April 2010

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Alice Stewart Trillin and Calvin Trillin NY Times

Recently a friend gave me a book to read about a mom who dies of cancer. At first, I set it aside and wondered how it was that this person didn’t more carefully consider this gesture. When I asked her about it, she said that, to her, the book was about an amazing and inspiring woman who lived an incredible life. The book, About Alice, is by Calvin Trillin, one of my favorite essayists. So I gave it a try.

Wow. The gifts Alice has given me over the past few weeks. Invaluable.

Alice Stewart Trillin, a writer, English teacher and educational consultant (lady after my own heart) was a woman who left a lasting impression on every person she met. Her stunning beauty aside, it was her integrity, intelligence and lightness of heart that endeared her to all. Oh, and she was a fiercely committed mother and social activist who knew how to dress.

She was diagnosed with lung cancer in her thirties. She’d never smoked and had been, in fact, unabashedly outspoken against smoking and Hollywood’s portrayal of cigarettes as glamorous.

After surgery, radiation and chemo, she lived twenty-seven years. Amazing. She died in 2001 of heart failure.

Alice had a prestigious following. Her essay, “Of Dragons and Garden Peas: A Cancer Patient Talks to Doctors,” is based on a talk she gave to students at Cornell and Albert Einstein medical schools. The essay was published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Yes, that New England Journal of Medicine. The bible of Medical Science.

It’s a gorgeous piece that peels apart the paradoxes inherent in trying to live your best life possible with the Sword of Damocles hanging over your head. There are too many poignant bits to write about here, but some of my favorites:

She acknowledges the power of sheer will to survive,

I also found the fact that I had cancer unacceptable; the thought that my children might grow up without me was as ridiculous as the thought that I might forget to make appointments for their dental checkups and polio shots.

Yet she admits that will is sometimes not a strong enough match for the dragon when her best friend dies of an ovarian cancer relapse:

My friend who died wanted to live more than anyone I have ever known. The talisman of will didn’t work for her.

This is a particularly stressful paradox for me, too. While I believe that one of the best things I can do is be positive and have the will to survive, it’s sometimes painful to hear others tell me that as though it’s all on me to face this dragon.  Alice puts it this way:

If I get sick, does that mean that my will to live isn’t strong enough? Is being sick a moral and psychological failure? If I feel successful, as if I had slain a dragon, because I am well, should I feel guilty, as if I have failed if I get sick?

When friends are sick or die, Alice explains, we need to make it their fault, so that we feel safer:

It was important for me to find reasons for her death, to find things that she might have done to cause it, as a way of separating myself from her and as a way of thinking that I would somehow have been…able to stay alive.

It’s a lot of pressure on everyone to live in proximity of our mortality, whether we are healthy or not.

My favorite part of the essay is the section that explains (for me) the reason behind Fourseeds better than I can explain it:

One of the ways that all of us avoid thinking about death is by concentrating on the details of our daily lives. The work that we do every day and the people we love-the fabric of our lives-convince us that we are alive and that we will stay alive.

For Alice, planting garden peas became a life-sustaining ritual.  “I could concentrate on the details of when to plant them and how much mulch they would need instead of thinking about platelets and white cells.”

Garden peas. For me, it’s Easter egg hunts, walks to preschool, reading in bed with the boys and the cat, the teeny tiny things that become so ripe with beauty when the act of concentrating on them is all that you really have.

Like Alice, the thing I wish I could do is pass this focus on the garden peas to my friends, like a book, without passing on the dragon of disease. If I could, I would give them the focus on ripeness, because it’s all that we ALL really have. The beauty, the love. I want them to see it now.

My talismans: my husband, my son, my will to survive, the beauty in every fold of the fabric of my life. I’m putting them on display in little snapshots of my life on this blog, to distance myself from the dragon, and to share something with you that I’d wished I’d seen long ago.

Thanks, Alice, for helping me understand and explain this.