Three Ways to Dis­ap­pear

A vis­ual es­say on liv­ing with can­cer

The Walrus - - FEATURES - By Teva Har­ri­son

It doesn’t feel right to cel­e­brate when some­body gets sick. Pic­ture this: You’re in a board­room at work, bal­loons taped to the white­board, sheet cake fes­tooned with ic­ing­sugar flow­ers sweet enough to hurt your teeth, bowls of chips, two-litre bot­tles of pop. Ev­ery­body gath­ers ex­pec­tantly, watch­ing the clock. In walks the guest of hon­our. But this time, it’s not a blush­ing preg­nant woman from ac­count­ing or a jovial re­tiree. No. In­stead, I pad into the room wear­ing ill-fit­ting lay­ers of cot­ton hos­pi­tal robes, steady­ing my feet by hold­ing onto a rolling stand, IV bag bounc­ing with ev­ery sham­bling step.

And there goes the party.

Now blink that im­age away, be­cause it will never hap­pen. I don’t go wan­der­ing the city in hos­pi­tal gowns like a hor­ror­movie es­capee. For me, the hor­rific is all un­der my skin. I look amaz­ing. I’ve lost forty pounds, thanks to can­cer, and peo­ple I haven’t seen in a long time of­ten ask me my se­cret. I tell them they don’t re­ally want to know. My strug­gle now is stop­ping the loss.

When we get sick, we dis­ap­pear. But it’s not like ma­ter­nity leave or re­tire­ment. We plan for those things. Get­ting sick is never on any five-year plan. And when some­one’s ill­ness is sud­den, there are more im­por­tant con­sid­er­a­tions than or­ga­niz­ing files for a hand-off, let alone or­der­ing a cake and scrib­bling a few nice words on a card.

How do we cel­e­brate the peo­ple who dis­ap­pear but are not yet dead? How do we cel­e­brate their con­tri­bu­tions?

Ill­ness is noth­ing to cel­e­brate. We don’t have craft enough to bend lan­guage to ac­com­mo­date the breadth of liv­ing and dy­ing, work­ing and fail­ing, and al­ways fall­ing short.

We’re meant to check our per­sonal life at the door when we show up for work. We’re meant to be dis­pas­sion­ate and dry; our work re­la­tion­ships are sup­posed to have the nec­es­sary dis­tance that comes with hi­er­ar­chy. We’re ex­pected to keep it pro­fes­sional.

When I got sick, I tried to work. For a cou­ple of weeks, my de­nial was enough to get me through the day. But it lasted only weeks. With time, the re­al­ity of my ter­mi­nal di­ag­no­sis hit me like a trop­i­cal storm, all- en­com­pass­ing and rush­ing. I sat in my of­fice and cried, un­til I thought I was be­ing too dis­rup­tive. Then I re­al­ized that I had to go on leave. I was use­less at my desk.

Months passed. My col­leagues got by just fine, which made me feel both proud of my team and to­tally re­dun­dant. Even­tu­ally, I told my boss that I wasn’t go­ing to be able to come back for a while and that she should think about bring­ing in some­one new.

But it was still hard for me when she did. As much as I want that job filled by an amaz­ing and ef­fec­tive per­son, I still want that per­son to be me. And deep down, I want to have been bet­ter than my re­place­ment.

A dis­tance can open — a dis­con­nect be­tween what we ex­pect of a sick col­league and what she can de­liver. Even when peo­ple are com­pas­sion­ate, the gap grows, as the abil­i­ties of the sick and the healthy no longer align. This cre­ates a cer­tain kind of lone­li­ness — of be­ing alone among oth­ers. This is the lone­li­ness of the ill: our pace slows down as oth­ers pull away.

With each ad­di­tional weight strapped to our legs — a new sched­ule im­posed by hos­pi­tals, side ef­fects from treat­ment, at­ro­phy­ing mus­cles, a clouded in­tel­lect — our ca­reer as­pi­ra­tions move fur­ther out of reach. These aren’t changes that in­spire cel­e­bra­tion.

No bal­loons. No sheet cake. No gilded pins. No speeches.

When we get sick, we dis­ap­pear.

1. When We Get Sick

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