(A note from Sharon: Yes, the post/writing suggestions for the coming week are early. The reason? I’m traveling for the next few days and will be away from my office and computer. I’ll be back on regular Sunday postings April 30th.)
I’m crossing a border this week, traveling from San Diego to Toronto, Canada for a short visit with my daughter and her family. I’ve done this dozens of times over many years, so it’s slightly amusing to me that I’ve never gotten used the feeling of timidity that sweeps over me when I step forward and face a customs officer, whether the US or Canadian border.
“Passport please.” I hand over my passport and smile like an obedient first grader. Some customs officials are welcoming, even smiling back at me. Other times, their faces are stony and expressionless. I want to reassure them. I’m a nice person, I want to say, really I am.
“Reason for your visit?” I offer another smile. I’m silently thanking the fact that I have gray hair and am no doubt seen as a senior citizen and the mother of adult daughters.
“I’m here to visit my daughter.”
“How long will you be staying?”
I answer appropriately, a week, a month, or in this case, just four days. Thwack. Thwack. My passport is stamped. “Enjoy your stay,” the customs official says as he hands me my passport. I’m approved for entry.
Of course, I’m not quite free of the lines and the terminal. I stand in the baggage area with other weary travelers waiting for my suitcase to appear. Then I stand in line again, this time to hand in my customs form before I leave walk through the sliding doors to the throng of waiting families and friends. I turn right and walk out of the terminal in a haze of long distance travel. Despite the fact I’ve traveled frequently and far in the world, the first slap of culture shock, even mild, is always a surprise. It takes me an hour to two to regain my sense of familiarity with a place I once lived.
But there are other border crossings that may not go as smoothly as a trip to this country’s northern neighbor. These are ones that involve a major life transition or serious illness. You move you’re your familiar life to an unfamiliar one in a matter of moments. It’s often abrupt and thrust upon you with little warning–not unlike the moment you first heard these words from your doctor: “you have cancer.” You’re catapulted into an unfamiliar country, one Susan Sontag called “The Kingdom of the Sick.”
Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place. (Susan Sontag, in The New York Times, Jan. 26, 1978)
In the “Kingdom of the Sick,” no one asks for your passport or offers a welcoming, “Enjoy your stay.” You’re thrust into unfamiliar and rugged terrain. Perhaps you’ve been given a roadmap of sorts, but it is a maze of choices to make, each of them branching into multiple—and equally confusing—pathways. Worse, there’s the strange-sounding terminology to decipher –those colloquialisms and multi-syllabic utterances from your physician’s lips that leave you feeling dizzy and confused. Cancer teaches you a new language. You’re forced to leave behind what you took for granted, and cross into a new reality that you feel ill prepared for.
There’s a moment, not necessarily when you hear your diagnosis, maybe weeks later, when you cross that border and know in your heart and soul that this is really serious… The hardest thing is to leave yourself, the innocent, healthy you that never had to face her own mortality, at the border. That old relationship with your body, careless but friendly, taken for granted, suddenly ends. Your body becomes enemy territory …The sudden crossing over into illness or disability, becoming a patient, can feel like you’re landing on another planet, or entering another country… (Barbara Abercrombie, Writing Out the Storm, 2002).
This is the foreign territory of your body’s betrayal, where nothing seems quite real, and fear is your constant companion. It’s lonely–You feel lost. You’re traveling without an interpreter in a confusing and difficult place. Try as you might, there’s no escape, no going back, no refund for your ticket. You must learn how to cope and navigate your way through it all, and you must learn it quickly. Your life may depend on it.
But along the way, a glimmer of hope—and you discover it as you find other travelers, men and women like you, who are also struggling to make sense of this foreboding landscape.. You feel discover comfort and support in the community of other survivors. You feel less alone and together, find comfort in the sharing of fears and hopes, making them seem more manageable. You join hands and together, begin to find your way through this dark and fearful kingdom.
Somewhere out there in that darkness are hundreds of thousands … like myself …new citizens of this other country… In one moment of discovery, these lives have been transformed, just as mine has been, as surely as if they had been plucked from their native land and forced to survive in a hostile new landscape, fraught with dangers, real and imagined. (Musa Mayer, Examining Myself: One Woman’s Story of Breast Cancer Treatment and Recovery, 1994.).
- Write about crossing the border into the unknown territory of life threatening illness.
- What was it like at first?
- What old assumptions did you have to leave behind?
- How did your relationship with your body changed?
- What was most helpful to you as you entered “the kingdom of the sick?”