Jews and Jesus, Death and Taxes

I cried two-and-a-half times today, for about 20 seconds each time, and mostly because I was feeling irritable. It was embarrassing to cry, even in front of myself, because the cause was sentimental claptrap for one-and-a-half of the times. But the first was out of shock. My high school best friend J called me this morning; she'd had a mastectomy and reconstruction five years ago. I'd tried to reach her; I'd sent her e-mails but hadn't heard back. She says that her workplace is clamping down on Spam so maybe the "breast" in the subject line relegated the messages to the trash heap. She asked if Fancy Hospital had a good web site and I said the breast section is down for revitalization, or whatever it's called. She said M.D. Anderson has a very good site. I googled and found the breast-cancer page then clicked on the link for a guide for Jewish women about heredity and breast and ovarian cancer. All of a sudden on my screen was a picture of one of my mother's good friends. She'd had died of ovarian cancer several years ago. Apparently her family has set up a foundation at M.D. Anderson. The sight of her just caught me. I knew she'd died, and of ovarian cancer, but I'd forgotten. My mother has a picture of her on her dressing table shelves, along with family pictures. I know it had torn her up when her friend died. Why did the picture affect me so? I can't figure it out. I guess I'd expected to find generic information on the site, and here is someone from my personal past. The second picture was of the woman's daughter and granddaughter. I didn't recognize the daughter at first, though she used to be one of my sister's elementary-school friends and I remember the time she came on a picnic with us and got her tongue stuck on a popsicle. There was lots of information about genetic factors in breast and ovarian cancer and the higher incident of both among Ashkenazi Jews (such as myself and my friend J and my mother's friend and my cousin and aunt and Gilda Radner). I can say I was shocked because the cancer hit close to home, but how much closer to home can it hit than my own breast? The real answer may be that Death was hitting close to home. I was looking up my own diagnosis and there on the screen was the picture of my mother's dead friend. That doesn't seem to be all of it, but I will ponder it.

The second time I cried was in the car, coming home from buying the two cancer books mentioned in yesterday's post (below). I turned on the country music station and there was a song, sung in the voice of a father whose young daughter comes home from school reporting that she has a new friend named Alyssa, who lies. She lies when she's on the playground, she lies to the teacher--"as she tries to cover every bruise." That made me tear up some. On Monday the father knows what he has to do, but it's too late, he finds out: "Alyssa lies with Jesus/ because there's nothin' anyone would do." That's the only hint of regret. Why didn't he pick up the phone as soon as he heard and call the local child-abuse agency? Why doesn't he castigate himself for not doing anything, instead of passively accepting that she's with Jesus? The bigger question is why do I expect any sophistication from country music lyrics? Why do I listen? Just for something different, and because I like the narrativity of country music songs. I'm a writer who hardly writes with narrative, though I appreciate it in what I read and hear. Not always. I like it in folk and fairy tales. I don't need it in contemporary stories.

Why oh why do cheap sentimental lyrics get to me?

The third-ish time I cried was when a commercial came on about some little boy who was a "typical ten-year-old" except he almost didn't make it to his first birthday. But some hospital saved him. The commercial was full of cliches and sappy, but it hit me.

I don't know if this breast cancer has made me more weepy or if it's merely because I ran out of one ingredient in my anti-anxiety cocktail and did without a dose of it last night.
***
We went to a small Super Bowl gathering. There was a commercial for hair dye featuring Sheryl Crow, and I thought but didn't say, She had breast cancer. On CNN.com last year she said, "...for me to know that God had me in his hands, I never felt alone." Would she have said the same thing if she were *dying* of cancer? Or would she say that God had had her in his hands but had dropped her?

At the little party I talked to C., who'd had breast cancer about four years ago. It turns out she'd had a mastectomy, with reconstruction performed by the plastic surgeon I'd met with. She liked him and his work very much, and showed me her breast and scar. I said I thought her torso looked familiar from the scrapbook the doctor had shown me. During the game I repaired two sweaters and began reading "Bathsheba's Breast," with its gruesome descriptions of mastectomies. The author is a professor at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, TX, and reported that Sam Houston's wife had had breast pain and then had surgery at home without anesthesia. The doctor offered her whiskey, but because she was a teetotaler and had gotten her husband to give up the bottle, she didn't want to take a drop of alcohol, even for medicinal purposes. She bit into a silver coin during surgery instead. The author surmised that she probably had mastitis, a benign condition.

The author, James S. Olson, began the book after he was treated for cancer of the hand, at M.D. Anderson. Eventually his left hand and forearm were amputated. The hospital came about partly because Monroe Dunaway Anderson, a cotton king, set up a foundation so that his company wouldn't be ruined by estate taxes.

2 comments:

Garry said...

It's tricky, distinguishing simple narrative from sentimental narrative. There's great country music narrative (Pancho and Lefty or Lovin' Her Was Easier Than Anything I'll Ever Do Again"),mawkishly sentimental CM narrative (Butterfly Kisses) and some CM narrative that is either great or awful, depending upon your mood and perspective (He Stopped Lovin' Her Today). The same for real life cancer narratives, and the same for anyone who's confronted with scary stuff. It amazes and depresses me how some people can face genuinely scary stuff and somehow not be able to bust through the sludge of sentimentality that they (and others) have built around their souls and brains for decades. But some people find amazing grace and truth.

Writer said...

Here are them lyrics. I don't think there's a whole lot of narrative, here, Garry. But some nice images.

Artist/Band: Nelson Willie
Lyrics for Song: Pancho & Lefty
Lyrics for Album: Essential Willie Nelson
Livin on the road my friend, is gonna keep you free and clean
Now you wear your skin like iron
Your breath as hard as kerosene
You weren't your momma's only boy, but her favorite one it seems
She began to cry when you said goodbye
And sank into your dreams
Pancho was a bandit boy, his horse was fast as polished steel
He wore his gun outside his pants
For all the honest world to feel
Pancho met his match you know on the deserts down in Mexico
Nobody heard his dyin words, ah but that's the way it goes

All the Federales say, they could've had him any day
They only let him slip away, out of kindness I suppose

Lefty he can't sing the blues all night long like he used to
The dust that Pancho bit down south ended up in Lefty's mouth
The day they laid poor Pancho low, Lefty split for Ohio
Where he got the bread to go, there ain't nobody knows

All the Federales say, they could've had him any day
They only let him slip away out of kindness I suppose

The boys tell how old Pancho fell, and Lefty's livin in cheap hotels
The desert's quiet, Cleveland's cold
And so the story ends we're told
Pancho needs your prayers it's true, but save a few for Lefty too
He only did what he had to do, and now he's growing old

All the Federales say, they could've had him any day
They only let him go so long, out of kindness I suppose

A few gray Federales say, they could've had him any day
They only let him go so long, out of kindness I suppose