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A Heartbreaking Work

Recently the book, “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” has been coming to mind a lot. And it’s not just because the book begins with a tragic set of cancer deaths (both of the author’s parents die in a matter of weeks from two different kinds of cancer). I think it’s more because I finally feel like I understand Dave Eggers’ descriptions of the dramatic collision of youth and tragedy. Sometimes he was a little too dramatic for me and I am certainly not trying to be more dramatic about anything than it is these days. But there is something about facing tragedy in what is supposed to be your “youth” or in my case my “youth-ish” that makes it feel heavier, somehow more tragic. Being young is so emphatically meant to be about being alive and living life to the fullest. YOLO, amiright? But when your youth is unexpectedly interrupted by a disease toting survival rates it feels deeply and profoundly unfair.

This is kind of what I mean:

I am emboldened by youth, unfettered and hopeful… Can you not see that we are extraordinary? That we were meant for something else, something more? All of this did not happened to us for naught, I can assure you – there is no logic to that, there is logic only in assuming that we suffered for a reason.  Just give us our due.  -Dave Eggers, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

I haven’t been feeling that young this year. While I know everyone over the age of 40 or so will laugh I started to feel very old when I turned 30 back in June. It was a turning point of sorts. By 30 you have to have your life in order, you have to have a plan. The kind of wild adventures with love and alcohol and dance floors that you had in your twenties now just seem a little sad because, let’s face it: you’re thirty! It didn’t really matter anyway though. I wasn’t having any wild adventures with love or alcohol or dance floors by that point anyways. I had just been diagnosed with Graves Disease. My 30th birthday was one of the first days in weeks that I had felt strong enough to leave the house, or even get up off the couch for that matter. Graves had rendered me useless. It had deteriorated my muscles, so I was too weak to even walk up the stairs to my house. It had sent my pulse sky high so that even getting up to get something felt an anxiety attack. And it made a little bit of heat feel like the Sahara at noon, which meant I really couldn’t bear to venture out into the swamp-like sauna that is a DC summer day. Getting this horrible disease on my 30th birthday only helped to make me feel like I had just gotten really, super old.

But its alright because I have found the remedy to my “say goodbye to my youth” doldrums. I got breast cancer. All of a sudden I was told by doctor’s that I was “very young.” We are worried, “because of your young age.” Everyone said how unfair it was. How could this happen “to someone so young?” I agreed wholeheartedly. I haven’t even HAD KIDS YET CANCER! WHAT THE HELL? Not only that but everyone at the hospital wanted to be my friend. I don’t think they are used to such a friendly and energetic young patient. The young women who work at the front desk of the cancer center are my besties, the young nurse navigator tells me what a sweetheart I am all the time, all my doctors and nurses tell me how much everyone love me! I feel like an adorable puppy.

And you know what will really make you feel young? Walking into a chemo center looking the way I look and being a patient there. I went there last week to get my blood drawn. I initially thought I was lost and said so to the woman behind the desk, Marta. She agreed that I must be lost and started to try and help me find my way. After a few questions about what I was having done and what directions I had been given she finally asked me my name. I gave it to her and she looked at her screen. “Oh,” she said, frowning, “I’m sorry. You are supposed to be here.” Then, in a whispered tone leaning across her desk, “you just didn’t look like you should be a patient here.” I know right, Marta? I look good! I’m all healthy and young and vibrant and whatnot! Couldn’t agree more! Walking back into the infusion unit I got sad stares from the people who were mostly twice my age or more getting their chemo treatments. In some ways I want to be their comrade. “This sucks, right?!” I want to say to the 80 something lady next to me. But somehow it’s different. We are removed from each other by both age and some varying degree of tragedy. Not that her suffering is somehow less. It is actually likely to be far greater. And not that her situation isn’t also tragic. It’s just somehow different. As Eggers says, “We are unusual and tragic and alive.” That is basically how I feel these days.

Tomorrow I start chemo which I think means that I will officially become a cancer patient.  I am scared as hell. That’s about all there is to say about that. I will obviously be sure to let you know how it goes.

Before I go I did want to thank you so much for all of your thoughts, your words, your encouragement, your prayers, your gifts, your time, your food, and your love over the last few weeks. You all help me to get through this in a thousand different ways every day and I am eternally grateful, even if I can’t always respond to all of you individually. You are appreciated.

And in closing, I found the quote below while trying to locate the one above. It seemed fitting for this blog:

We share things for the obvious reasons: it makes us feel un-alone, it spreads the weight over a larger area, it holds the possibility of making our share lighter. And it can work either way – not simply as a pain-relief device, but, in the case of not bad news but good, as a share-the-happy-things-I’ve-seen/lessons-I’ve-learned vehicle. Or as a tool for simple connectivity for its own sake, a testing of waters, a stab at engagement with a mass of strangers. -Dave Eggers, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius