Sunday, May 27, 2007

Oh, Mom...

Brian Fies has written a graphic novel about his mother's cancer. I hate saying 'graphic novel' because, let's face it, we're all grownups here. A graphic novel is a comic book. I'm willing to acquiese that there are good comic books and mature comic books and of course there's Archie and Jughead and the superhero of your choice wearing long underwear and a mask and maybe a cape. But why don't we just assume that not all things are equal, and if some dude says "I've written a comic book about my mother's cancer," it might actually be something worth reading.

In this case, it is. It's simple, sparce, there are no cute narrative tricks and it's not easy on anyone. There's a thin but real vein of anger towards his mother; she smoked for years, and he illustrates a well nursed grudge along the lines of 'you're designing your own doom' vibe towards smokers of any stripe. He also notes that this isn't fair, it's just something that was felt at the time.

If you're a good writer, you can put material that you're proud of next to stuff you'd rather forget and create a box around it. The box represents the part of you that says "Now, I'm not condoning my actions at the time, but it's what happened and what I felt and right or wrong it's part of the history." If you're really good, the box is invisible, your reader won't need the implied (or stated) provisos.

Mom's Cancer is powerful and blunt, it could easily have been pretentious, sentimental, precious, well-meaning but cloying, or horribly, horribly ill-conceived. The nightmare example of something well-intended but veering way out of control is The Day The Clown Cried, the Jerry Lewis movie (unreleased due to rights issues) where he plays a clown entertaining kids at Auschwitz. Yes, you read that properly. If you're cringing at the thought, you're not alone. Harry Shearer saw a rough cut at one point and said "The closest I can come to describing the effect is if you flew down to Tijuana and suddenly saw a painting on black velvet of Auschwitz. You'd just think, 'My God, wait a minute! It's not funny, and it's not good, and somebody's trying too hard in the wrong direction to convey this strongly held feeling."

Having said that, I don't want to knock anybody's method of dealing with stuff. This is the box that I'm writing myself into, and you may have noticed that it's far from invisible. When my own mother was in chemo, I wrote about it because it was better than worrying. The aformentioned Mom's Cancer was what I would have liked to have written. What I got out was something that, years later, strikes me as somewhat cold, which wasn't the intention. In a crisis, I become methodical, it comes across on the page.

I have a friend who's dealing with the same situation at the moment, I'd told him that he might be interested both in Fies' book and in knowing that somebody else might be (have been) in the same mindset where he finds himself, some kind of solace in shared experience. He asked to see what I was writing while I was watching the same situation, here it is. This was written in November of 1999.

There's a black paper bag over the IV pole, it runs halfway down the length of the tube running into my mother's arm. The chemotherapy is photosensitive. This doesn't mean that it runs away at the sight of a flashbulb going off, yelling "No! I'm fat! That isn't my best side!", although I find that a much more interesting concept than the truth.

The truth is that the two chemicals (interferon and platinum) react to each other in the body quite nicely, and react to each other in bright light just as well. It's a regular orgy as a matter of fact, molecules binding to each other to beat the band. This is not great for the whole idea of an IV tube however, since it could turn essentially into Jell-o on the way down and Jell-o and needles don't get along. Apparently, Bill Cosby notwithstanding, there is not always room for Jell-o.

My mother is lying flat on the cot, waiting for the drip to start. The purpose of the drip is largely mathematical. It is designed to kill more or less everything in its path, over a preordained period of time, before becoming inert. Think of it flowing down a tunnel, killing everything within 5 feet square the whole way down. By the time it reaches the end of the tunnel, the floura and fauna of previous five feet intervals are already regenerating, hopefully minus the less desirable floura and fauna which grew there before. It doesn't kill the whole tunnel at once, just what's around it.

My mother is both the tunnel abd the 'everything around it.' It'll kill a little bit of everything, without killing the patient. If the patient is lucky. But this shouldn't be so grim. My mother was a nurse in palliative care in the past, she knows her odds, what she's in for, the side effects. That's the good news. The bad news is that she knows her odds, what she's in for, the side effects.

It ain't going to be easy. But it will not be fatal. After that sentence, everything else is gravy.

"Don't feel like you have to entertain me," she says not unpleasantly but a little sharply, flipping a magazine in front of her eyes. I'm there as a gofer, a bedside valet in the cancer ward, which is a sensitively painted room filled with warm cozy beds filled with very sick people in varying degrees of discomfort.

Most of those degrees are low. Nobody is too sore. Nobody is screaming. Everything from this point on is gravy, again. There is a lot of gravy today, as a matter of fact I'm drowning in it, I can't find the meat below to stand on, so I'm treading gravy rather than water (no mean feat), doing the backstroke into the hallway from time to time to fetch paper cups of water, lemon-flavoured swabs, new magazines and kleenexes.

Since it's almost Christmas, there are candies and cookies. LOTS of candies and cookies. One woman, who was discreetly retching as we walked into the ward, looked at a tray of fresh chocolate-chip cookies and shrugged. "A moment on the lips," then, gesturing to the bucket on her lap, "temporarily on the hips. What the hell." She winked at me and had a few snacks.

My mother doesn't look scared. She looks inconvenienced and pissed off and more than a little fragile and woozy. That's different than scared. She is losing a few bits of life, they will be re-grown after a time. This is not yet a cycle of losing. This is not yet a controlled descent.
My mother survived, flourished, nursed my father when he was diagnosed. And life goes on.

Fies' book deals beautifully with a 'difficult' figure, his new-age stepfather who he is convinced is trying to position himself to point a soothing, accepting and appropriately cozy path to death's door and help Mom into that good night with chants of affirmation. The door's not slammed in his face exactly, but Fies' explanation of how he literally couldn't carry on a conversation with his father is both heartfelt and not without respect. The well-written invisible box holds everything the reader needs.


Brian Fies said...

Thanks for this sensitive critique, one of the best I've received, and for letting me know about it. I like your formulation of "the invisible box"--a lot of people don't get that. Thanks also for sharing your writing from 1999. I can relate. No problem with the use of my artwork, I appreciate your consideration. My best to you and your family.

Mr. Knight said...

Beautiful as always. There are days I wish there was someone I could be mad at, hate, pound to a pulp. There isn't. Mom has had a healthy life and eaten the right things, and so on. In her words "I have just been given a bad hand"
I hate the game she is playing and wish she could fold her hand, leave the table, and go play blackjack for another 20 years.

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