I never knew that death could make me so productive.
Three years ago my world was tipped on its head when I received a phone call that my 26-year-old sister had stage-four melanoma. (You know what they say about stage-four: there is no stage-five, folks). What had started as a suspicious mole on the neck, promptly removed by surgeons, had furtively spread throughout much of her body. Pretty much all that was untouched by its opportunistic hands was the brain — and in a year that too would be ravaged.
Like most bad news, the timing was off. The call came one hour before I was due to interview a well-known magazine editor whose life had been dramatised for a TV miniseries. I was really looking forward to speaking with her, but for at least 55 of those 60 minutes I was completely silenced. On television and in movies these life-changing moments are always drenched in tears or set to a soundtrack of tidal wave proportions. Instead, it was just me, home alone. I wanted someone to talk to, and I didn’t ever want to speak again, either.
As if on queue, I managed to pick up the phone for the interview, not knowing if I could stammer so much as a hello. Instead, the editor and I spoke for an hour. Looking back, I wonder how I managed to do something so organised when most people would — justifiably — reach for the valium or something even more diverting and check-out completely.
I chose to keep my circumstances private. Still today most people will never know unless they are reading this. I figured that nobody’s pain is entirely unique; we are all our own Munch painting even if we haven’t yet been framed. According to Cancer Council Australia, the country in which I live, 1 in 2 Australian men and 1 in 3 Australian women will be diagnosed with the disease. In short, cancer has become almost normal. Everyone knows someone who has it; most of us will at least make its acquaintance.
So wasn’t the best way to go on simply by going on — faster, and faster?
On top of writing for a newspaper, I was also teaching English as a second language to a group of European adults who had an important exam to sit in three months. Both jobs made me feel as happy as I could be, minus the knowledge someone I loved was dying. I figured I didn’t need to take antidepressants or see a psychiatrist. After all, my Spanish student was one and, proving that he’d either chosen the right career or was skilled in telepathy, made a special effort to make me laugh and offered me free entry to the club where he worked. (For the record, I declined). Even the Parisian student who’d earned himself the nickname, Ze Rude French Bitch, was extra-kind when normally I’m sure he would have scoffed at my poor fashion.
Different people find comfort in different things. Work became my saviour. I poured my heart into writing opinion pieces calling for the need to legalise euthanasia, and gave my sister a column to share her experiences with cancer. I corrected every single mistake in each student’s writing, right down to the last comma. I had never worked so hard, and it didn’t end there. I dragged text books and proofs along with me on the two-hour train ride to the hospital; I traversed the city looking for fancy treats — watermelon cake and truffle pizza — anything to colour the pallid world of palliative care. The hours never matter more than when they’re running out.
Different people find comfort in different things. Work became my saviour.
Now, I am exhausted just thinking about it. Now, I expect to be paid over-time just for opening the door for a stranger.
Somedays, I think breathing should be considered an occupation.
“At heart, I have always been a coper, I’ve mostly been able to walk around with my wounds safely hidden, and I’ve always stored up my deep depressive episodes for the weeks off when there was time to have an abbreviated version of a complete breakdown.” Elizabeth Wurtzel, Prozac Nation
Losing my sister shattered me. Of course it did. That is how it should be. If you don’t feel that way, you must be dead already. Years later, I can still trace the cracks I thought had been smoothed out.
After my sister died, I left the country. Everything was too steeped in memories I wasn’t yet ready to remember. I’d first thought that I’d give myself one month off work to grieve (the first mistake: such things cannot be quantified), but when a housemate resigned from their job, I knew this was not the right place for me. And neither was work, anymore.
Not everyone operates this way, of course. Remember that Courtney Love embarked on a world-tour after her husband’s suicide, frequently stage-diving into the crowd only to reappear in tatters. “It’s the one time I feel really …good,” she explained of being on stage.
As odd as it sounds, I missed the structure and urgency that death gave me. Looking back, I think my sister might have been the one who breathed new life into me. I can’t remember how many operations she went through — there were simply too many. It felt as though each of her body parts were hacked and butchered in a desperate attempt to stave off the cancer. It’s hard for anyone to keep going when their body ends up covered in gruesome scars that even make doctors cringe. It’s worse when your own slender figure betrays you and balloons in reaction to the medication and chemo that are now a staple part of your diet and you can no longer fit into any of your clothes.
Although she didn’t want her photo taken anymore, my sister didn’t flinch at the mention of more and more surgery. She even managed to ride a horse one last time before the cancer left her paralysed and wheelchair-bound. If she could go on, so could I. Until she passed away, that is.
For some time after, I lost track of time. I’d find myself in the aisle of supermarkets or in shops with no recollection of even going there, much less a reason to buy anything. I wanted to snap out of this malaise, but I couldn’t see through the fog.
Recently, a friend and I spent a winter’s night sitting outside a shopping centre like vagrants when really we were just after somewhere quieter than a raucous pub or restaurant to continue our conversation about dying.
My friend wanted to know what I’d do if I only had 24 hours left to live. (Our conversations aren’t normally this morbid).
It was, however, something I had difficulty answering. Maybe because I didn’t have to. I’d already lived that way. Now I am stuck between mountains of mediocrity.
Much has been written on dying — too much, probably, and I am guilty of contributing to the scrap heap. But the best advice given to me came from someone decades older, who has also long disappeared from my life. When I apologised for being in such a muddle and forgetting to turn up to our lunch date, they merely replied: “Just muddle along.”
Because that’s all anyone can expect from someone who’s still finding their way back from grief’s doorstep. Take your time.