Today I learned that a friend of mine has died of cancer. He was in his early seventies. Though recently we had fallen out of touch, he was the one who gave me much sound advice during the years following my mother’s suicide, when I took on the mantle of being the literary executor for her estate. We enjoyed each other further in the years afterward, as I settled on a permanent home for her letters and manuscripts at the University of Texas. His name was J.D. McClatchy, known to some as Sandy.
Over sangria and Veal Oscar in a Harvard Square restaurant, Sandy helped Mother and me to draft the final contract that would grant me the power to safeguard the most important part of her life, that which was left to her reading public, as well as her friends and family. By the time the evening was over, I had a definite crush. As he walked me home in the dark, I fleetingly wished for a kiss. The next morning when I confessed to my mother, she laughed and told me he was gay. I was crushed.
Sandy was a kind man, a generous man, a poet himself of the most extraordinary kind, who would over the years become revered for both his art and his literary criticism. Cancer robbed us all.
And it continues to do so. Recently, one of my closest friends was diagnosed with leukemia and must undergo a bone marrow transplant; some number of years ago, she had had chemotherapy for breast cancer, a treatment that is now known to cause leukemia years later some of the time. I am afraid to lose her, especially since my very best friend died seven years ago of melanoma.
The year prior to that a lively woman whom I adored–a pal from my dog show days–lost her fight with colon cancer. In the last two years, another three friends have passed: two to vicious pancreatic cancer and the other to a slow growing kidney cancer; all were energetic men who lived with exuberance and humor, and all of whom were in their sixties.
My mother’s biographer, the esteemed Diane Middlebrook, died of brain cancer in 2007, when she was sixty-eight. My “other mother,” who guided and loved me throughout my own journey as a parent, went to lung cancer, even though she had never smoked a day in her life. An aggressive bladder cancer took a college buddy just a month ago.
One of my former psychiatrists died of prostate cancer in his early seventies. My father was likewise diagnosed with this same cancer, as was the husband of another friend, though both survived it. Three of my women friends have had breast cancer, one of whom did not make it. Four others known to me only through the grief of my friends have died of the disease in one of its many forms, also at very early ages.
That makes a total of twenty in my life who have been touched by one type of cancer or another, just during the past ten years or so. Nearly all of them are gone. All of this feels like a personal plague. So many people, all of them taken suddenly in their sixties or early seventies. I am sixty-four. It feels like a dangerous age at which to have arrived.
Though we spend many millions of dollars on potential cures every year, the medical community has no solid answers as to the etiology of different cancers. Still, there is a tremendous amount of research being conducted and the molecular basis of some cancers is finally beginning to be understood. A friend who is a physician reassures me that there is hope. But no cure yet. This year the American Cancer Society will top my list of charitable giving.
Why do I tell you this bleak story wherein each loss sounds the gong of all the losses which preceded it? Because it makes me both sad and scared. How will I go? Or my husband, or my sister or even my children? Will we die suddenly and cleanly, or, as with my friends, will death be a protracted and painful path?
At the end of his days, Sandy McClatchy wrote an evocative poem called “His Own Life.” It brings me a strange sort of comfort because it helps me to understand myself better:
For me, he’s caught the essence of it: my fear is not that final separation from my life and body; my fear instead is to have to surrender my attachment to it all. In my last days I will be a mourner, too, forced to relinquish relationships with those I love and memories of times well spent.
Nevertheless, I must push on, despite my losses, because life demands it. I am lucky enough to continue to be healthy. With a little poetic help from my friend, I can now spend some time recognizing the inevitability of our biological cycle and attempt to lay fear to rest. This process, however tentative, enables me to mourn Sandy and all the rest who are now gone–with both sorrow and joy in my heart. God bless them, every one.