Back Straight, Footing Sure in Icy Winds

I have a friend from another country who has just been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She came to New York for a consultation with a doctor at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Her home country, not in darkest Africa, had seen only two cases identical to hers in the last 40 years. So America, with its vastness, its experience in frightening and frightful matters of the body, was able to create the optimal treatment plan, to offer information and to send faxes and reports to the doctors in her hometown hospital. And my friend, who has a metaphoric black belt in survival skills, who questions and pushes and insists on her rights and uses the Internet like an intercontinental missile, will almost certainly live on. Nevertheless, all unbidden, the shadow of death passed over us as we drank our espresso in a Village cafe and talked about our relatives, their particular virtues and their commonplace vices. We spoke of old betrayals and singular triumphs and recalled the births of babies. We talked about politics. Hers terrify me. Mine make her laugh. We were in a clean, well-lighted place with banana muffins in a glass case and indirect lighting glowing from tracks along the white ceiling, but the shadow hovered above our heads, spread and contracted, rattled our cups and made our fingers tap nervously against the tabletop.

Then we walked in the cold streets, along Hudson Street, along Bleecker, past antique stores, fruit and vegetable stands and vintage clothing shops with feather boas dangling in the windows. She had lost weight, too much weight. I had liked her bulky. I had liked her big. I had liked the way her face was ruddy with weather and experience. Now it seemed pale, startled, a warrior in retreat. She showed me pamphlets about her work. She gave me newspaper clippings about her doings in her country. I told her I wanted to get a big dog. She told me she wanted time, more time. And time, of course, was exactly what we heard howling in our ears. We felt it nipping at our heels. We knew it was leaning on our backs, causing our eyes to smart and weighing down our feet, slowing our walk, making us stiff with apprehension. Her hair is fine, mine is thick, but chemotherapy could blow all away before our conversation ends.

We avoided the usual verities. “You live on in the minds of your family and friends.” We’re tough old birds and won’t fall for that old saw. You live on for only a brief moment, and then you are swallowed up in the rushing tide of everyday events. You don’t live on; rather, you become mythologized by your children, glimpsed in old photographs, but you have vanished in the round, disappeared in the complexity–in the potential for change, for conflict, for holding a hand or whispering in an ear–that was once you. If you do live on in the neurons and the currents of the brains you have nurtured, you don’t enjoy it much, you don’t even know about it. This is ironic survival, cold comfort, the consolation of the all too easily pacified, and it’s not of much use to the living. Fact is, we are gradually erased from memory, even the most famous and historic will be forgotten in the next ice age. Even one’s best clothes are destined for the thrift shop, where they will become other than what they were on your back. If Bill Clinton looks at his place in history through a wide enough lens, then he will not worry about the blot of impeachment. Our names will erode in the flow of time, our deeds will pale and no one will care, if there is anyone here to care. I would suggest to the President that this summer he lie down on his back in the grass and watch the lines of the new moon cut sharply into the night. Even the moon may not last an eternity. The Republican Party may try to catch it in a barrel and sell it to the rest of us, but it, too, may in millions of years be nothing more than ash. Alas, poor moon.

As we pushed our way through streets crowded with strollers, with girls in berets and men with scarves wrapped around their necks to keep off the turn-of-the-century chill, we did not evoke the platitude that death is merely the jumping-off point for a jolly hereafter. Neither of us, she of scientific mind, me of skeptical inclinations, could buy that. The movies and the TV are chockablock with images of angels and flower-soaked heaven and ghosts watching over their loved ones. But the more we know of the mind-body fusion, the less probable it seems that the soul without its casing is viable. To expect immortality from such a paltry thing as a human being is to misunderstand, to wish instead of think, to hope instead of examine evidence, to wax sentimental and false and to weaken the mind in the process. Every falsehood we fool ourselves with, every lie we use as a blanket to allow us to sleep, deprives us of honor and honesty and the possibility of shaking a fist at fate, which seems the single way toward nobility, the preservation of a shred of pride. We are only eternal in the pitiful imaginings of those who haven’t the nerve to stare up at the vastness of the night sky and accept the tiny portion of organic matter we have been given, granted on loan, on temporary pass, revocable at a half-second’s notice. My friend and I are tough enough to know that the selves we are so involved with, the selves that wake from nightmares and remember the names of our second-grade teachers are just dust in the wind, detritus of chemical wizardry, brief combinations of mineral and water, juice and acid, and prone to decay.

My friend and I ignored the shadow but not quite. We talked about kingdoms and elections and the role of women in first-, second- and third-world affairs. We had more coffee in another cafe. I had a chicken salad. She pushed her food about her plate. She is strong like a mountain goat, which in fact is what her name means in her native language. But even mountain goats object to the way things are and the way they must necessarily be. If I had never met her years ago at a conference, then I would not have shared the time with her under the shadow. If I did not recognize the shadow and know that it was mine as well as hers, I would be incapable of the love I feel for her, the bracing way it passes over me, cutting and sweet. When she left me, I turned to see her walk toward the house in which she was staying. Her footing was sure. Her back was straight. I felt the air rush in between us. So it must be …