Wednesday, April 23, 2008

'Only with more pancakes'

I was going to write something last night, and then the Hindenberg of bedtimes struck. That's the wrong analogy: It captures the epic sense of disaster, but not its soul-crushingly tedious unfolding. It was more like the trapped-in-a-submarine-running-out-of-air-in-enemy-waters kind of bedtime, but that doesn't exactly unspool itself from the keyboard. Small children are can be so delicious -- those chubby thighs, that creamy skin -- but man, they sour in a hurry when bedtime goes on too long and becomes a festival of elbows, hot breath and excessive water consumption.

As it happened, last night I was planning a few words on pleasure and scarcity.

Everyone has probably wondered at some point, what would I do if I had six months to live? Ride an Indian motorcycle across Europe? Move to Florence or Barcelona? Drive across the south in search of barbecue and pie? Surfing lessons?

Realistically, most of us are bound by finances, insurance and medical treatment to our regular, pre-expiration-date lives. (Key point: No one has described my potential lifespan in terms of months, and the estimates doctors give to patients of cancer prognosis are usually inaccurate, anyway.) But my disease was always serious, and is now incurable, so I have thought a lot about how I want to live my life. My answer: bravely, honestly and with my family.

But the late journalist Marjorie Williams put it so much better than I can. One of the pleasures I take in reading is finding something that unearths and perfectly expresses something I think or feel, but haven't articulated. In her essay "Struck by Lightning," which is the best cancer memoir I have read and sadly isn't online in complete form, Williams describes her illness, and asks the essential questions about how to live closely shadowed by death. You don't launch some existential quest, she says. Instead, normal life... and pancakes:

What would I do if I suddenly found I had a short time to live…What would it be like to sit in a doctor’s office and hear a death sentence? I had entertained those fantasies just like the next person. So when it actually happened, I felt weirdly like an actor in a melodrama.

I live at least two different lives. In the background, usually, is the knowledge that, for all my good fortune so far, I will still die of this disease...

But in the foreground is regular existence: love the kids, buy them new shoes, enjoy their burgeoning wit, get some writing done, plan vacations with [my husband], have coffee with my friends…What you do, if you have little kids, is lead as normal life as possible, only with more pancakes.
This blog quotes the essay extensively (and is the source for the excerpt here), but the whole thing is worth seeking out in The Woman at the Washington Zoo or the 2006 edition of the best American essays.

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