Don’t Think About A White Horse
Coming closer, he turns out
to be you – or nearly.
Once you lose someone it is never exactly
the same person who comes back.
-Sharon Olds, “Feared Drowned”
It’s late in the day. I’m walking to my car, watching the evening light slant on leaves and bricks and thinking of nothing in particular, when suddenly there she is: a colleague I haven’t seen since the before time, powering along. There’s no one around but her and me. There’s no way forward but forward.
In the distance a white horse flicks its ear and looks up from where it grazes.
We’re on top of each other in a moment, and I’m thinking: here it comes.
“Hello!” she says. “You’re looking great.”
A heartbeat passes as we fall through the air.
“How are you?”
“Oh, you know,” I say, trying to help her, to help us both land this thing safely.
Somewhere, a white horse paws at the ground and snorts.
“Anyway,” we both say brightly.
“You just look so great.”
We’ve made it, untangling ourselves from catastrophe.
In the distance, drumming hooves.
Poet Anne Boyer writes of her year in the sluice of chemotherapy and other cancer treatments:
Sick time is always escaping the institutional technologies invented to contain it, and it remains immeasurable despite the measure of treatments, the measure of lab work, the measure of diagnostics, the measure of the work day, the measure of arriving bills, the measure of electronic communications, the measure of deadlines, the measure of paychecks, the measure of an employer’s measure of sick leave, the measure of caring for dependents. That’s a lot of cracked hourglasses.
Trailing sand, we walk back in, back from the time of illness where all the things happened to bodies that can’t be unseen. When the hourglasses have all cracked, time can never reassert itself as we remember it: deadline time, schedule time, output time, meeting time, important time. This kind of time no longer adds up at all. There is only before, and what’s to come. Like the people who come back to work after a sudden, traumatic death, we are the workplace trouble dolls, only we don’t make it go away: we drag dying with us into every conversation, every chance meeting, every room.
And cancer has a knack of showing up in the body parts around which we’ve placed the strictest taboos. Suddenly we’re back with the people who while we were away updated each other on things to do with our breasts, ovaries, bladders, testicles. Bowel cancer, for heavens sake. These are not workplace parts: they’re not our thinking parts, our exercising parts that can be seen sweating away at the workplace gym. These are the gizzards and innards of vitality itself, the unmentionables, as our mothers used to say.
So we come back, forcing everyone to pretend that there was never a white horse, it was never thought about or talked about. And we make everyone muddle through without rules for the form of words that help us talk about, say, breasts without talking about breasts, without wondering which breast? and what happened next?, and what “real” might even mean under these circumstances, under these clothes.
Don’t look down. Don’t even think of looking down.
See, now the white horses are galloping with the fray.
Like Anne Boyer, I read my way through 2014, searching for stories of illness that helped me understand what might be somewhere in the blizzard, in the fog, waiting for me. I wanted to hear from other people who had watched cannulas stabbed in through the scar from last week, who had pissed out orange cytotoxins and remembered to double flush, who had felt drugs sink down into their bones, chewing like rats at the important bits. I wanted to hear from people who had lost body parts, who had smelled the excretion of bad, bad chemicals through their skin, who had shaved their heads, and lived hairless as babies, yes in all those places too.
Don’t look down.
But mostly I wanted to know how they learned how to live with the white horse, with whatever it is that can’t be thought about, that must be thought about. I was so grateful for these writers, for Anne Boyer, and Jenny Diski, and Arthur Frank, and Jo Shapcott, and Audre Lorde, and the first one I read, Kathy Acker.
Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals is a standard. Her fierce insistence on living in the fullest confidence of her diagnosis pushed me on. “I have learned much in the 18 months since my mastectomy,” she wrote. In particular, she learned that visibly having one breast is just too much for the world that can’t yet think about dying:
For me the primary challenge at the core of mastectomy was that stark look at my own mortality, hinged upon the fear of a life-threatening cancer. This event called upon me to re-examine the quality and texture of my entire life, its priorities and commitments, as well as the possible alterations that might be required in the light of that re-examination. …Prosthesis offers the empty comfort that “Nobody will know the difference.” But it is that very difference that I wish to affirm, because I have lived it, and survived it, and wish to share that strength with other women.
It’s been 18 months. I have learned much.
When the sun comes up tomorrow, we will each have exactly one day less left to live than we did when the sun came up today.
There’s no shame in this, so let’s choose instead to live on exactly these terms, calmly and decisively. When you find yourself walking towards the person who came back, there’s nothing to manage or fear. You are looking at someone who is looking as she does because she’s living in her body as it is, and she’s thinking about a white horse.
Just as you are, right in front of her.
Anne Boyer, “This Imaginary Half Nothing: Time”: http://www.full-stop.net/2015/07/08/features/anne-boyer/this-imaginary-half-nothing-time
Jenny Diski, This and That Continued: https://jennydiski.wordpress.com
Kate Bowles is an Australian academic and blogger, who was diagnosed with breast cancer at the end of 2013. She writes online about living, working, dying, and the way that time is managed in universities. She is founding co-editor of the CASA blog for casual workers in Australian universities.