Martha Blowen, my partner in life and in work, died on August 18, 2008, from metastasized breast cancer. The following is from collated excerpts of cancer diary entries we both kept at the time. (Before she passed away, she gave me permission to share her entries.)
The memoir is called My Eye Fell Into the Soup, after a dream in which one of her eyes fell into a cauldron. She later interpreted this to mean she was not paying attention to her health. (This is written about elsewhere.) As with most people, I suppose, the cancer diagnosis was a shock.
In these cancer diary entries, the italicized excerpts are hers: the others, mine.
November 22, Wednesday — Longing for the past
I had told Martha that I could not endure getting through this without the support of our children. And now Zoé and Maxim are here to support Martha—and me. It feels so right to share this with them.
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How fast the years have gone by when they were young and we were a family together in this house! Now they live hundreds of miles away from us and from each other. I miss that time. It was easy to know who I was then. The obligations were clear. What had to be done was obvious. Our kids were growing up into the future.
I suppose my obligations and my “what has to be done” are also clear now, but the future does not seem bright.
We will come through this, won’t we! Martha will be all right, won’t she?
I long for the past. Où sont les neiges d’antan?
[A line from François Villon, A 15th-century French poet. Translation: “Where are the snows of yesteryear? He is expressing regret for the past.]
November 23, Thursday — Celebrating Thanksgiving with cancer
Today is Thanksgiving, but since Molly has already left (Max is back from bringing her to the bus) and Alain will not be here until tomorrow evening, we have decided to put off our celebration until Saturday.
Maxim is planning the meal and will be our chef. He has gone on an internet cooking site and has made a menu. This evening, he will start the soup stock. I am relieved not to be occupied with preparing a meal. I’m not good at it—perhaps because I don’t particularly enjoy cooking. I don’t linger over a recipe—I just go for the finished product. Nutritious is my goal, not tasty. Max will be more careful.
I am grateful Maxim is taking over from Denis. He enjoys the process more than Denis ever would. He’s more like me in that respect. Earlier this afternoon, as I lay in the bedroom, I could hear him moving around in the kitchen. When I asked him what he was doing he said he was marinating some legumes. Our big meal is two days away and already he is planning for it.
I prepared so many meals in that space for so many occasions! Cooking is a process that I have often enjoyed. I don’t always follow a recipe—most of the time I don’t.
Today, as I am comforted by hearing Max work in the kitchen, I am also unsettled by the thought: “Will I be able to eat, keep the food down?” We will be together. That seems important. Even if I can’t eat, I will feed myself on our togetherness.
Last year I did not know that this year I would be riddled with cancer at Thanksgiving and kekeping what increasingly seems like a cancer diary. I still trusted Dr. Ackerley then to help me. I can’t help but think, “She was not worthy of my trust.” Beyond that, I also wonder, “Why did I trust her at all? It was my health, not hers, that was at stake. My life!”
November 24, Friday — Cooking for Martha
Where did Maxim learn to enjoy cooking? All day, he has started different dishes that will be finished tomorrow. I am amazed at his skill. Where did he pick this up? When he lived with us, I don’t remember his cooking much. Perhaps he absorbed something from Martha? It was certainly not from me.
Alain called to say that he would leave tomorrow morning early rather than do the trip after work in the dark. He felt the evening travel would be too tiring. So, he will be here only on Saturday afternoon.
November 25, Saturday — Making meaning of cancer
We were surprised to hear someone coming up our driveway last night. It was bedtime and we were getting ready to go to sleep. “Who could be here at this time of night?” we asked ourselves as we turned the front and side porch lights on. Soon enough, Alain was at our side door! He had changed his mind about waiting until Saturday to come. He must have been tired because it was fairly late but he said he was all right and the trip had not been stressful for him.
Molly is back from her mother’s up North. Maxim finished his sumptuous Thanksgiving repast—a lovely, delicious, copious meal. I am amazed at his ability to coordinate and execute the whole process. It all came together at the right moment for us to sit and enjoy it.
This meal was a lovely gift to Martha and me, Zoé and Alain, and Molly. This is our family now, and sharing this time has made the holiday more bearable for me. I think it has for Martha, too.
Dr. E’s phrase “serious burden of disease” keeps flashing through my consciousness. What if Martha doesn’t make it? Not this month or in a few months but after months and months of throwing up and pain?
It’s impossible to miss that Doctor E has no enthusiasm for her role. When I coach people, I cheer them on, telling them that they can succeed at writing their memoir. Sometimes I am appalled at their low skill level, at the shallowness of the insight into their lives. In spite of this, I cheer them on—“You can do it!” This “faking it until they make it” stance works! I have seen many times how something is triggered for these writers—is it that I have given them permission to believe in themselves?—and s/he begins to surprise me. I’m sure they begin to surprise themselves.
The doctor has no sense of this function that is available to her if she only were to reach for it and make it hers! It would make a difference for us.
In times such as these, life seems totally “in my face.” I do not need to ask of it what it wants. I do not ask myself what I should do. But…
How long can life be lived with this tension, at this edge? How long before focus shatters under the strain? Before attention can no longer be riveted and begins to detach from the present? (Isn’t that what we call “denial”?)
Paying attention to what is most immediately important is what these days are about, but it doesn’t feel to me that this resolves the ultimate issue of making meaning of this crazy experience.
Martha said she is keeping cancer diary, and I suppose I am too.
Being with Martha day by day is the present’s call to making meaning with cancer.
NB: More cancer diary entries are available. Click here.
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