Distress signal

America in distress, by Thomas Cizauskas on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons
America in distress, by Thomas Cizauskas on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons

The past week has been hard. I have been at a loss for what to say about our national predicament, which is not a new one, and which is better addressed by people who aren’t me. I am listening and trying to learn. I am standing in solidarity and sadness and anger. And I’m doing it on a screen, because thus far, I haven’t identified any opportunities to gather in public that will be socially distanced enough from Covid-19, and also guaranteed not to expose us to tear gas and rubber bullets in the new militarized environment of Our Nation’s Capital (which is looking uncomfortably much like 1989 Beijing).

My family’s choice of the United States as our new home, over fifty years ago now, should have been an upgrade. In moving here, we managed to avoid military dictatorships and the Dirty War. For many years it did feel that way. But our country, a comparatively young one, is now solidly in the grip of an existential threat. Young J and Young A are 13 and 10 now. I don’t know what to tell them about the future, because it’s bleak.

As a cancer mom, I told my kids everything about my disease and its treatment, but left out the death part as long as I could. In trying to do the same about America’s disease, I cannot “leave out” the death part. Black and brown people die every day in this country because of a number of things, I tell them. Because, in the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates, “In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body.” Because of institutions turning their backs, and because of individuals representing those institutions drawing their weapons instead of deescalating. Because “the people who call themselves ‘white'” (James Baldwin) have been emboldened by their skin color and the lack of impediment to their progress across a continent awash with the blood of so many others. It is of little comfort to me that this country’s original sin took place before my family got here. I want to be part of seeing to it that restitution is made. To say this out loud: It is a Tuesday in June in Racist America. And I refuse to dignify the person cowering and squatting in our White House with the lights off with any of my words at all.

Five years ago today, I underwent gamma knife surgery on nine brain tumors. I continue to be at a loss to understand why I’m even here to type this. It could have been otherwise. I’m sure some people ascribe it to a higher power or to a miracle, but I know in my heart it is random coincidence, nothing else. Perhaps getting melanoma is a metaphor for the corrosive effect of racism in our society. Perhaps it is just shitty luck.

One thing I know for sure is that I would not be here without the true heroes, the pantheon of scientists, researchers, visionaries, and doctors and nurses and assistants and phlebotomists, who treated me, who developed the treatments that saved me, and who gave me courage when I didn’t think I had it. The other night, we watched Jim Allison: Breakthrough. This moving portrait of a man who made it his mission to bring cancer immunotherapy to patients (including me) is just one story of hundreds that could be told, of the people who take cancer personally enough to devote their lives to its treatment and eradication. (My beloved Dr. P is another such person.)

I have always rejected the notion that when it comes to my disease, I am “a fighter.” Other than showing up to my appointments on time, I did nothing in particular to deserve my survival. But it occurs to me that I ought to turn the privilege of having survived — and my privilege, generally — towards making sure that others do.

Black Lives Matter.

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