I'm convinced I'm going to die of cancer. In some numberless bed in some nameless ward of some obscure hospital. Alone.
I haven't really thought about what kind of cancer it'll be. I just know that it'll be inoperable and they'll try chemo but it won't work except that all my hair will fall out, and there'll be moments of intense pain (usually in the middle of the night) punctuated by long periods of total blankness with no sound other than the buzzing of an invisible fly. Every time I think about this the image that comes to my head is of a line of beautiful white flowers blossoming in total silence, and I find myself remembering the words to Plath's Among the Narcissi.
It all started as a joke. Well, half a joke. I was watching this movie called Wit by Mike Nichols and something about the combination of Donne's Holy Sonnets and the character that Emma Thompson plays (an erudite, self-sufficient academic, with no personal bonds to speak of, whose fundamental faith in life is in her own intelligence - who believes that she can think her way out of any problem, until the realisation dawns upon her that death, and the pain that goes with it, cannot be outwitted) just reached out and grabbed me, so that I found myself mouthing these lines from Eliot once the film was over:
Donne, I suppose, was such another
Who found no substitute for sense,
To seize and clutch and penetrate;
Expert beyond experience,
He knew the anguish of the marrow
The ague of the skeleton;
No contact possible to flesh
Allayed the fever of the bone.
When a friend called a few minutes later and asked me why I sounded so glum, I told her I had just seen my own death portrayed on screen. I didn't mean it at the time. It was a joke- I vaguely remember following it up with some crack about how unfair it was that first Woody Allen had gone around depicting my love life, and now Nichols was doing it to my death. I suppose you would say I was trying to laugh my way out of it.
In the days that followed, we spoke often of this supposed fate of mine, always making a joke of it ("Eat your cooking? I think I'll stick to dying of cancer, thanks."; "I was going to vacuum the place before you came, but I figured, heck, I'm going to die of cancer, anyway"), until the idea took on a sort of comforting familiarity, transitioning at some point from being a hypothesis to being an established fact. Increasingly, I find myself thinking in terms of being a cancer patient - I study news reports on new cancer research with scrupulous attention, I find myself crying inexplicably in books where the protagonist dies of cancer. There's a sense of deja vu to the idea now - like a door you've passed by so often you're no longer afraid of what may lie behind it.
Realistically speaking, of course, the chances of my dying of cancer are small. Given my family's history, I'm far more likely to die of a heart attack. It has not failed to occur to me that this may be one of the reasons that I'm so partial to the cancer story. There's a sense of control with cancer -it's not like you can just keel over at your desk one day. I'm afraid of death in general, of course, but it's the prospect of dying without warning that really scares me. That's why the notion of cancer, horrifying by itself, feels almost positive, feels almost like hope. Whether or not I'd like to go gently in that good night is a question I haven't quite resolved with myself yet. But it would be nice to know that I will have the choice.