2016년 1월 12일 화요일

Toast to Starman, Good Bye to Major Tom

The one and only, imcomparable Bowie. 

Ziggy Stardust. Starman. Thin White Duke.
Aladin Sane, a Lad Insane.

Ten days into the new year, the unexpected, gripping news of David Bowie's death makes my heart jump. It's been over four years since I smoked my last cigarette. Shouldn't times like this be an exception, I wonder. I do resist the temptation to smoke one in his honor, but it isn't easy, as the first lines of "Rock-n-roll Suicide" echo in my head: "Time takes a cigarette, puts it in your mouth..."

Just a couple of days ago there was much talk about his music. Was it because he was already dead, then? But no, he had released new music then, on his 69th birthday on January 8. Only two days later, he is said to have died "peacefully after a courageous 18-month battle against cancer." I hadn't known of that battle at all. These facts I cannot instantly register. 

It seems strange that such an unearthly thing, too, submits to the mundane--terrifyingly absolute and final, yet much too inevitable as to be mundane--human fate of death. And cancer, no less. Now that I look again at the few recent photos published in news media, they show faint yet unmistakable signs of illness, marks of chemo. It is heartbreaking to imagine this unearthly man undergoing the  process too familiar to me. It may be ridiculous to be mourning a pop culture icon, but I find myself reeling with a visceral sense of loss. This loss feels more personal than is reasonable. I do not want to be seeing all the obits and headlines that pop up everywhere on the internet. Nonetheless, I see, post after post, an endless stream of tributes and memories on Facebook, even from friends who tend to be indifferent to celeb culture. The shared grief is comforting, though--this unbelieving sadness shared among so many of my generation. All of us ‪#‎DavidBowie‬ mourners must have reasons why we are so personally affected. 

Mark Ruffalo mourned him as "Father of all us freaks." Indeed.

I was quietly but absolutely fascinated with him throughout my adolescence, which was spent under the oppressive mandates of gender normativity and textbook uniformity. Living in a culture that gave me no language with which to describe what Bowie was doing, I didn't even know how to verbalize that fascination. Watching him play and perform, I learned that being weird, abnormal, and transgressive could be all right, fun, and even necessary at times; that a different form of beauty might be born of conscious defiance of received notions of beauty; that gender could be also liberating (as opposed to regulatory) in its fluidity. No writer or teacher I had access to at the time could teach me such things. He was the love of my namelessly deviant and wordlessly discontented youth. His varying phases of self-invention and his invariably exquisite vampiric beauty definitely affected my preferences in certain things. I happily hold him accountable for at least a small portion of what I am--an incorrigible if inconspicuous queer spinster freak.

As I got older, I also grew to appreciate his music and the incredibly sophisticated lyrics much better. Even now I cannot get tired of listening to "Rock-n-roll Suicide," "Life of Mars?" and "Absolute Beginners," when driving. Most of my past relationships were with the persons who shared or at least understood this special significance he has for me. Any one of them would have been willing, if possible, to have a drink with me on the day he died; one or two of them might really have thought of me when they heard the news, I'd like to think. That the boy who had given me the Bowie at the Beeb CDs a few years before died only about a year ago makes all this the more poignant. The year 2015 was ushered in with the shocking news of GD's untimely death; 2016 will be lived in wake of the death of Bowie himself.

Getting older, one cannot avoid these accruing deaths. These losses, however, add up to make me increasingly aware that dying IS something that one needs not be afraid, that death is not far away and is what life transitions into. When my mother died, I learned that dying really was how one ends living. Death seemed a state into which one disappears naturally, and despite the shock and grief inherent in bereavement, this discovery was more reassuring than could be explained in words. Bowie's death now invokes a similar feeling. He also makes me realize once again how I would like to face death, especially because it is obvious that he transitioned into death doing until the very last what he had been doing all his life. His last album "Blackstar" must have been a parting gift, which turns even his death into art with a reference to the tumor

Many others seem to feel Bowie's death is surreal. Because what he did is immortal, we tend to have thought that he too was immortal. What a life to have touched so many. I will always be sad about his passing, a corner of my heart will always crumble and melt freshly every time I remember that he's now gone from this world. Instead of mourning, though, perhaps a toast is in order for the Starman, who has now become the Wide-Eyed Boy in Free Cloud.

Salute to Major Tom.

2015년 12월 31일 목요일

Wishing Peace

It's been a year since GD passed. A year and two days, to be precise. This year started out with the news of his sudden death, the shock of which lasted until this very moment. My disbelief never gave way to belief even today. When a person leaves this life, it is not simply a small hole of absence that is left behind. His or her entire world disappears, and that loss is not equivalent with an individual's physical absence. I cannot begin to fathom what the loss of his life and world could mean to me, but it is the loss that I will have to live with.

I didn't feel like writing much about my own living moments for a long time. But I want to learn to live and write despite that strange feeling of loss which weighs me down. I needed to formularize somehow this irreverent desire for closure interwoven with a woeful sense of loss.

I earnestly and sincerely did and do mourn him, frequently if intermittently. Sometimes for long, sometimes for mere seconds, but invariably with a sharp sense of irreparable loss. I don't see it changing much in the future. I'll always mourn him, sometimes concretely, sometimes abstractly, but perennially, eternally. I hope death means peace to him if in the form of its terrifying nothingness. I'll make peace with having no other means for wishing him well but this vain, silly wish for peace. Good bye, GD. You'll always be in my life as this feeling of loss.

2015년 1월 16일 금요일

Did You Really?

I was half waiting to hear that the terrible news of GD's untimely death was all a big mistake. But notes and reports were posted on University web-pages and there were also the obituary and notices of the funeral service. Seeing his photo in the notice or the obituary issued by the funeral home does not make it any more real to me. Is that the same person that I knew, touched, and held close to me once? This is beyond absurd. 

The strangest thing of it all is that no information whatsoever about the cause and circumstances of his death is being released. No remark other than that he died "suddenly" and "unexpectedly." No information at all, anywhere, from anyone. Nobody seems to know or have heard anything. It's been over two weeks, and the viewing and the funeral are all over now. I find it extremely strange, as he was quite a prominent scholar in his field, too. It is as if those in the know are resolutely keeping some painful or damaging secret in order to protect the happy memories about the deceased. What could be so bad that they have to be so secretive? Are they really trying to hide something from public knowledge? It is impossible to shake off a dark, ominous feeling.

Knowing that GD had a history of alcoholism and depression, I find myself reverting over and over to the image that I really would rather not envision. His depression was under control with medication and therapy, as far as I know. He also kicked his alcoholism quite a few years ago with continuous participation in the AA meetings. When I saw him last in 2010, he told me he would still go to the meeting every now and then. And recently he seemed finally happy. Why, then? What on earth happened? His usual itinerary is likely to have placed him in his parents' house around Christmas and the New Year's. One notice reported that he died late at night--and I didn't like the sound of that. Could he have gone out and had an unfortunate accident? But wouldn't it have been mentioned in that case? Was he in his own home? Or at his parents'? How does an apparently happy, healthy, and successful person with a history of alcoholism and depression die late at night in his or his parents' house, leaving the loved ones behind? There must be other ways, of course, but for now I can only think of one very particular way. And I don't know what to think or how to feel about this. I would be happy to learn from some one that this is only my sick imagination running wild. 

G, I don't know which is worse, honestly: being forced out of life unwillingly by an accident or some sudden illness when everything else was good, or finally choosing to get out of this world which somehow did not suit you any longer. The two possibilities seem equally cruel--both to you and to others close to you. But a clinically depressed person's suicide is not really a choice. It is a surrender to the dark force that overwhelms and dominates. What did you do? Or, what befell you, should I rather ask? This not knowing, though ultimately of no consequence, is profoundly unsettling, to say the least. The person who now has a claim to all your life and death is not sharing with anyone what she knows. Is she trying to protect you? Or herself? I long to look to you for some little intimation of your wherefores. But now that you're over this world and beyond, there is no knowing what kind of gaze you're sending back. Did you, really? Did you? All I do not see and hear seems to be pointing to that possibility, but I am still unbelieving. In my unbelief, however, I keep hoping that you finally found peace, G.

2015년 1월 1일 목요일

Remember You by All the Love You Gave Me

This morning, still in bed, I got a message from a friend that GD had passed away a few days ago. No details, just a short report of what she heard from someone. What the hell does it mean that a healthy person of 45 "died suddenly"? On Monday, December 29, 2014, as I learned later. My stomach turns. Not grief, but utter disbelief grips me. But does an ex-girlfriend have a right to grieve over the loss of a man who all but cut her off and got married?

My head is clouded with all the things that I said and did which might have caused him pain and unhappiness. Oh dear, they aren't few. I wish I didn't remember some things at all.

I disappointed him once, and nine years later I failed him again--or we failed each other. The first breakup was mostly due to the circumstances: I had to leave, and as we could not manage over the overwhelming physical distance between us for many reasons, I gradually gave up. The second time around, I was the one who wanted to revisit that margin of possibility left unexplored between us. The first breakup hadn't soured our mutual fondness and we were still good friends who knew each other intimately. Turning 40 and getting nowhere near happy with any man, I longed for some comfort, fun, and familiarity. I knew he still had a soft spot in his heart for me. Settled in more comfortable places in our lives, we gave it another shot. For over a year, I really did what I could, traveling the distance twice, talking to him on the phone almost every day, trying to sound out all the potentials of that relationship. However, whereas a long-distance relationship with extended periodic separations perfectly suited me, he dreaded its attendant dangers. Though he enjoyed having our lives reconnected so closely, he was wary of investing fully into that reconnection. I was willing to divide my life, but to my frustration he refused to budge from his own comfort zone. Aware of his painful recovery from alcoholism that followed the disintegration of our first relationship, I couldn't blame him. My long-distance scheme was proving unfeasible to him, and his wish for me to discard my own life and move in with him was just as impossible. In a strangely passive aggressive stance motivated by his distrust of my feelings, he was refusing to revise his set pattern of life for me, while waiting for me to give in entirely to his own terms. But that uncertainty and reluctance of his wearied and disenchanted me in the space of a year, and my growing disenchantment ironically justified him in his doubt of me. Disillusionment and fatigue made me see in him things that I did not want to see, and drew out my own foibles. It was a strange breakup, for I am not sure I was the responsible one. I broke it off but I felt rejected, for it was actually he that would neither have me as I was nor bring himself to the halfway point between us. But he resented it bitterly. He became touchy and defensive even with Kim, who initially had introduced us. As his resentment and anger got compounded toward both me and Kim, he dropped his friendship with Kim, too. But I don't regret having tried the second time, because I really did do my best, which frankly I didn't the first time. On his part, though, I could see why he was so angry. Perhaps he felt that I reopened the scar that took time to heal, only to leave him wounded again. 

He didn't defriend me but I knew he left me barely hanging at the tail of his "folks who are practically dead to me" list. I never told him but the second breakup was a bitter one to me as well, for I was sorely disappointed at the failure of what then appeared my last resort. Even now I would not be too surprised if it should prove to have been my last chance at a tolerably 'normal' relationship. If I could not form a committed long-term relationship with a good man who loved me, if my best shot wasn't good enough for him, doesn't it mean I'm hopeless? It was not a pleasant notion and, tough as it was, I had to come to terms with it. 

Over a year later, while in chemotherapy, I got back in touch with him. I knew that he had just gotten into a new relationship and that I had forfeited his friendship, but I wanted to tell him myself, because he was still someone who mattered to me, who I wanted to spare the awkward unease of hearing secondhand of my illness. Maybe a strange thing to do, but an uncertain prognosis made me imagine the worst. It wasn't to everyone that I wanted to spread the cheerless news of my breast cancer and its dark implications. Little had I expected such a cold shoulder from him, though. He bluntly expressed his regret. A non sequitur update about a friend filled the rest of his terse reply, in which he mocked this friend who he knew to be my special favorite. The anger was naked in this email, and it was upsetting that even a critical illness could elicit from him no other emotion than anger for me now. I wasn't exactly expecting him to fly over to my side in tears. But a stranger would have expressed warmer sentiments than his. He had reasons to be angry and I probably shouldn't have written him at all, cancer or no cancer. On the other hand, I felt all right about letting him know. He had dodged a bullet there. Since he ended up evading the shitty lot of dealing with a cancer-ridden girlfriend, wasn't it all for the best? I wouldn't have minded if he had secretly gloated over his narrow escape, not that he was the type who would. Although using my cancer to wriggle my way back on his good side wasn't my intention, his coldness was hurtful. A lasting friendship with a man whom I broke up with twice was a selfish fantasy, and that was where our communication ended. That was December 2011. The following summer, I saw the photos of him in Jeju Island. He married that new girlfriend the next spring. I remember seeing those photos on Facebook in silent wonder: how was it possible for him to go so fast and far with this woman, when he wouldn't travel anywhere for me? The answer was obvious. She wasn't me and she must have loved him in a way that made him go far and wide. And he must have loved her in that way too, whereas his love for me was mostly a source of anxiety. It wasn't jealousy that I felt. I was a little chagrined, but his new-found love and subsequent marriage gave me a sense of relief, too. If things turned out nicely despite the damages I might have done him, then surely I no longer had to feel too bad about having been the bad guy in our history?

The sense of guilt cannot be dispelled though, even when I know that I, we, did what we felt compelled to, true to our needs and desires. People love, hurt, and break up all the time, and as Kim says, it's a normal emotional passage between real people. It would be a terrible presumption to think that I was some sort of femme fatale or even a semi-trauma in his life, after all. But we all know of our secret emotional bookkeeping: sometimes you give more than you get, and other times you get more than you give. This bookkeeping, albeit nonsensical, at times issues mandates that are hard to ignore, and I cannot shake off this feeling of owing something to him that I can never repay. It is too bad that I did not try to reconcile with him. But it was clear that he had no intention to do so. Whatever sense of guilt and regret I have would have quietly dissipated in time, had he lived long and prospered. In the end, it all boils down to my own difficulty in accepting a good person's tragic premature death. Mortality is painful, because there is nothing anyone can do about it and there is no getting used to it; no possible way to stomach this helplessness calmly, and no right way to react to it. In a sense, guilt may be a living person's way of translating this unbearable, inexplicable pain into something more manageable. 

Life is absurd. My breast cancer is absurd, but GD's death is even more so. I thought by now I've gotten familiar with my vulnerability to the random violence of life and death. When I am busy hardening myself against the weight of my own vulnerability, the mortality of someone else, someone who was once very close to me, hits me in an unguarded spot. It is selfish to be bitching about my own living aches when GD is dead and gone, but it does hurt. Perhaps that is why the living get to hog the attention when death descends upon us. Friends send me separate messages of sympathy and consolation. I deeply appreciate their concern and am encouraged that I am not alone in this muddle. But I remain unsure if an ex-girlfriend has a claim to their condolences, especially the one who bred considerable pain, anxiety, doubt, frustration, and anger in the heart of the deceased. Maybe they offer their sympathy because they know the guilt of a bad ex. 

I am not the bereaved one. There is the wife, the poor woman whose heart must be rending at this incredible death of a loving husband. Weird as it sounds, I'm glad he had a wife who will grieve for him. I wonder if it is horrid of me that I do not feel entitled and would rather not grieve. I would like to find consolation in that GD was finally happy, at least happier than I was, in the past two or three years. He must have been happy with her--I want to believe, for his sake and also for my sake.

GD would often surprise me with his recollections of minute details from our earlier days together. If not as many, my memories are also plenty. I remember how shy he was the first time he took me out, I remember that house-brewed beer in that restaurant. I remember all the places we went together. I remember how worked up he would get about the upcoming departure every time I had to leave, how attentive and protective he was whenever I was upset. He loved my cooking, and I enjoyed messing with his scarcely-touched, top-quality kitchenware. I would make fun of his food-greed, but in fact his bad eating habit worried me. I remember the tiny red birthmark on his wrist and the childhood story he told me about it. I remember him trying to feel my heart beat for no apparent reason. Some of my eccentricities annoyed him to no end, while some of his drove me crazy. But no one was as openly affectionate in his everyday dealings with me as he was. No one I dated made me feel as pretty as he did. I know he loved me dearly, and I was ever so thankful for his tenderness and good heart. I really hope he left this world with only kind memories in his heart and sweet images in his eyes.

G, I thought I was likely to die before my friends. You upstaged me there, honey, and what a sad surprise it is. My heart grows heavy when I imagine how unfathomably lonely you must have been at that absolute final moment. Death must be lonely, for you go alone. I hope you're in your happy place now. I miss the time we spent together in that firehouse loft of yours. We had fun there, didn't we? I am sorry I couldn't give you all of my heart then, but I am happy to have been responsible at least for a small portion of your happiness. Do you know that I left a few bobby pins in the guest room bedside table drawer in your house near the park? I left them there, knowing that I'd come back the next summer. I forgot to take them out the next time, though. I think unconsciously I wanted to leave a little trace of me there with you, wanting not to disappear from your life altogether. I never wanted to stop being your friend. I am happy to have been your first real love, and I am sorry to have been such a pain to you. I am sorry I teased you so much, but I never meant to hurt you. I was frank with you, and I'm glad you told me you knew it. We know things about each other that no one else does, and that intimacy means a lot to me. I know you always had your own aches and darknesses that you found hard to bear. May your soul rest in peace now. Though I can't have been that important to you in the end, please forget all the hurts I gave you, and remember the good times we had together. I know you were generous and patient with me for a long time. Thank you so much for all the love. I'll remember you by the love you gave me. But dear, why did you have to go in such a hurry? I would rather have you hate me and stay angry at me alive than remember me fondly in death. I still have that little spider man that I forgot to bring you last time. What am I going to do with it now?

2014년 8월 12일 화요일

Negotiating (Non-) Mothering

My friend Cheryl who has been trying very hard to adopt a baby is going through a really tough spell.  Trying to form and maintain a relationship with one potential birthmom after another must be like a series of impossible exams--how do we prove our ability to love and provide for an as-yet-unfixed object, especially when the judge is the person who will never think anyone good enough for the job that she herself is (for whatever reason) to give up?  Even when one understands why it should never be easy for anyone to adopt a child, it just seems plain stupid to me that any birthmom does not see that my friend would be the most loving and wonderful mother to the child.  

While writing Cheryl how sorry I was to hear about yet another heartbreak with a birthmom, I thought about how difficult it is for so many women to negotiate that strange built-in potential to mother a child (biologically and/or otherwise)--no matter how different situations may be, how different individual aspirations and frustrations may be.  In my case it was the pain of realizing that I would not be able to realize the said mothering potential, my own heartbreak over a child that I never had and will never have. 

In the summer of 2010, another long-term relationship possibility that I had been invested in for quite a while was fast proving itself dead.  On its heel I had a mindless fling with a much younger man, which ended up in sheer humiliation.  The two incidents were like my last straw.  I did not consciously think of them that way then, but they must have been, for I remember, despite the apparently impracticable circumstances, wanting and hoping to make it work with each man with a kind of desperation and urgency that surprised even myself.  When the two men successively turned out to be no good for even a lasting friendship let alone a committed relationship, a blinking red light came on in my head, as if to direct me toward something that I had not thought of very clearly up to that point.  I was repulsed by discourses that had anything to do with the proverbial "biological clock" but there it was.  I was 41, had moved into a new place by myself, but instead of joy and pride at my first home that I bought with my own savings, medium-degree depression set in.  That was the only time in my life when I really did suffer from something that could be called clinical depression.  Every day after work I would trudge home and wallow in misery.  In the evening I would sit alone facing what I then called my daily 7-o'clock crisis. Whenever I turned my computer on, I logged in on Facebook and did nothing but look at the photos of my friend Andrea's then newborn baby Oliver.  Andrea has no idea to this day, but Oliver's unrealistically beautiful baby face and Andrea's characteristically understated expressions of happiness would make me cry for hours on end.  I was long used to the reality of being one of the very few left who had not parented a child or two, but Andrea's pregnancy and birthing had a very particular impact.  She had given birth with a donor dad, and Andrea having a child kind of meant that everybody but me in the entire world had a child.  It wasn't merely because she is gay--it was because she really was the last person you would ever imagine to use her own body to mother a child.  I was genuinely happy for her and her partner, but I was genuinely sad for myself and my ever shrinking possibility of having a child of my own.  The more I admired Andrea for braving it and beating all the odds against her, the more I despaired at my own misfortune and lack of courage and determination.

I had never consciously decided upon not having a child, I always had been patient, nursing the vague idea that it would happen to me when my turn came.  In all of my relationships, though, the only time a child seemed a real possibility was when M would sweet-talk to me about what to name the child we would have.  I was getting into my late thirties then.  Partly because I was feeling the escalating pressure of time on my body and partly because I was foolish, I let him fool me with that shit when in reality he was manipulating me not to leave him in his pathetic state of obsessive disorder with all his imaginary symptoms.  After 2 years of empty promises and pathological whining he ended up leaving me for another woman (or for a man--who knows?), and in the following years my luck with men did not improve.  A traditional marriage and family life was never something I wanted.  But not wanting it had its toll.  Without it, I realized, it was difficult to have, or even to want, a child--especially in the culture where I belonged.  With no feasible alternative in sight I intuitively felt that I was being deprived of something very significant.  Thinking that it perhaps was my own fault, not having had more aggressively sought to mother a child up to that point, I began to contemplate adoption and even donors.  This contemplation, however, would always morph into a struggle with the sense of guilt at not honestly feeling quite equal to the formidable prospect of becoming a single mother in a morally hostile society.  Then the guilt would become even more compounded, for I could not help but think that perhaps my desire to become a mother was (is) just not strong enough.

My problem kind of solved itself in the most unexpected and unwelcome manner, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer shortly after I turned 42.  Everything changed in a slow yet radical whirlwind.  2 and a half years later, I now feel too old and unfit for adoption, with messed-up ovaries.  The fear of recurrence is ever so handy in justifying my cowardice in face of adopted single motherhood.  It's all but impossible to picture my life at this point with a man who will adopt with me.  Things have been settled for me, without my consent.  In a sense it's kind of convenient that I can now stop wringing my hands over what to do, how to do.  That, however, neither erases my wanting altogether nor mitigates my irrational sense of guilt at not having capitalized my built-in capacity for mothering.  My sense of guilt has nothing to do with the perpetuation of the species or some other moral value.  It has everything to do with my own self--not having explored the life as mother, I will never be able to stop asking and wondering what kind of mother I could have become, what kind of child I could have had, what kind of relationship we would have had, what different meaning I would have been able to attribute to my own life. 

Idly I entertain this notion that perhaps I could get involved with a divorced guy with a child or two who will let me play out the nice stepmom scenario.  But in reality most divorced guys my age do not have small children.  Their kids are far more likely to be sullen teenagers who will resent dad's new middle-aged girlfriend to death.  My imagination stops at the scene where I'm murdered by miscreant grownup stepchildren, who spit on my gouged out eye sockets.  Maybe it is good for my non-existent baby, adopted or not, to not grow up exposed to my grotesque imagination and macabre sense of humor, which are not getting any lighter with my persistent cancer worries. 

Though I deeply feel for Cheryl in this difficult time, I almost envy her too.  All the more reason for me to share her sadness and to root for her in her unwavering effort to adopt.  And I sincerely hope she will meet her baby--sooner than later. 

2014년 1월 29일 수요일

Call It Intuition or Denial

The semi-annual followup scans that I have to go through since my surgery is a veritable ordeal in my otherwise painless life.  I am duly aware of the fact that my usually eventless and relatively comfortable life leaves me not much to complain about.  I humbly accept the fact, and I am mostly content too.  I also know that the successful treatment and surgery outcome is something to be grateful for.  I am profoundly grateful, indeed. Yet there is no denying that the regularly scheduled scans are no small bumps.

A whole-day affair it is.  After drawing blood for all kinds of tests, it is a succession of mammogram, breast ultrasound, CT-scan, and bone scan.  The bone scan requires three to four hours of waiting, as the injection needs to diffuse throughout all the bones in the body, so on top of all the small waits here and there between this and that at the hospital, there is also this interminable wait before the whole thing is over.  One could go home or out somewhere but I object to leaving the hospital because I know how much I would dislike coming back.  It's fortunate that whiling away hours in one spot with a book in hand is no problem for me.  So this interval is spent for lunch, reading, and some scrabble on my iPad.  It is a long day at the hospital: today I left home at 8:20 am and came home after 3:30 pm.

The fear of recurrence has become a constant companion in my life by now.  Good days are ordinarily the days when this companion makes itself scarce.  This, however, is the day when this fear takes the center stage; and it will claim my attention full on for a week.  The week between this day and the day when I go see the oncologist for the results is a strange borderland where this fear magnifies the fact that my life straddles the fantastic yet so very threatening dividing line between possibility and reality.

Le supplice du jour: the ultrasound is the biggest of all the ordeals.  As the radiologist slowly and steadily moves the cold, lubricated handle over the skin, you can feel every inch of your breast being seen through.  Any little pause and click that the radiologist makes with her machine seems to indicate something wrong.  Any typing that is being done into the machine might mean some noteworthy abnormality.  During the ten to fifteen minutes of this ultrasound scanning, you simply tighten up into a ridiculous mass of sheer vulnerability.  It is a maddening quarter of an hour where you experience your body not as a house of your life but as a dangerous host of antagonistic possibilities. This is the overwhelming moment you comprehend the simple yet elusive fact that the body is a heap of stuff over which you have no control.

The radiologist who ran the ultrasound on me today was a young male doctor who didn't say much.  There were some pauses and clicks, and of course all kinds of foreboding crowded my mind.  After he muttered "all done" and disappeared, I made a terrible mistake of looking at the monitor he left on.  In the complicated layout of data and pictures and what not on the screen, I saw my name, the date, and a few words that I well recognized.  Oh shit, is that another finding in my right breast?  It's like a lightening inside my head.  But it's hard to say what those words were for, as I could not clearly make out the rest of the screen.  Did he find something new today, or does it refer to the originary pathology for my regular scanning?

As I get out of the ultrasound room and get dressed, I am unable to focus.  It takes a few minutes to regroup.  Mechanically moving on to the CT-scan room, it occurs to me that the radiologist would hardly be able to specify whatever findings that he might have seen today as "malignant."  It is likely that those words I saw refer to my original diagnosis, since I was there for those scans as the patient with that diagnosis.  I reluctantly but cautiously feel my right breast and there is no distinct mass that I can discern.  Once again I tell myself that the radiologist could not have typed those words in.  There is no lump that I can feel.  Even if there was, he could not have determined the nature of whatever lump so precisely right then and there without a biopsy.  I carefully retrace the entire course of the examination.  He did not type much while examining the right breast.  I keep telling myself these things over and over like a mantra.  The more I think of it, the more I am convinced that it was my original diagnosis that probably has become my label.  Call it intuition or denial, it is good for now.  I should go with it, at least until I see my oncologist next week, although I am also carefully harboring that other possibility in one corner of my mind.  Yes, it is possible that he found something new today and wrote it down; I cannot rule that out.  I also know that something entirely different and unexpected may catch me by surprise, while I pore over what I saw on his computer screen.  As I sat in the waiting area in the CT-scan room, however, the fear gradually subsided even in my entangled mind.  Whatever it might be, if anything, there is nothing I can do but accept and deal with it.  For the rest of the day, I was able to put the fear aside.  For the rest of the day, I reminded myself of the resolution I had made to myself some time ago: I'll keep doing what I do for all the days I live, be they short or long.  In the hospital coffee shop, Martha Nussbaum's Poetic Justice keeps me good company.

As I live in constant fear, I realize over and over that fear is not sustainable, long term.  Our mind is clever enough to manipulate itself out of this dreadful state of fear.  It will desperately come up with some way to wriggle out out of it.  It will think of something, some reason that would nullify it or counterbalance it, even though the fear never disappears completely.  Coloring my life as a constant flirtation with the sublime is one way of doing it.  Braving the naked fact that my death would ultimately cause only very little disturbance to the world is another.  Honestly, though, it is not necessarily death itself that I fear most.  It is beyond fearful for sure, the absolute finality of it; but I mainly understand it to be the return to the state before my birth, and seen that way extinction doesn't seem so horrible.  It is the slow yet certain, incapacitating and painful, course of dying occasioned by difficult illnesses that I fear most.  Any one and every one will share this fear.  The difference is that my first-hand experience of cancer treatment lets this fear have a stronger and more real grip on me.  Picking things apart like this and becoming more aware of the nature of my own fear, however, doesn't help much.  Who could control her fate and choose the mode of her death?  Living with this shadow of death, this helplessness, this ultimate lack of choice, must be the essence of life; facing mortality is the burden of living itself that any conscious person should bear.  It is just that this burden is so very vividly felt in my daily life.  Perhaps I should be proud that I am living the essence of life, right in the very thick of it.  So there.  I repeat to myself: I'll keep doing what I do for all the days I live, be they short or long.  It is simple self-hypnosis, yet a surprisingly soothing therapy.  To keep doing what I do for all the days I live may not amount to much, but it certainly would be the best I could do and not the easiest, either.  Being able to go through with it would be something, at least to me, and finding out that I could would be a priceless solace.

2013년 10월 29일 화요일

Waiting for Disaster in Vain

The following is a revised version of "a day in my life," originally written a few days ago at a friend's request for her blog project. Since my mother's hospitalization last December and then my return to work in March, it became increasingly difficult to make myself sit down to write. Since mom's passing at the end of April, I was even afraid to come to my own blog. Writing this, however, reminded me how much I needed this. Thanks, Cheryl, for dragging me back here; you may not know this, but you did.

6:50 am. I wake up without much trouble. No nightmare or weird aftertaste of strange dreams. No active pain in any part of the body. Not a bad start of a day.

9:00 am. After breakfast, I walk out the door to go to work.

9:25 am. In office, the usual grind begins. I look through the file of mid-term exams but put off grading. Read excerpt from The History of Sexuality for Monday's class.

1:00 pm. I rummage food in the office, find organic muesli + soybean milk + cranberry scone + coffee, instead of bothering to go out for lunch. Keep reading for class, outlining a teaching scenario and making notes of usable examples.

3:00 pm. Prof P arrives on campus and calls me. I go downstairs to greet him and escort him to the faculty lounge. He's the speaker of today's Special Guest Lecture, an ongoing program that I design and implement as part of the department's extracurricular academic projects. It is over two years since I saw him last. He seems glad to see me well. I am grateful that he doesn't say much about the past two years during which time I was out of radar for most of my professional acquaintances. His face, when gazing at my prematurely greying hair, is telling, though, and I appreciate that subdued sympathy in his gaze. We mostly talk about work, for we are both involved in a theatrical production of a classical text as academic counsel.

3:30 pm. P's lecture begins. About 20 grad students show up, plus a few faculty members and a few undergrads. A pretty good turnout, and my anxiety somewhat subsides. I never heard him speak publicly before, and P turns out to be funny and engaging. A known sexual harasser with interesting scholarship, better than expected. Not just good showmanship but substance that he deftly deploys in his delivery. A girl in my undergrad class asks smart questions about desire for knowledge in the text and I feel proud as if her smarts were all my doing. That foolish moment is my fix for the day.

6:00 pm. After the 2-hour lecture, I take P to dinner as is customary. Not too excited, for a few days ago two close friends in other departments, who also know P, politely declined my invitation to dinner. It was actually their boycotting of P's visit to our campus altogether. While it's understandable that those two do not want to fraternize with P, I feel ambiguous about them making me entertain this P by myself. Then I feel bad about myself feeling ambiguous about them. This is my responsibility and I should be able to handle the situation instead of expecting male friends to shield me from possible problems. For lack of choice I invited P despite some reservation about his reputation, thinking that words sometimes circulate without ground. It's just unfortunate that the two friends confirmed his reputation with what they know (not merely "heard") of him only after P's visit was finalized and publicized. Still, it's better to be alerted; and I respect my friends for refusing to hide their judgment, when many people I know would do otherwise. 
   As for me, I find it difficult to act upon my principles here, since I am the one who unknowingly invited P for his academic expertise. For now, however, I prefer to think that I need to maintain a neutral ground of formal hospitality at least while I perform the role of a good host. I am not worried about being harassed myself. It is extremely unlikely, for I am well past that desirable therefore vulnerable age and even in my youth I had (and still have) a reputation for verbal impatience at unwanted advances. Now my medical history adds a new twist to it. But I am careful not to invite graduate students to dinner as we sometimes do. Fortunately two colleagues willingly join in, and my burden considerably lessens. I tell them nothing, for only a preposterous fool would misbehave in this setting now.
   I stay politely watchful nonetheless, and I can see that he is a big drinker, silently picky with food. With us three women, even after a few drinks P is so well-behaved throughout dinner that it's hard to decide whether I should be relieved or disappointed. I almost feel like a villain waiting for disaster in vain. He's suave and clever. Charming, even. I wonder what I would think of him under different circumstances. But he too seems a little different from before. Though P never offended or bothered me before, from my few previous encounters I remember him to have been intensely attentive with the kind of slick nicety that could easily morph into sleazy flirtatiousness, and I assumed that was the extent of his reputation. His reputation turns out not without ground, but after all, a man like P gets tired and mellow too, I suppose, which isn't too bad a thing. Maybe he smartened up, which would be even better. All the while, though, I lament inside that, in this day and age and even in this profession full of self-appointed progressives, gender and sexual dynamics still causes such headaches and still requires such a maneuvering. I also ponder upon the fate of a man whose reputation always precedes him and exceeds his reality.

8:00 pm. I drive P to his destination after early dinner. Nothing but gentlemanly propriety with a suitable amount of conviviality. Perhaps he realized that I am close friends with the two who did not show up today? Despite my usual sensitivity to other people's emotions and inclinations, I cannot figure him out. Good news, though, is that I don't have to figure him out. More significantly, my students seem to have enjoyed his lecture and with that my mission is accomplished. What a load off. In early November, I'll have to see P again on the play's opening night, but it should be fine.
   I am glad that the day's event is over. I am thankful that there was no need whatsoever for outright hostility or cold withdrawal or even tactful mediation on my part. I am happy not to have been exposed to anything inappropriate or unpleasant. Yet I cannot shake off the idea that it is cowardice that I did not cancel the whole thing and uninvite him right away, or at least turn him a cold shoulder instead of the poker-face congeniality. But a known incident of sexual harassment--is it all he is? Then again, it speaks of what he is, if not all; and in many cases, one known incident is an indicator of multiple unknown recurrences, and not just an isolated occurrence. One of the friends who told me of P's incident is SK, who rarely ever talks about others, must less speaks ill of them. Coming from SK, the story carries especial weight. My non-reaction may not be all that different from an overall endorsement of P. How, then, should I adjust my relationship with him? Why do I keep thinking that theoretical, textbook answers are not enough? In my dealings with sexual harassers and offenders at the Center for Gender Equality, none of them were my personal acquaintances. Passing judgment and acting upon it is less difficult when there is no personal interest at stake. This entire situation puts everything in a different light. I should reconsider whether I am level-headed and fair-minded enough to serve at the Center for Gender Equality. These heavy thoughts wrap up a long day without giving me answers.