This post is more personal than anything else on this site. Please be aware this post mentions cancer.
I was always a reader. I was one of two students in my year one class already able to read, and by the time I was in grade three, I was allowed to spend the reading classes down in the library pulling whatever I liked from the shelves. I don’t have a good long-term memory, and the details of the books I read are now lost to the passage of time. I do remember I was a library monitor in grade six and spent my lunch times checking out books to students on the brand new electronic scanner.
And yet, I have lost my ability to read now. Well, I have lost my love for fiction, it seems. I initially wondered if this was a result of finishing my PhD. It was a study of literature and film and required so much reading – not for joy, but for a specific critical purpose – and I assumed this structured, rigorous method for consuming texts was what ruined it. But I think I understand now.
I have struggled to pursue any television that I call ‘heavy’, coming home from work with the excuse that I’m tired and don’t want to engage. Countless shows have provided a pilot episode, maybe two, and then slip away from me – Westworld, The Night Manager, Black Mirror. Just a few shows I’ve started recently and not finished. Perhaps will never finish.
And yet, I still voraciously consume podcasts. Not fiction – never fiction – but news, culture, and best of all: ones about survival, struggle, chaos, and death. I’ve always enjoyed learning about disasters. An early primary school assignment had me reading about the race to the South Pole and the Apollo 1 disaster. I followed the news updates on horrific natural disasters with a strange fascination – the Boxing Day tsunami; the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. I own a box set of Air Crash Investigation.
So this isn’t a new phenomenon in my life. It’s just one that suddenly, strangely, has ripped away my ability to engage with fiction.
My best friend is dying. He has terminal bowel cancer and is in the final stages of life. After nearly three years of surgeries, chemotherapy, and every possible treatment available, the cancer has spread and is no longer survivable. Despite being almost symptom free for much of this time, with a healthy beard, he is 32 and dying.
Cancer brings death in a way completely separate from the disaster stories I regularly consume. It’s slow, undignified, tedious. While it’s guaranteed to kill him, it’s surprisingly unpredictable in the way it unfurls and attacks the body. He might be here another year, or another month. He goes for months without trouble, only to suddenly be hospitalised with severe pain.
I recently struggled to finish three books – ones that the Liz of the past would have devoured without much trouble. I picked them up, read the first chapter or so, and then put them down again. They are now almost part of the furniture in my house, invisible. A few more sit untouched on my bookshelf. And yet, the only books I’ve managed to successfully finish in the last year or so are stories of death, struggle, and grief: Will to Live (Matthew, Diane, and Kate Ames 2014), When Breath Becomes Air (Paul Kalanithi 2016) and Dying: A Memoir (Cory Taylor 2016). Cory Taylor’s memoir is short, readable, tragic – but more importantly, it served me with two important lessons.
The first is that dying is lonely. My friend is not alone. He has a wife, parents, devoted friends. But he is the only one who knows they are dying and dying soon, and sometimes it’s easy to forget how lonely that knowledge is. Taylor writes:
Things are not as they should be. For so many of us, death has become the unmentionable thing, a monstrous silence. But this is no help to the dying, who are probably lonelier now than they’ve ever been. At least that is how it feels to me (9).
It makes me ache to think of my friend lonely and alone – but how can he be otherwise? Yet in many ways, we are all alone in our grief. How I hurt is not the same as his wife; how his wife hurts is not the same as his mother. There are differences while still so much sameness – horror, sadness, frustration and anger.
The second lesson is that bucket lists are not for everyone. As the final stages of my friend’s life begin, the talk has inevitably turned to bucket lists. What are the things he still wants to do? Wants to achieve? Wants to experience? He often, sagely, focuses on making memories. For him or for us, I am never sure, but I know these memories will be tinged in sadness forever. Taylor writes:
A bucket list implies a lack, a store of unfulfilled desires or aspirations, a worry that you haven’t done enough with your life. It suggests that more experience is better, whereas the opposite might equally be true. I don’t have a bucket list because it comforts me to remember the things I have done, rather than hanker after the things I haven’t done. Whatever they are, I figure they weren’t for me, and that gives me a sense of contentment, a sort of ballast as I set out on my very last trip (36).
Of course, Taylor was nearing 60 as she wrote her book, and while it’s too young to die, it is old enough to have a family and feel accomplished. My friend has never been particularly ambitious, but he will now never be a father in the way he always imagined. He will never be allowed to find those hobbies that emerge in retirement that baffle younger generations. He will never turn grey; he will never tell kids to get off his lawn. He will never visit some places left untouched (although he has given it his best efforts); he will never find more passions. And yet, Taylor reminds me that it is not necessary to focus on the roads still untravelled and to instead remember and enjoy the experiences already achieved.
Perhaps it’s no surprise then, that I’ve lost my appetite for fiction. Fiction feels, strangely, too difficult to engage with – it requires too much of my brain. Reality, instead, is demanding. The threat of his impending death sits active in my skull all the time – sometimes forming a lens through which every experience is filtered; other times quietly perched just out of view. Yet its presence is constant, and wearying, and heavy.
I know I will be able to relearn how to read and to love fiction. But I don’t know when, just yet. And maybe, despite the importance of fiction to my research and my career, it’s time to forgive myself for that.
These quotations are from the 2017 edition of Taylor’s Dying: a memoir. And this post is inspired in some part by wishcrys (Dr Crystal Abidin) and her generous, powerful, emotional blog posts in which she shares her experiences with grief.