Dear Arthur Frank
I’m writing to say thank you for your extraordinary book At the Will of the Body. It is only January 24, but I already feel that I have just finished my book of the year. Or even decade. Thank you.
I found it by following my nose, on the recommendation of a blogger, someone I have never met, who lives and works on the other side of the world. And I found her on the recommendation of someone else, a close friend who knows me well and has seen what cancer has done to me, including my need, nine years later, to still talk about it. It’s funny, isn’t it, how these little left-field nudges can so often become the main thing, a connection or reconnection with stories which still need telling.
I know that you know that.
Let me tell you how I read your book. I began it on a Saturday in early January. I wolfed the first third of it down in one go, barely pausing for breath, which it frequently took away from me. For me, this is fast. I knew, I absolutely knew I was in the company of someone I could trust by, ooh, the first sentence of the second paragraph: ‘Critical illness offers the experience of being taken to the threshold of life, from which you can see where your life could end.’ Brilliant. I thought, He gets it. I actually did a fist-pump.
Then I read this, the remainder of that astonishing second paragraph: ‘From that vantage point you are both forced and allowed to think in new ways about the value of your life. Alive but detached from everyday living, you can finally stop to consider why you live as you have and what future you would like, if any future is possible. Illness takes away parts of your life, but in doing so it gives you the opportunity to choose the life you will lead, as opposed to living out the one you have simply accumulated over the years.’
I realised I was in the presence not only of someone who gets it, but someone who was actually starting right there and then to move my thinking* on by reawakening my experience not only of my treatment for cancer, but that just as painful and strange experience of coming back to life in the autumn and early winter of 2006. That truth, while delicious to me, was also painful. I found it scary, I am honest.
*(I would like to change that sentence about moving my thinking on: you did move it on -but in truth it is more like my whole being.)
So I made it to end of page one and already felt I needed to head out for a walk (I thought you might like to know that) by the river. Or a lie down. Or simply a jolly good cry.
We’re on page 2 by now, your third, monumental paragraph: ‘Illness is something to recover from if you can, but recovery is worth only as much as what you learn about the life you are regaining.’ At which point I did put the book down, just to get some breath. I looked out of the window for a moment at the ordinary Saturday morning life going on in the street outside, the exact same window I had stood at after hearing of my diagnosis by telephone. ‘After my heart attack it meant putting the whole experience behind me. I wanted to return to a place in the healthy mainstream as if nothing had happened. Cancer does not allow that version of recovery.’
Cancer does not allow that version of recovery.
Cancer does not allow that version of recovery.
I had to read it twice, just to be sure. Finally someone has said it. In plain and uncomplicated words that are like a bulldozer to our culture of romanticising it. Beautifully, simply, finally. As though nothing more needed to be said. And we are only at the top of page 2!
And then, some lines further down: ‘After cancer I had no desire to go back to where I was before.’
The window again (cars being parked, buggies being pushed, two men talking outside their houses). Normal life. That was simultaneously alive in every detail of its ordinariness and somehow expanded by the words exploding in my brain -your kind words- at the same time.
Thank you. I can’t say it enough.
This last sentence is especially poignant to me, because it reminds me of the imperative to enter a space of silent reflection, to come home as it were, not only in moments of overt crisis, like cancer, like entering remission, but today, this day, and every one after it. It forces me to renew my acquaintance with the questions of who I am now, who was I before, and -the most difficult, for me- of saying what I desire at all.
Page after page of your luminous and searching book has helped me to resume my search for that space: tentatively, joyfully, and always with hope.
So -as we say- I blitzed through your book. Then I stopped, or rather, slowed down, fearful I was missing something. I read the final two thirds with a 4B pencil in hand, underlining, commenting and exclaiming ‘Yes!’, ‘Wow!’ and ‘This is it!’ as I went. Like Bird by Bird, my other all-time favourite book, you seem to have written a masterpiece entirely in quotes. Not a page of my reading went by without my underscoring great chunks of it, putting the book down, having a sip of water at the window, then returning, as it were, back to life.
I am re-reading that first section already, so that I don’t miss anything. Soon I will have read it twice. And it is only January 24!
It seems a bit silly to pick out highlights. Your passages on ‘caregivers’, anger, and denial and affirmation will all live long in me. As will your chapter ‘The Struggle Is Not a Fight’. Your recasting of Biblical material is exemplary, neither reaching for easy answers nor basing its reflections on literalization. But I think it is your notion of ‘valuing illness’ that will stay with me the most, because it was both precious and new. And a bit scary.
I hope you don’t mind me writing like this. I’m doing it quickly before the fear that is still in me takes over and persuades me of my foolishness. Your book is a classic and will live forever. But you already know that. Not that you would know it from the humility and gentleness of your tone, which may be your greatest gift of all.
I’ll finish by saying thank you (again) by quoting my favourite passage of all (for today at least), from your chapter ‘Ceremonies of Recovery’:
The only real difference between people is not health or illness but the way each holds onto a sense of value in life. When I feel I have no time to walk out and watch the sunlight on the river, my recovery has gone too far. A little fear is all right. It is all right to know that in a month I could be lying in a hospital bed asking myself how I spent today. Holding onto that question − how did you spend today? − reminds me to feel and see and hear. It is too easy to become distracted. When the ordinary becomes frustrating, I have to remember those times when the ordinary was forbidden to me. When I was ill, all I wanted was to get back into the ordinary flux of activity. Now that I am back in the ordinary, I have to retain a sense of wonder at being here.
Reading At the Will of the Body has helped me rediscover that wonder.
With deepest thanks and best wishes,
If you liked this, why not have a look at my Lifesaving Poems series of blog posts?