A reader of these blogs kindly sent me a link to an article by the novelist Colm Tóibín who was recently diagnosed with testicular cancer. A seasoned novelist, Toibin knows how to grab a reader’s attention:
‘It all started with my balls. I was in Southern California and my right ball was slightly sore. At the beginning I thought the pain might be caused by the heavy keys in the right-hand pocket of my trousers banging against my testicle as I walked along the street.’
It’s a stark piece which sets out in unflinching detail the pain and disorientation caused by chemotherapy or ‘the juice’ as he calls it. But what makes his experience particularly bleak is that he went through much of it on his own. Get cancer and you need back-up.
But he’s also funny and has a very Irish trope that runs through the article.
‘If anyone has been out anywhere – at Mass, a football match, downtown, in Dublin, to the pub – you asked them: ‘Was there a big crowd?’ When other friends came to visit, they could also be asked if there was a big crowd at any event they had attended. I don’t know why asking about the ‘big crowd’ gave me such satisfaction.’
This becomes his go-to small talk, but I only wish if asked whether there was a big crowd at his house he could have answered. ‘Yes, my house was full.’
He has a testicle removed, completes his chemo and contemplates having one sad lonely ball.
“They used to complete one another’s sentences, those balls, they were so close, but now the surviving testicle has to get used to the change.”
Dark, dark humour but beautifully written for all that. The same is true of much of the work of South African novelist J.M. Coetzee. He now lives in Adelaide, Australia where his novel ‘Slow Man’ is set. Coetzee also finds laughter in the darkest of places. In his book, which is largely an interior dialogue, an elderly man is out cycling, gets hit by a car and has a leg amputated.
Like Tóibín, Coetzee’s fictional character is alone in the world and has some troubling thoughts about the kind and cheery young doctors and nurses who are tending him. He senses an indifference to his fate on their part. It’s as though at some unconscious level these young people who have been assigned to his care, know he has nothing left to give the tribe.
‘Better for the old to tend the old, the dying the dying! And what folly to be so alone in the world!’
I’ve had mostly exemplary care from the doctors and nurses at the NHS and would always prefer brisk cheerfulness to hand holding sympathy which would likely make me blub uncontrollably. But what I couldn’t stand is to be alone. So thank you Mrs Preen, thank you daughter, thank you Bucket the dog and thank you family and friends. So far I can bear cancer, but I couldn’t bear that.