On Being Ill (A List of Six)

  1. Pain does not ennoble. When the writer Jenny Diski was told she had inoperable lung cancer, she told her husband, “Under no circumstances is anyone to say that I lost a battle with cancer,” she told him. “Or that I bore it bravely. I am not fighting, losing, winning or bearing.” So, begin by denying power to the conventional narratives attached to sickness. Pain will teach you about pain. Pain hollows you out to make room for itself. In this way it is like anxiety--anxiety of the body.
  2. Wheelchair: It's not when you first get in a wheelchair at the hospital because the insist on it, but when you tell the person by the door, "I'm going to need a wheelchair."
  3. Happiness: I am not unhappy. A couple of years ago my Zen teacher, on the day after a particularly tough teisho, came into the zendo & announced, "I really would like everyone to be happy!" Okay, Sensei, I am. Even now, with cancer.
  4. Hospitals are filled with working-class people working. The patients come & go, but the staff gets up every day and goes to work. It astonishes me that they can do what they do because patients are so fucking depressing. The even depress other patients.
  5. Waiting for test results: I have been given a general diagnosis & had one MRI scan, two CT scans & a biopsy, the later just yesterday. A friend emails, "I imagine that the waiting must be among the most painful parts of this . . . ." No, I don't think so. The days between right now & my appointment next week with my oncologist[1. "My Zen teacher, "my oncologist"--what a post-modern person I have become.] occupy a liminal space. Next week could be (relatively) good, or terrible. Once I know, I will know. And then I will have to act & be acted upon.
  6. Night Thoughts: Items one to five above are all very well, but after a pleasant day, I am awake at a quarter past midnight, when every small ache feels like a new blossoming of rebellious cells at a new location in my body. I'm not sweating, or anxious: I'm just thinking.

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.