My undergraduate degree major was English Language and Literature, which meant I read several novels, poetry collections and plays each week. I was constantly finding quotes that resonated, and sticking them to my bedroom mirror or the pinboard above my typewriter. Yes, typewriter. As well as giving me a lifelong love of the written word, my degree enabled me to develop ancillary skills such as the ability to centre a heading on an A4 page by finding the middle of the page by using the typewriter’s inbuilt ruler, counting the letters in the heading, and then backspacing half that number. You’ll be pleased to know this was before the introduction of HECS, so thankfully I didn’t rack up a big debt honing my typewriter skills to make me a bit more employable, only to have personal computers become a standard in most workplaces the following year.
Because like many arts students I was a bit emo before emo was even a thing, a quote that got stuck to my undergraduate pinboard was this one by the American poet Emily Dickinson:
I’d forgotten all about this quote until I read it again on the weekend, in a newspaper article about a terminally ill artist called Joannah Underhill. Joannah was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of blood cancer, in 2006, and in the ensuing years underwent a range of aggressive treatments including chemotherapy (multiple times) and a bone marrow transplant. But Joannah’s condition relapsed, and after radiation failed she was offered one final treatment – another bone marrow transplant. On the verge of beginning this last-ditch regime, and after eight long years of devastating treatments, Joannah decided not to go ahead, and is now receiving palliative care. She is 36 years old.
When I first read that quote, I was an 19 year old university student who had not much of a clue about all the terrible, sad, and wretched things that can happen to people, and thankfully, had absolutely no inkling that some of these might one day happen to me. At the time, I took the quote to mean that life is full of possibilities, so take every opportunity offered to you as it’s offered. In my naivety, ‘forever’ was something we would all get a crack at. My only first-hand experience of death was that of my grandmother who had died the year before at age 82. She’d dropped dead in her own home after a morning spent at bingo, still in one of her nice going-out frocks and smelling of 4711 which had long been her perfume of choice. I guess at that point I’d led a pretty fortunate and sheltered life, so the notion of someone dying a lingeringly painful death in their 30s or 40s was as foreign a concept to that young arts student as actually turning up for lectures.
Since I was reminded of that quote on the weekend the words have been flipping around in my mind. I know from my bitter experience with cancer diagnosis that there is no such thing as forever, and that all we have is now. Each now we get is a gift. Sometimes that gift is golden, and handed to us on a platter – a bike ride in the winter sunshine, the preparation and sharing of a delicious meal, a chance to watch our favourite team play live (GO CATS!). Sometimes the gift is a small chunk of hope ‘you will be treated with curative intent’, wrapped in a packaging of anxiety, fear and despair ‘but your chances are still only 50/50’. Sometimes the gift is finding the strength to keep trying treatments in the hope of extending life, if only for a few extra months. And sometimes, for people like Joannah, the gift is in the letting go and the acceptance. For her, there is joy in living every day as it comes, despite – or perhaps because of – knowing that her last day is not too far away.
I don’t know Joannah Underhill but I am in awe of her guts and her grace, and the sense of life that leaps out of her artwork, and the quietude that emanates from her words. I am also in awe of those who are told they are terminally ill and are not accepting of it, who continue to fight tooth and nail, who rail against the utter unfairness and walk, terrified and weeping, into operating theatres and treatment rooms to undergo regimes that only have a small chance of working. I believe that the desire to fight on, despite being battered and bruised and down for the count, is as poignant and heart-wrenching as the decision to put a stop the fight altogether. To quote Emily Dickinson again: