Monday, October 23, 2006

Illness as text

A few nights before my surgery last Thursday, my mother stayed with us overnight. I looked over at her sewing under the lamp and asked what she was making. She held up a little square of Liberty cotton print, and showed me the handkerchief she was stitching by hand for me, rolling its little hem under with impossibly delicate and even stitches. I took it in to the hospital and held it with me during the two pre-surgical procedures. As I lay in the "nuclear medicine" chamber, and listened to k.d.lang's Hymns of the 49th Parallel on my ipod, I thought about how this little handkerchief could carry my mother's love, and all the wishes and prayers and love of my friends and family, stitched and folded into its borders. These things made it easier to lie still and passive — the perfectly docile body — during the fine and precise violence of tracking the single "sentinel" lymph node that would be taken for biopsy, and later, of inserting the "hook wire", the metallic thread that would guide Suzanne's hand straight to the diseased cluster of breast tissue.

I took my handkerchief into surgery, too, relinquishing it for safety only at the last minute, mumbling something to the kindly faces of the surgeon and anaesthetist about the movie Braveheart. I can remember thinking it would be easier to close my eyes rather than seize the "teaching moment" and explain about the transfer of the embroidered thistle from hand to hand in that movie.

I came home the next day, and four days later am feeling remarkably well, with barely a trace of the mutilation and loss I was convinced I would feel. I'm sure I had heard or read the phrase "breast-conserving surgery" before, but had not allowed myself to think that this consoling term could belong to me, as it now clearly does. I know it is early days yet, of course. I have felt tired and kittenishly weak, too, not up to much more than sitting in the sun, or lying on the couch. Sometimes I browse through the enormous pile of "literature" I am accumulating: breast cancer is almost as textual an experience as pregnancy and childbirth. There is fiction, too, of course, starting in the days before surgery: David Foster Wallace, The Broom of the System; Peter Goldsworthy, Three Dog Night; Shirley Hazzard, The Great Fire; Lemony Snicket, The End; and M.J. Hyland, Carry Me Down.

The highlight of my day, though, often comes when someone calls by and takes up the brand-new hardcover edition of Middlemarch that Paul bought for me. Whoever is around sits or lies down in peaceful attitudes as the visitor reads a chapter or two, and signs and dates the page where they stop. After one such reading on Saturday, two dear friends went home and read to each other some more.

There will be time and energy, I hope, in the future, to pick up some of the threads being debated at In the Middle; for now, these moments of repose, peace and stillness.

3 comments:

KLG said...

Ah, there you are.

I too took Middlemarch into hospital for a bout of big bad surgery a few years ago. The question I'd asked myself consciously was whose mind I wanted for company while I was there, but reading this I wonder whether it might not be some kind of symbol of our common happy literary histories -- the professional equivalent of a mother's handkerchief.

Both Stephanie and I used to work with -- Stephanie was no doubt taught by, as well -- an academic couple who were bonkers about Middlemarch. If they were still alive to read this (not that either would ever have taken to blogging!) I'm sure they'd set it as an exam question: 'Why is Middlemarch the book you want to take into hospital with you?'

When I read this post I had a mad desire to jump in the car immediately and drive the 750 Ks so that I could take my reading turn (I bags the bit where Celia is mocking Mr Casaubon) and write my name.

Zoe said...

I am very glad to hear things seem to be turning out well. Thank you for writing so beautifully about what is happening to you.

Stephanie Trigg said...

Thanks, girls.

One of the reasons Middlemarch is turning out to be such a good choice is that it is so funny and so sad, so patient and visitor can laugh and weep together. We are still in early chapters, yet, so it is mostly funny. Here is Mr Cadwallader on Mr Brooke: "a very good fellow, but pulpy; he will run into any mould, but he won't keep shape." But I can hear the dismay in women's voices as they read of Dorothea's aspirations. Mrs Cadwallader on the same page describes Casaubon's blood: "Somebody put a drop under a magnifying-glass, and it was all semicolons and parentheses". But I was also struck by poor old Casaubon's surprise that though he had won 'a lovely and noble-hearted girl', he had not won delight.