Archives for posts with tag: Diary

The first instalment of Jenny Diski’s reflections on her recent cancer diagnosis has appeared in The London Review of Books (http://www.lrb.co.uk/v36/n17/jenny-diski/a-diagnosis).

It is essential reading.

I have always loved Diski’s writing (Skating to Antartica particularly). I read the current article – ‘A Diagnosis’ – with sadness, but also with joy. It is vitally Diski – funny, brave and real – and I am grateful that when faced with the challenge of dealing with her recent cancer diagnosis, she decided to share her experience.

She asks the question:

‘A fucking cancer diary? Another fucking cancer diary… Can there possibly be anything new to add?’

Yes. Diaries afford the possibility of witnessing the experiences of others, and although experiences may overlap and share some similarities, each individual one is unique and invaluable as a direct result of its very subjectivity. Thus, each personal experience is by definition original and irreproducible. The value of reporting such experiences is that, although we cannot truly share them, as invited readers we can listen, witness and hopefully affirm the living of another. Michael Palin speaks of diaries as the antidote of hindsight. Which they are, and as the nearest expression we can get to the possibility of understanding what it might be to exist in someone else’s shoes, they can be the most invaluable and authentic of literary forms.

Especially from Jenny Diski’s pen.

‘The future flashed before my eyes in all its pre-ordained banality. Embarrassment, at first, to the exclusion of all other feelings. But embarrassment curled at the edges with a weariness, the sort that comes over you when you are set on a track by something outside your control, and which, although it is not your experience, is so known in all its cultural forms that you could unscrew the cap of the pen in your hand and jot down in the notebook on your lap every single thing that will happen and everything that will be felt for the foreseeable future.’

The ‘Onc Doc’ slipped in at the outset that the goal was ‘to treat, not to cure’. It is salutary to consider both what is often said and what is mostly unspoken during this most critical of person-to-person interactions. Raymond Carver’s poem on the same topic of cancer diagnosis comes to mind:

What The Doctor Said

He said it doesn’t look good
he said it looks bad in fact real bad
he said I counted thirty-two of them on one lung before
I quit counting them…

… and he said something else
I didn’t catch and not knowing what else to do
and not  wanting him to have to repeat it
and me to have to fully digest it
I just looked at him
for a minute and he looked back it was then
I jumped up and shook hands with this man who’d just given me
something no one else on earth had ever given me
I may have even thanked him habit being so strong

 

Diski also reflects on the doctor/patient relationship:

‘It’s quite hard to rapidly absorb the notion that someone forecasting your fairly imminent death might not be your enemy.’

‘Sullen rudeness is a possible option handed to us cancerees.’

She considers the language used. When given a prognosis of ‘two-to-three-years’, what is actually being said? Is ‘Onc Doc’ favouring 2, or 3, with the extra year tagged on as a hopeful gesture? What does this timeframe meaningfully equate to in terms of how we normally live our lives:

‘Will the battery on the TV remote run out first?’

Suddenly thrown into another sphere, that of the ‘Cancer World’, Diski contemplates the role she may now be forced to play:

‘I am and have always been embarrassed by all social rituals that require me to participate in a predetermined script’.

‘Now I was faced with the prospect of a rather lengthy (in one view) public/private performance by which to be excruciated.’

She rejects metaphors of attack, and refuses to personify the cancer cells in her body:

‘Under no circumstances is anyone to say that I lost a battle with cancer. Or that I bore it bravely. I am not fighting, losing, winning or bearing.’

In the face of her diagnosis and all its inherent challenges, Diski answers her own question ‘why another cancer diary’. She is a writer. It is what she does.

‘So I’ve got cancer. I’m writing.’

 

CQ

 

The poet, novelist, playwright and doctor Dannie Abse kept a diary for a year following the death of his wife Joan as a result of a car accident in 2005.

In his first diary entry, some 4 months after Joan’s death, Abse writes:

‘The past survives however much one tries to drive it down and away from one’s consciousness.’

The diary presents itself as both a living record of loss, loneliness and grief, and also a reflection on the past, a looking back. Most entries start with the current date and end with a ‘Then’ section, which relives a memory from Abse’s earlier life, and often one that also includes Joan.

Abse shares the mundane realities that confront the bereaved, as letters continue to arrive addressed to his now dead wife. He includes a poem by Peter Porter, written after Porter’s own wife’s death:

‘A card comes to tell you

you should report

to have your eyes tested.

But your eyes melted in the fire…

and the only tears, which soon dried,

fell in the chapel.

Other things still come –

invoices, subscriptions, renewals,

shiny plastic cards promising credit –

not much for a life spent

in the service of reality…’

Abse is not self-indulgent or maudlin in his grief, and is not seeking our sympathy. The diary was not originally intended for publication, evolving more as a tool for coping with loss, a response to an inner voice saying ‘Physician, heal thyself.’ Thus, the diary became a ‘prescription for self-regeneration.’ However, as the diary progresses he acknowledges that he did presuppose another reader.

Abse tells it like it is. One diary entry just contains the short sentence ‘I cry, therefore I am.’ On another occasion, when asked by a friend how he was coping, he tells us that ‘I confessed, perhaps melodramatically, that for intermittent hours each day I feel like an exile in the Land of Desolation.’

He cries frequently, often waking up with tears in his eyes. A new experience for him, since Joan’s death Abse does not find it difficult to unsettle ‘the too prompt tearducts of my eyes.’

The diary is not all about grief, but more about a life that continues within that loss. Abse speaks of Freud, of current events such as the Iraq war, as well as past events in his own life as a doctor and as a poet. He also includes his own poetry, and speaks of other writers, such as Elias Canetti and the poet Owen Shears.

Abse muses on his own life as a poet:

‘I’ve often thought of poetry as a vocation, even a destiny, rather than a career but sometimes I wish that on certain occasions in my life I had not retreated from the limelight.’

During the year of diary writing, Abse’s older brother dies:

‘I weep for Wilfred. Yet it is hard to mourn for more than one person at a time.’

And Joan’s loss is immense. He remembers the grief he experienced when his parents died, yet it was incomparable to his profound sense of loss following his wife’s death:

‘But I have been so dependent on Joan. Absolutely. Mentally, emotionally, physically.’

Six months after the accident:

‘…as I remember this or think that, my eyes leak like a tap with a half-perished washer. I am, I feel, leading a posthumous life.’

Yet, he can also see that ‘I’m OK. I’m coping. I’m limping along.’ while at the same time accepting that ‘I miss Joan.’

He acknowledges that his grief is not an illness, ‘I’m not clinically depressed. Merely unhappy.’

Eventually, Abse finds his way back into poetry, both writing and reading again in public.

‘Authors, poets, are supposed to be imaginative people but I didn’t, couldn’t picture my life without Joan. Everything is so other. The very silence has changed. It is the very silence of the abyss.’

One of these poetry readings ends with the short poem Valediction:

‘In this exile people call old age

I live between nostalgia and rage.

This is the land of fools and fear.

Thanks be. I’m lucky to be here.’

As he approaches the end of the year since Joan’s death, and the end of his diary entries, Abse wonders whether he will miss the writing ‘not only for my health’s sake’, but also because ‘For doing so has allowed me sometimes the pleasure of escaping into a benign Past. The Past, indeed, can sometimes be a sanctuary.’

‘There is no happy ending’, yet Abse does not leave one feeling desolate. I was touched by his openness, as well as by a realism that allowed for many emotions to sit alongside each other. Abse’s life following Joan’s death reads as one that embraced his unmeasurable loss, and one that allowed grief to accompany rather than to destroy.

The diary ends with Abse’s poem Lachrymae:

‘She is everywhere and nowhere

now that I am less than one…’

‘…Now, solemn, I watch

the spellbound moon again,

its unfocused clone drowned

in Hampstead’s rush-dark pond

where a lone swan sings

without a sound.’

CQ