- Recovering from Mortality: Essays from a Cancer Limbo Time
Narrative structures help make illness manageable: they have a beginning, middle, and end. Even if the end is death, a certain consolation can be found in mapping and naming predictable "stages" of the journey, convincing ourselves we know what to expect and therefore can prepare for it. We rely on these maps, whether we are caregivers or patients, for a sense of where we are and of what to hope for. But the fact is that every case is its own story, with unpredictable turnings and unforeseeable reprieves and reversals. At the heart of such stories lies the inescapable paradox that living and dying are coterminous. We receive life and release it with each breath.
Spiritual practices of all traditions focus in some way on cultivating an awareness of this paradox, on learning to receive and release, claim life and accept death, nurture hope and face the dark unknown with equanimity. Those who go before us into that unknown are our teachers. The testimonies they leave, however idiosyncratic, open avenues of insight and provide models of accommodation for us to remember as we may when the time comes for our own encounters with illness and death.
Deborah Cumming's Recovering from Mortality offers a lively and memorable testimony of that kind. The short reflections included cover a wide range of moods, concerns, and philosophical insights. A recurrent theme among them is the paradoxical mandate to live until you die. Cumming is determined to rise to that challenge as fully and imaginatively as possible—to approach her own death with consciousness, deliberation, attentiveness, and courage, unwilling simply to capitulate to the terms of her disease without a serious effort to stay alive, but also unwilling to entertain false hopes.
In an essay entitled "Practicing Dying," Cumming records with captivating detail her efforts to prepare for death in something like the way Lamaze classes help women prepare for childbirth. Resisting her therapist's offer to guide her through a meditation on death, she insists on finding or inventing her own way. It is a way of imagination—a dream space she enters at night before sleep:
The moon is full or a little past and the air outside my window is filled with pale light. I am merging with that light. . . . The rain steadily tapping on the deck umbrella, hissing against the leaves, [End Page 558] blends everything into one, heaven and earth, sky and ground. My spirit moves out, away from my body, into this full but permeable space, filled already with drops of water, with drops of air, with the pulse of crickets, and, here and there, the barking of dogs, like anchors, like trees.(67)
The sharp focus on the sensations of the moment—sounds, light, shapes, and smells—undertaken as a nightly practice, becomes a habit of mind that transforms the final months of Cumming's life. In twenty-eight lyrical essays she inscribes a record of what she calls her "limbo time"—the long plateau of remission before the final losses. Though they fall into rough sequence, the "chapters" are self-contained, each one a little gem of reflection. Some emerge from small observations: she notices that her cuticle is infected, that she has developed twitches in her body, that her nails have become rippled. As she acquires a new acquaintance with her own body by reading films with the radiologist, she simultaneously learns new ways of "reading" the information her body gives her, charged with unprecedented meaning and newly, deeply interesting. "Being more aware of your body," she writes, "is a lasting legacy of cancer, one of the most useful. . . . I'm learning to pay attention to everything about the body. In fact, I'm learning to pay more attention to everything" (39–40).
That attention extends to the psychological and social effects of hair loss, to thinning eyelashes, and to the shapes of now-visible bones. It also extends to words—those she uses and those others use...