Five years ago I started writing this blog to exercise my essay writing muscles. I wanted to experiment with voice and tone, with different topics. To think about my imagined audience. Why was I writing and about what and to whom?
Virtually every month I posted a short essay. The blog kept me writing when other things consumed my thoughts and time, things like student papers and committee work, emails and groceries. From this ongoing practice, longer, more complex essays emerged, and I sent them to publications. Ten appeared in journals, including one that was named a notable essay of 2015 in Best American Essays.
And then I stopped writing. Because someone turned this little snow globe that is my life upside down and shook it. Not someone. Something. My love, my partner, my wife — the woman who travels with me — found a lump near her knee that turned out to be cancer.
On February 23, a doctor called to tell Arline that the mass on the MRI looked malignant. Two weeks later, a different doctor called with the biopsy results. He gave the mass a name: myxofibrosarcoma, intermediate, stage 2.
In the four months since then, the only writing I’ve done is in my journal. I have read and read: articles in journals like Lancet Oncology and Medical Molecular Morphology. Blogs left behind by those who wrote and survived, by those who wrote and didn’t. Posts on random chat boards; posts on private Facebook groups. But I haven’t been able to read a book.
And I haven’t been writing because I’ve been going with Arline to appointments, to MRIs and CT scans, to a PET scan in a city an hour away, to some of her twenty-five sessions of radiation. I didn’t write when spending three nights with her in the hospital after the first surgery in May or five nights after the second surgery in June. I wasn’t writing when I went to my own therapy appointments and caregiver support group meetings.
But mostly I haven’t been writing because this turn of events has left me wordless. Everything seems to be coming at me — explanations, diagnoses, pathology reports, test results — and the only things leaking out are tears.
What topics are there to write about now? Only cancer. Who would I be writing to and why? I’m not sure.
But something happened after the first surgery. After several months of not being able to concentrate long enough to read a book, I found myself reading something besides medical studies again. As Arline napped, I read comedian W. Kamau Bell’s book about his life, sent to Arline by Karen Maeda Allman, our friend who works at Elliott Bay Book Company. I think what happened was this: my attention narrowed to what needed to be done in this moment. I needed to wash the morning’s coffee mugs. To open a can of soup. To tighten the Velcro straps of her leg brace. Arline needed me to give her a daily injection of blood thinner. To record the times she took pain medications. To hand her the phone she’d left charging on the table.
My gaze dropped from the uncertain future — its terrifying fog — to this certain moment: a bowl of pears, sun setting on the library bookcase, a drawing of a bunny left by a granddaughter. With my focus tethered to this moment, just this one right here, I could read stories again and maybe tell them. To you. Because why? Because this is what I need to do.
I’m going to try to write blog posts again. They will be short. It feels as if, when I raise my eyes to the future, I risk turning to a pillar of salt. So I’ll keep my eyes down, low to the ground. Plots will be foreshortened. Ruminations kept to a minimum. This is how we live now that we know what we didn’t know before; life is short. It’s this moment right now. This one. And this.