At home in the States, and in nearly every other place I have spent time, the questions one is asked about one’s people concern who they were, what they did, how they lived, and so on. In this respect too, things are different in Cancerland. The authorities here are very interested in those who begat you, and in those that begat them too, but not in any of the details of their lives. The interest here is in what diseases they had, and how they died. There is no room on the forms for telling the story of your great-grandfather and the dervishes at Omdurman, or the one about Aunt Esther once being mistaken for Amelia Earhart. The Cancerland family tree inquiries are about whether or not there was ague on your father’s side, or quinsy on your mother’s. Did your fraternal uncle have the gout? Do you come from a line of porphyria sufferers? Has there been an incidence of Hansen’s disease among your ancestors? Narcolepsy? Satyriasis? Walleye? Harelip?
I have of course answered such questions as best I could, given the limited space the standard forms allot. For my mother, for instance, I have said: Heart disease, breast cancer, renal failure. She did in fact suffer from all of those. But there never has been room enough on any questionnaire really to explain what ultimately did her in. The story could only be made to fit even in an unusually generous blank space if written in microscopically small letters, and I don’t have the skill. And if I did have that skill, who could read, in text the size of an atom or two, the more accurate version:
My mother was a graduate of two
Nazi finishing schools (The first was called
Ravensbruck and the second Buchenwald)
Whereat, on full scholarship, she accrued
Degrees in how to live without eating;
How, though a cadaver, to stand upright
Among other corpses from one night
Into a third; how to take a beating
If she slumped or sank or went face down
In the parade-ground’s mix of shit and mud,
Thereby adding to the slag enough blood
To make a sea of it and perhaps drown
Right there, stretched out flat in an inch of ooze.
Long story short, she passed all her courses
And so acquired skills and resources
That she would also teach her boys to use.
The object was not to make them tougher
And so able to tolerate great pain.
Not at all. The point was to make them gain
An understanding of why we suffer,
An appreciation for the value
Of daily living with incessant ache.
The value is (and for this you’ll need to take
My word) that there is no other proof you
Have in fact survived, have not been spade-shanked
Over someone’s shoulder into a trench
With other spines and ribs and hand-bones clenched
Into fists, than to feel unending angst.
Follow this: There is no post-mortem pain.
On this one point the scholars all agree.
So, syllogizing therefrom, q.e.d.:
If you hurt, you must therefore still remain
Alive, whereas joy might just be a haze
Of after-death delight, a blissful deep
Narcotic trance a sane mind ought to keep
Hoping simply goes on. Tormented days
Are the best evidence you’ve not been turned
Into a bar of soap, a lampshade, earth
In a Polish field or a German horse’s girth.
That was what my mother taught, and we learned.