My Life Depended on the Very Act of Writing

How I was saved by writing about God and cancer.

It really isn’t all that unusual to get a disease or even to come close to death. Cancer, for example, visits the young and old, athletes and chain smokers alike. To get caught in cancer’s claws isn’t odd at all — until it happens to you. But yet. But yet.

It’s a complicated disease and a complicated set of feelings that come along with it. I frequently considered myself lucky that I have decent medical insurance and was able to go to excellent doctors and had friends and family to help me. Because if I didn’t have the insurance or doctors or family or life in a country where such things are available, I would have just died. But with the pain and sickness, I felt my “self” slipping away. In the cancer ward, what I observed was that this particular kind of illness reduced everyone in its wake to a sort of sexless, ageless, grayish lumpitude. So much of one’s identity is tied up in hair and gender and age but cancer can take all of that away. I didn’t talk much (if at all) about what was actually happening to me. I couldn’t.

I wrote because I could only get the terror to stop as long as I kept typing. I wrote because it was my only refuge.

I felt angry at God, even though I had cast away my religion and had done much derisive snorting at any thought of God’s existence, while nurturing secret feelings of hoping to reconcile that relationship. There had been much “searching” of the usual sort on my part which hadn’t netted much. If there was a God, why was there so much suffering in the world? If God made everything, why didn’t he make things easier?

I began to ponder the idea of God and my own Catholic upbringing quite a bit. I had been given answers, very definite answers to all of my questions, but I couldn’t quite believe them. What I did with all that fear and doubt and sadness and anger and spiritual torment was to write about it. I wrote like I was grabbing a stranger by the collar and was whispering, urgently in his ear. I wrote because I could only get the terror to stop as long as I kept typing. I wrote because it was my only refuge.

I wrote about cancer and God and unsleep and loneliness like my life depended on the very act of writing. I think that, possibly, it did.

A lot of writers apparently dislike writing. I am not one of them. It’s not a case of merely “loving” it. It’s a case of needing it. Writing is not only a source of joy and comfort to me. Writing gives me an opportunity to enter an unparalleled flow state. I may be clumsy on the land, but put me in the water? Pure grace. Sometimes when I’m writing I have an awareness that I don’t know where the words are coming from, which is a feeling very close to realizing that that you’re dreaming in a dream.

CrumbsWhen I was ill, I wrote about cancer and God and unsleep and loneliness like my life depended on the very act of writing. I think that, possibly, it did. I felt like somehow I was leaving a trail of breadcrumbs and had no idea if they were going to get eaten up or blown away by the wind, but I was running very fast through a scary forest. That was all I could manage. The essay-breadcrumbs were published in Killing the Buddha as I wrote them, but I couldn’t process the feedback in real time. My imagination didn’t extend that far, somehow. All I could do was spark my shitty off-brand disposable lighter for a moment, over and over, in an infinite, black night, with the help of my friends and editors, who served as a lighthouse themselves.

A few years later, I began putting a collection of this work, Cancer Doesn’t Give a Shit About Your Stupid Attitude: Reflections on Cancer and Catholicism together with the help of more friends and editors. I sorted through essays, poems and drawings from that time. I started with the essays, and I laughed, furrowed my brow with compassion and was mostly relieved that the distress cloud I described again and again is no longer stationed directly over my head. It’s still with me, but it follows at a (possibly?) safe distance.

cancerbookThe poems were a different story. The poems made me wail. My heart actually hurt when I read them. So: I got cancer, wrote a bunch of essays and poems, and a few years later while reading said poems, finally cried about the cancer. Worlds upon worlds and moments unfolding infinitely in every direction: you never know what’s going to let you see the Mystery, if even for a moment. It might even be some miniature poems about death and God and being cold in the hospital you wrote under extreme duress.

Since publishing the book, it has been, of course, utterly delightful to receive praise for my writing. But more importantly, I’ve heard from readers who say that the book is helping them understand what their dad’s cancer is like, or I wish I had had this book when my husband was dying, or thank you for being so honest. This has been the greatest gift of all: to know that I may offer some comfort to another person who is lonely, sad or scared. Even if that comfort is simply acknowledging that life is bewildering and frequently painful and unfair: we’re all groping about in the dark and trying not to get boiled alive in candy houses. That I managed to drop some breadcrumbs in the middle of the terror and that my tiny trail is serving others is about as life-affirming as it gets. I felt like I lost my faith “out there” but somehow the entirety of this experience has afforded me a glimpse of Love or God or even awe that even random particles, sparking, brought all of this into being. I was, in fact, never alone.

There may never be answers to why that first cancer cell divides and where the universe came from and if there is Something or Someone “out there” beyond our imagination, but that doesn’t mean we can’t talk about these things. I feel that sometimes the very topic of “religion” or “God” or “faith” is taboo; people visibly flinch or look at you like you have instantly become an unreliable witness if you even mention these words in “mixed company.” However, having been one of the flinchers myself, I find that it doesn’t take much gentle pressing to find out that lots of people are thinking about these issues and don’t feel like they can talk about them or even think about them. “Fairy tales,” they say. But don’t fairy tales contain a lot of truth and useful metaphors?

We must have the courage to write about the very things that make us most uncomfortable. For me, that was God, death and unknowingness. I hear people, fellow writers even, frequently say “there are no words” to which I want to reply: yes, there are words. If you have the ability, use them with everything you’ve got. We must act ferociously. Life itself demands it.

All illustrations by the author.

Mary Valle
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