Two months ago today, a urologist at George Washington University Hospital diagnosed me with low-grade prostate cancer. It’s interesting how the mind and heart internalize that kind of information, over time. While this diagnosis is likely very manageable and treatable, my mind has gone to several places with it over these last two months.
As I wrote earlier, I often forget about it. After moderating a lively class discussion of Emily Dickinson poems– or of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask,” I remember the diagnosis and realize I had forgotten it for several hours. After watching my students act out the Gravedigger’s scene in Hamlet, I again realize for a few hours I’d forgotten it. It’s easiest to forget when I’m writing. I’ll finish working on a couple of poems over the course of a couple of hours and I’ll realize again– I’d forgotten it. But in the realization of a brief forgetting, the fact of it is there.
I do not think this is the illness that will take me from this world. Yet, I cannot help but give some thought to a few big, “rear-view mirror” questions. If this illness were to take me soon, am I happy with this life? Have I loved enough in my marriage? Have I befriended others with enough generosity? Am I satisfied with the poetry I’ve written? Is there more I need or want to write? Have I taught with enough passion, compassion, creativity?
It’s interesting to me how the word “cancer” can focus the mind in some startling ways. Over the past two months, I have written with more depth, taken more time to write, and listened to more silence than before. I have listened more attentively to my students and observed them more attentively than before. At least it feels that way to me. I am aware as I listen to them that I stay quiet longer, trying to understand the words under the words. I experience a kind of clarity in the air that I don’t think I’ve experienced before.
Recently, my American Literature students spent a few days discussing Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. In Chapter Two, he writes about people who are awake enough for physical work. A smaller number of people, he writes, are awake enough for intellectual exertion. An even smaller number of people, Thoreau writes, are awake enough for “a poetic or divine life.” I don’t know where I’d land on Thoreau’s “How awake am I?” scale, but the focus and clarity I’ve experienced in the last two months feels like being awake in a more vigorous and lively way.
This morning, in 30-degree weather, I ran about four miles on a trail near our house. Some of you know that I am not a great winter runner. But so far, I have mostly maintained my running schedule into the middle of December. It usually crumbles entirely once the weather cools. For now, even in this regular running, I am seeing more clearly and finding the will to do it.
Those “rear-view mirror” questions above evoke a swirl of yes and no. I’ve spent some time in self-pity but not much. Mostly, I feel like I’m still watching and learning. I can’t help but see the world through the lens of this diagnosis. But that helps me. It asks me to “keep vigil.” For now, that’s exactly what I will do.
Photo: Boulder Bridge, Rock Creek Park, Washington, D.C. Taken by J. Ross