After the tube was removed from my neck, I was allowed to leave the plastic-wrapped room, and the stitches in my neck were pulled. Then I started to seriously write. This is what happened:
At twenty-nine, after my bout with cancer, I had yet to realize that I had made two real enemies, and that writing would become an effective weapon against both of them. To learn this, I had to pay an extreme price.
Both cancer and time became my interlocking adversaries, each feeding the other’s vitality. Cancer was the disease, and time was the stark marker of its strength. Time was being given a growing status by the cancer in my body. They had both grown together, and now seemed interlocked for their mutual benefit and my singular destruction.
But I didn’t know it right away. At first, there was no awareness, and a kind of frozen dumbness settled over me. Only after that lifted was I tossed down a deep well of obscure emotion built by the combined effects of cancer and time assuming the mutual power of a married couple. At first, cancer seemed the dominant partner, intent on robbing me of all I had left. But as my impassiveness wore off, I began to treat time as the more powerful and valuable partner — a precious commodity whose supply is easily stripped. So time gradually became Time, pronounced with a great deal of heft.
First, I made numerous errors in judgment. In response to cancer, I made many attempts to dull the hurt, which only short-circuited any constructive responses to the challenge. For a while, making mistakes was easier than forming any valuable response to cancer, time, and death. And this went on long after the tube was removed from my neck and I was allowed to leave the toxic room. It went on for so long, in fact, that I did not realize that the physical fight between cancer and me was really over, and that the far more difficult mental battle had begun.
I was not prepared for the pervasive influence of the idea of cancer. The idea of the disease loomed larger than any physical disorder. Its influence was pervasive, and trapped my mind in a mechanical set of fixations that were hard to defeat. And I had underestimated how my sense of disease, of cancer, of the element of time, had radically and forever changed me. In the fight against the idea of the disease, I paid steep prices for miscalculating my foe.
But eventually, something odd happened. After many years, fissures developed in the marriage of cancer and time. For those who fight cancer and then survive for many years, the disease and its grotesque ideas and associations begin to wane. What remains is the idea of Time as a narrow reserve. After this realization, Time becomes an open accusation. What are you doing with this limited, forever-dying thing?
From the wreck of it all — from the shambles of my bad decisions and missteps in the years after cancer — writing emerged and surpassed the disease. In fact, cancer and time eventually effectively divorced, and time found a new partner in writing (along with a turn toward Judaism and God, and a deep commitment to family, which are topics for another essay). Writing became the handmaid of time in as powerful a way as time had once been the spouse of cancer. Although time can never be conquered, writing has a curious way of arresting its flashes. Time, with its broad shoulders and colossal dimensions, can only be captured and tamed in snatches and bits. Writing doesn’t stop its passage, or retard our progress toward death, but it does create markers of time’s weaknesses and flaws. Its flow can be temporarily diverted by writing, which when done well, can capture elements of our experience which are as close to timeless as people can approach.
For me, writing is one of the few adequate responses to our time-bound nature. Of course one can’t achieve eternity even in the best of writing — but with effort, care, and dedication, we can find a glimmer of time without end within ourselves in the mirror of words. The fact that the glimmer is only a meager spark only speaks to the delicate and privileged nature of recognizing that eternity.
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