We (or at least I) live largely on a steady diet of metaphor. It is low calorie, zero fiber but good for the vision, blood pressure and sense of wonder. It allows you to look at one thing, one phenomenon, one horror, one delight, from at least another angle and sometimes many. Actual experiences also transform themselves into metaphor and then into personal fable, dogma, lore or myth. I do this all the time but not quite so often as I have over the last couple of months.
Years ago when we were the world with Sir Bob Geldorf and all the swaying rock stars, I went to the Sudan, the Ethiopian border, to the most miserable town in the world filled as it was with Cholera Ghosts, children just back from the starvation chasm -- a long trip your never fully survive. There was tuberculosis, malaria, incredibly toxic snakes, brackish water and stupefying heat. It was my job, as the Chief Administrator of the Tawawa Refugee Camp (30,000 or 45,000 people on a given day or in a given week) to choose what stragglers fell in off the blistered road from Addis Ababa, could stay in the camp or who had to move on to god knows where but probably west into the insatiable maw that was Khartoum in those days. I was a sort of bureaucratic dispenser of Sophie’s Choice like pronouncements. If you were healthy you kept walking, if you were dying or looked like you would be soon, we gave you a tucal (the round mud and camel dung huts that were the sole architecture of the camp and that part of Africa) and three meals a day courtesy of President Ronald Reagan and the People of the United States of America. The sacks the food came in became the clothes worn by the children and the dead.
One afternoon, a beautiful young Ethiopian woman came into my Administrative Tucal (much less grand than it sounds) and exposed a perfect, flawless breast. It was as beautiful as anything as I have ever seen. I told my translator, Maru, to tell her to cover herself, have a meal of fooul (beans and sometimes a hardboiled egg) and hit the road for the capitol or someone else’s camp. That’s when she showed me her other breast which was the nightmare of the first, charred, suppurating and, really, gone. I had Maru cover her again and this time take her to a new tucal close to the Maternal and Childbirth hut because, well, I found out that was where she was going to need to be in a few months.
Here, I walk around all day, go to the dry cleaners, the library, watch bad movies, read good and mediocre books. I make jokes, get dressed, undressed, sleep, cancel travel plans and try to avoid telephones. But there is that ruined Ethiopian breast that I am beginning to understand and even adopt. Having cancer has made me think a lot about a lot of things but, more than anything else, it has made me consider how complicated we homo sapiens are. How fragile, how secretive, how doomed. I knew all this already -- I have read Hamlet after all -- this isn’t metaphor, this is very, very real but I must say, it is also really quite interesting.
I am not at school because I am busy being the target of a Radioactive Ray Gun in a lead-lined room in the bottom floor of a building called The Cancer Center. I have a tumor on my epiglottis. The cancer has not spread. I know this because I have been in vast, amazing tubes, which are controlled cyclones of magnetism and inquiry.
Surgically, the cure might be worse than the disease. So I am (at the advice of scholars, doctors, friends and other pilgrims to this strange land) going the chemo/radiation route. The prognosis is excellent and, most importantly, this is a type of cancer that can be cured and not just edged into remission. The regimen calls for a dose of radiation five days a week for 6-8 weeks and three to four dances with the chemo demon.
Georgene has rented us a house in Santa Barbara for the first month of whatever this is going to be. I concurred because the bells of Dunn drive me mad when I am not responding to them but rather, lying in bed considering all the stuff I should be doing, the kids I should be teaching.
Many thanks for all the support and good wishes.