Touching Death in Art

There were two years after I completed radiation for lymphoma that I didn’t write. I battled high anger and deep sadness. My wonderful doctors said my brain chemistry was messed up because of where I received radiation.

They told me it would pass and I would write again.

They were right. But…

Yesterday, while at the doctor for mundane reasons, I asked him why, after almost six years cancer free, that sadness was still there. It isn’t that I’m depressed. As I explained, it’s like an entity of sadness down in there somewhere. All I have to do is pause and look for it. When I consciously make that effort, I feel it and want to cry. If I let it come up, I do cry. I call those my blue moments. They are connected to nothing that is going on in life at that moment.

My doctor actually got a bit teary. Coincidentally, I’d asked him this question on the anniversary of a cancer related date for his wife.

He then said people who have been through cancer tell him the same thing. That they can feel something left behind. He hears it especially from writers, artists, creative types. And many of them tell him that in a way it’s an odd gift because they can dip down into that and use it in their art.

When he said that, I had the revelation that I’d done exactly that in the third book, Ghost Roads. As I wrote, and tried to imagine how the character of Harlow felt as she faced betrayals, I would pull up that sadness, ponder on how it felt, and use that to help describe similar emotions for the character. While I knew I was doing that during the writing process, I hadn’t put it into conscious thought until my doctor said that.

He then went on to tell me that his personal belief was that cancer survivors have briefly touched death, and that’s what the hidden sadness is.

Our conversation then went like this:

Me: I don’t think of myself as a cancer survivor. I didn’t have it that bad. I only had to have radiation.
Him: You were bolted to a table every day.
Me: Yeah, but I didn’t go through anything like my sister did, or friends are. I didn’t have to have chemotherapy. I only lost part of my hair.
Him: Your throat was so swollen you couldn’t eat. Water tasted like blood.
Me: Yeah, but…my sister invites me to go on cancer survivor walks but I don’t.
Him: You earned the right to wear one of those tee-shirts.
Me: No, not really. She did. She had it a lot worse. I just was sick for a while. I was never told I was going to die. I didn’t have to face the prospect of death.
Him: You still touched death.

And there we were back to the original topic.

Do I believe I touched death? Honestly, no.

I do believe something was left behind though, because I can feel that something in there. And yes, it does feel like a deep sadness, which is completely separate from depression. That’s a difficult distinction to explain.

And then there’s this realization I came to a little bit ago that made me write this post instead of working on the current story.

Every time I sit down to write, I immediately feel a weight, a sadness. Many times I can’t move past that weight and so instead of writing, I visit Facebook, or play solitaire, or chat online with friends. Occasionally, if I think about it ahead of time, I start music as soon as I sit down. The music distracts me from that weight, and I can then write.

In every day life that sadness rarely becomes visible. But I’ve just realized that every time I sit down to write, it surfaces.

After the visit with the doctor yesterday, and spending some time thinking about that conversation, I realize I’ve made a mistake.

When I sit down to write and feel that weight bubble up, rather than avoiding it with the internet, or drowning it in music, I need to learn how to control it. Let it become part of the writing process so that I can draw from deeper emotions.

I’m not quite sure how to do that and I imagine learning will involve forcing myself to write when I would rather give in to the weight and leave writing behind. After all, if I did that without realizing it while writing Ghost Roads, there must be a way to make it more of a conscious decision.

In the meantime, there’s a lot to think about. And that appointment yesterday? It ended with my doctor giving me a huge hug and thanking me for reminding him of the things he needed to mourn, and celebrate, with his wife that evening.

lincoln city jan 06 017

3 thoughts on “Touching Death in Art

  1. When my mom got sick I remember one very smart man telling me to give myself times to be sad and let the sadness come out and embrace it. That way its not getting bottled up. Its okay to be sad once in a while. There are enough reasons and if you allow it, you are being nicer to yourself. There cant be happiness without sadness, just like everything else there needs to be balance. That’s what I learned from my mother’s death. Its okay, its a part of you now, respect and tolerate that part of you.
    I still love your writing and if it is just this blog I read…


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