Three Ways to Disappear
A visual essay on living with cancer
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