That is the fearful part of having been near death. One knows how easy it is to die. The barriers that are up for everybody else are down for you, and you've only to slip through.
-Katherine Mansfield, as quoted in Cures for Heartbreak by Margo Rabb
Poppy Z. Brite has a very powerful short short story, "Wandering the Borderlands" in the new issue of Subterranean Press magazine. (The magazine will be online in its entirety soon - but Poppy' story and several other pieces are already up.)
Poppy writes from the POV of her fictional counterpart, Doc Brite, the Orleans Parish coroner. Maybe it's because I just finished Margo Rabb's achingly wonderful Cures for Heartbreak, which deals with the death of a parent, but I've been really thinking about death and dying lately. Poppy has a great couple of lines in her piece:
The horror movies are riveting, but, I think, wrong: we do not believe the dead will come back to life and hurt us. Rather, we fear them because they will never come back to life, and because we can never know where they have gone. In that way, we are the ones wandering the borderlands. We are lost and they are found. They know a terrible secret, and they will never share it with us.
I live in a house of three people - my husband, my son and myself. There are two cancer survivors here (my husband and myself) and one person with a chronic and potentially killing disease. (My son has Type I, and is thus insulin dependent, Diabetes - he was diagnosed two years ago at the age of three.) We know all about death in this house; seeing it, hearing it, just barely dodging it. We know about getting lucky by merely surviving; about the strangeness of a horrific diagnosis followed by the words, "but you're lucky".
You get that cancer phone call and death is just right there with you, living on your shoulder, whispering in your ear, for the rest of your life. Anyone who claims otherwise is lying or oblivious or running for their life in the land of denial. I'm not saying that's wrong but don't believe anyone who says that getting past cancer is not big deal.
Because everyone learns two things from cancer: it can come back and it can kill you. And that is just how it is.
More than anything, that is just how it is. (And don't even ask me how much Diabetes sucks.)
In Margo's book the mother dies from melanoma (it happens in the very beginning). I had melanoma when I was 27 years old. I grew up in Florida and was a major body surfer and beach girl - it was a huge part of my life. I grew up in the 1970s and 80s when the sun was not perceived as dangerous so sunburns and suntans were part of my everyday. I know how I got this disease. But reading about melanoma in this book has not been easy. It's a wonderful book (Jen is the latest to love it) but it's so raw, so close to what losing someone can be like, that it fairly hurts you with its own pain. In the story entitled "The Healthy Heart" teenage Mia thinks she sees a difference in a mole on herself - she suspects that it might be cancerous. I tried to get through this on the first try but it was too close. Every day I think I see something that has changed; something that is may not be right. Everyday I panic just a little. Trust me when I say that Margo has perfectly nailed what that kind of worry is like. It's as real as it gets in this book and a couple of times it just got a little too real for me.
Can I give a book any higher recommendation than that? Sometimes it was fiction that was so true it became real. Amazing.
I did finish the book; I just needed to take a little break every now and again and rebuild that distance necessary to read the book and not "live" the book. And I do think it is wonderful and I'm very much looking forward to the blog tour that Margo is putting together. But here I am again, living in survivor territory and knowing how fragile this life is. Every mark that has not changed on my body means I am lucky; every cold that is just a cold means my husband is lucky; every shot of insulin means my son is lucky.
Maybe if I keep writing the word enough, someday I will believe it.
I don't know if I'm scared of death but I do know that I'm angry. I write about death a lot - in the Alaska flying book, in my current book, in little bits and pieces of other things that might be something someday. I never thought that death would be the subject that I knew so well - that was mine in so many ways. I never thought I would live in a house with this kind of luck. "Wandering the borderlands" indeed. We aren't wandering over here, we've built a life in that grey area - hell, we could give tours.
Sometimes I think that I write about death too much but I can't change what I know. When I find other authors that go there too it always seems like a surprise to me - like there are other guests at the party I didn't expect to meet. It's a strange way to view life, with death right there beside you, but it's all I know. That's what being lucky has taught me - that you can't have one without the other.
Honestly, I really hate knowing that sometimes; I really hate knowing a lot of things.