memorial service on August 22, 2009.
My Eye Fell Into the Soup is the title she gave to the painting on the cover of this book. One night, before she was diagnosed with the recurrence, she had a dream in which someone was stirring soup in a cauldron. That person’s eye fell out of its socket and into the soup. She was disturbed by the dream and could not extract meaning from it. The dream was strong, insistent. It would not let go of her.
Relying on Jung’s suggestion to stay with the dream, she decided to paint it using encaustics, a medium consisting of heated beeswax which she had grown to love. The painting done, she still had not arrived at a meaning. To stay with the dream longer, she hung the painting in our home and lived with it.
It would be many months before she understood what the dream was trying to tell her.
Making public Martha’s breast cancer diary
Martha had said, “If you think my journal can help other people to go through this experience, then, yes, make use of it.”
My Eye Fell In the Soup is not a prescription for how anyone else might live the experience well, but if it can help others to make decisions that are appropriate for them, then it will have succeeded.
These pages also offer one man’s experience of living with a woman who went through the cancer experience. It draws from both of our journals as well as from new composition which you will recognize as coming from the voice of the narrator who is trying his best to explain the context of the story as you go from one entry to another.
Perhaps this book will also help other men—and women—who accompany their loved one on a cancer journey. It is not easy to be with someone in this way, but then any commitment to love to the end—for better or for worse—never is.
Whether you are on a cancer journey or you are accompanying another person, I wish you first the gift of strength and courage and, if necessary, the gift of acceptance.
May we all eventually also know peace.
A memoir of Martha’s early life has been published as A Sugary Frosting.
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