After the Cure, the Cry… by Steve Safran

I broke down crying in Target today. Just started blubbering. People must have thought I was really upset they were out of the $9.99 sale sweatshirts.

This will be heavy. This is not the usual, lighthearted stuff I want to write. But this blog has always been weirdly honest, even when Britt and I have been at our jokiest. I like to think we’ve put stuff out there that’s tough to discuss, and more uncomfortable to admit. And right now, things are difficult for me.

I didn’t cry much during treatment for testicular cancer. Not when I was diagnosed. Not when I was in pain. Not when I spent endless hours in the hospital, frustrated at the lack of attention, information, or prompt pain management. Hardly a tear. Now that I’m in remission and feeling well enough to shop for sweatshirts at Target?

I can’t stop crying.

During the Battle of Britain in 1940, as Londoners were faced with being obliterated by the Luftwaffe, the incidence of mental illness dropped. Fewer people visited psychiatrists. Even as the Germans tried to kill them, Britons actually experienced less stress and need for psychiatric care. You can chalk that up to the famous British stiff upper lip, but it’s likely something more universal: when you’re under attack, you don’t have time to worry.

This is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Soldiers don’t get depressed in the field. But for years after– even for the rest of their lives— they can be haunted by the trauma they saw and endured. It’s only after the battle is done that your mind takes a beat: “Hey. Wait. What just happened?”

Thus, me, cancer… and the crying.

Right up to the moment they were rolling me into the operating room, I felt absolutely fearless. I was even indignant that the surgeon was running late. I was pretty drugged up, but I know, I absolutely know, I didn’t feel scared at that moment. I said, “Let’s do this” with all the bravado of a warrior. Let’s go in and smoke out the enemy. The camo was on, the war paint was smeared, and I had readied myself for battle, albeit wearing a backless nightie in a sterile room with polite nurses and soft rock.

Of course, I had an initial cry of relief. The release. It felt good. Someone with CT scan results and authority said, “remission,” that no more treatment was needed, and boy was that cry-worthy. But within just a couple of days, I switched into a very different gear. And things got dark. And I started to think…

My body tried to kill me. Twice.

First it betrayed me with cancer, and then a week later it attacked me with a pulmonary embolism. I’m having a hard time forgiving my body for that. To be struck by an enemy soldier is one thing; to be attacked from within? My body tried to kill me and when it wasn’t successful the first time, it tried again.

Bastard.

Now my body has scars. They embarrass me and they will never go away. I have had far more difficult emotional days since being cured than I did while undergoing chemo. I have hospital flashbacks, picturing needles and bags full of chemicals and it’s all horrible like some sort of far-off, war-torn jungle. Also, now I get a lot of eye boogers. Apparently chemo messes with your tear ducts. Not enough to stop the crying, apparently, but another daily reminder that I needed tear duct-poisoning medicines to ensure my survival.

I’m getting help. I talk with a psychiatrist who says he’s a “big fan of crying.” I see what he means. It metabolizes the pain. Crying is the most human response to all of the loss: losing parts of my body and, at least for now, any sort of confidence that it won’t betray me again.

There is appreciative crying, too. These tears spring from a different place. I think back on all the people who helped me–  all of the people who volunteered their time or simply gave a thumbs up to a posting. Cancer can remind you that you’re actually very loved, and the overwhelming gratitude in the aftermath makes it occasionally hard to speak without choking up.

It has been about four weeks since I learned the chemo worked. And I’ve gone from crying all the time to maybe once a day. So maybe there’s something to this business after all. It’s not manly, at least not in the traditional “suck it up and be a man” sense. But I think I get a little leeway on the “manly” front after getting the kind of cancer that requires the removal of an intimate chunk of physical manliness. The chunk, by the way, that was trying to kill me.

How do I forgive my body for attempted suicide? How do I come to terms with forever being branded a “cancer survivor,” or letting go a carefree notion that serious illness is something that happens to old people that aren’t me? How the hell do I get over this?

I don’t know. For now, I cry.

Happy, grateful crying when Stevie got the good news.

Happy, grateful crying when Stevie got the good news. Also, another example of how nurses are awesome.

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Writing to be liked

My college application essay probably sucked. I cringe at what teenage Britt included on one sheet of dot matrix. No doubt I dragged my gymnastic and typing accomplishments into an argument for personal betterment. (And what prestigious university isn’t recruiting self absorbed, inter-office-memo-drafting cart-wheelers?) No doubt the essay was very serious and heroically boring. But at the blue eye-shadowed age of 17, nothing had happened yet. Anything worth recounting in five sassy paragraphs was far off in my mammogrammed future amongst Asians, so I probably typed the usual drivel that drives admissions staff to an early and generous pour of single malt. Recently, a lovely and accomplished high school senior asked me to take a crack at her college essay. And because it wasn’t me who needed to impress some faraway grownup with a red pen, I transformed into a charming, competitive-swimming diabetic fluent in French. Je suis tres amusant avec une pompe de insulin sous ma lingerie! It was super fun.

Sometimes this is how the best writing happens: ignore any assumptions about the audience, and write for the sheer joy of it. Jenny Polk, an old friend with thousands of Twitter followers, wrote to me, “I would never have the guts to say f**k in my posts!” Presumably, that’s because her mother-in-law is a follower. I think potty mouth has all but lost its shock value, and the f-bomb sometimes provides the perfect staccato for an angry sentence. I wouldn’t recommend incorporating it into the Harvard essay, but for a silly blog, no one cares a fig. And as soon as I start worrying about how my own mother-in-law is going to react to scatological word choices, any written missives about moon cakes (vile) or Chinese food preparation (arduous) or energy work (hilarious but effective) will suffer for authenticity. And after two years posting sassy paragraphs peppered with baser adjectives and exclamations, I’ve received nary a complaint… but quite a few editing gigs.

I’ve been doing rewrites for family and friends, scientists and students for a quarter century. Even though I’m certain my own admissions essay was met with groaning, future literary endeavors (inspired by the inimitable Professor Kuyk) landed me a paid job in the college Writing Center. Training to become a Writing Associate involved one semester at a roundtable with other faculty-endorsed “writers” writing about writing. This was before anyone used the word “meta.” Professor Beverly Wall was an enthusiast for something called “desktop publishing” and encouraged us to “post” our papers on a school-sponsored “intranet.” In effect, we were all contributing to a classroom blog, although that word hadn’t been invented yet, either. In the early ‘90s, we found this tedious: we wanted to discuss our work, not type criticisms with a blinking cursor. Also, there was no “like” button.

It’s impossible to imagine a gaggle of college kids loath to type opinions onto a shared server, since this form of communication now eclipses all others. But those were ancient times when writers feared more than welcomed an audience with the ability to disparage your five paragraphs with one calamitous (or anonymous) comment. Modern writers are cursed and blessed with ubiquitous readers. Everyone loves to be “liked,” but your most and least favorite Facebook status updaters are testimony to the influence of audience on the tone and quality of a sentence. As I wondered if an adolescence of misspelled texting and like-clicking critique is ruining the written word, I read that Tufts University is now accepting video submissions in place of the compulsory essay… and that article used the word “interestingly,” so you be the judge.

A handful of my old Writing Center relationships have endured and their work still gives me goose bumps: Nancy’s guffaw-inducing comedic rhythm and word choice, Julia’s pretty handwriting reflecting her outer beauty and inner complexity, Tony’s brilliantly fashioned lefty opinions devoid of lawyer-speak, and Ran’s latest series of stories that will make you hmmm and ahhh and hate him a bit for being so fucking eloquent. I still swoon for a beautiful sentence; but now I blog, email, instant message, and craft silly statuses, because that is the stage for contemporary writing. I also edit college essays to stifle the sort of schlock I wrote before I had the chutzpah to make an admissions officer giggle… before I had a voice… before I stopped writing to please an audience instead of marinating in the sheer delight of having one.

CALVIN AND HOBBS

Teachers

Professor Simmons (of Fromage fame) sent the perfect gift: a book! Selected from his favorite purveyor of pre-owned texts and wrapped up in plain brown paper, my darling Professor delivered the syllabus for our next bubbly reunion. If you, like me, are a writer who enjoys reading about writing, then Simple and Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers, by Jacques Barzun is Manchego on your apple, Devonshire cream on your scone, sherry by the fire. (And if you, like me, enjoy talking about reading about writing, then welcome to Britt’s Book Club, champagne included.) Although written words about the written word may have the city-slickest of you crying, “Meta!” Mr. Barzun will insist that you resist. After many elegant and witty chapters illustrating ways to sidestep common writing errors, the author reminds us not to take it all too seriously, either.

 Pedantry is a misplaced attention to trifles which then prides itself on its poor judgment.

I assume these beauties slide off of his brandied tongue at any given cocktail party. I want to fill his pipe, TA his class, and write (better). I read the entire text in two sittings and now I am savoring a second study to collect my favorite sentences for the pleasure of saying them aloud. Try it with the quote above and enjoy channeling your best Dowager Countess. Here is another little gem, equally applicable to braving the blank page, choosing a Halloween costume, and approaching the pretty girl at the bar:

Once committed to a cliché… you must not tamper with it.

Regarding the construction of a perfect sentence (or outfit, or one-liner), one may go whole hog (but not pan pig), and the key to success is a steadfast dedication to your point… even if your point is not having one. Here’s mine, tucked into third paragraph and written plain: I just love Professor Simmons and all of the Great Teachers with their easy eloquence, unsolicited gifts, and scholarly encouragement to write (better).

Earlier in the week, I found another treasure in the mail, sandwiched between the piles of glossy encouragements to buy rustic coffee tables and resort clothing. My elderly editor (of Pom Pom fame) sent an amused reply to my chatty letter… and requested a meeting! Luckily, I have the sort of husband who will surrender his wife to another man for a few stolen moments at Church coffee hour. The summons was printed on a thick card embossed with the university library that bears his name, and it directed me to look for him in a red jacket, green cap. I’m so excited to meet an outfit-planning, tryst-arranging, letter-writing, library-naming fellow. This man has ninety brag-worthy years of academic, business, and personal successes, so I feel compelled to bring more to the meeting than my silly, pom pon-wielding passion for the written word. I think baked goods are in order.

Thinking about these delightful Professors Emeriti recalls another: A Gong. I’ve written about my father-in-law oodles of times, so that regular readers know all about energy work and wasabi peas and the understated brilliance of this kind man. Bernie’s father is a student of Qi Gong, a Tai Chi master, a healer, and the former Chairman of the Psychology Department. His East Meets West philosophy elevates all of his pursuits– golf, photography, YouTube videos– to a search for their essence. We all believe that A Gong is a little bit magic. This is a man who can unknot your back, lessen the chemo pain, improve your putt, win the photo show, and introduce you to God. Over the past dozen years I’ve met, hosted, housed, and fed students of all ages who call A Gong, “teacher.” They come from all corners to sit at our table, drink many pots of tea, and pocket bits of A Gong wisdom that we take for granted. Like this:

The tall tree invites the wind.

In the bloggy brouhaha of weeks past, this was A Gong’s take on being so very… public. The image of a proud, towering tree laid flat by the forces of the universe is such a stark contrast to my sunny worldview. But A Gong’s concerns as The Family Patriarch trumped his consideration of these musings as Professor. This is understandable, honorable, expected: his job is to make certain no Evil Things slither into our God-fearing bubble. Unfortunately, Cancer already did… and these pages (and your words) kept that scary beast at bay. Also, these very posts prompted a welcome letter-exchange (a dying practice) with the Great Professor Simmons. It’s also possible that Pom Poms has inspired the beginning of a beautiful, new friendship! Good Things can come of shared writings… not the least of which was three hours of discussion about Love, Truth, and Internet Evils with my father-in-law. Writers must write… but psychologists must analyze.

And now, I leave you with the words of another teacher (Liberal Joe) who, because of what I was writing (and omitting), sensed I wasn’t my bubbly self. He inspired me to remember the point: why I began writing these little essays a year ago… and maybe even why the Great Professors are sending books and letters of encouragement.

On your last thought on the loss of peace: So find peace. Be peaceful. Beautiful, bright, thoughtful and well written go real well with peaceful.

Jacques Barzun wouldn’t say it any better.

That's me... still standing.

That’s me… still standing.