Lonely: I. Arche-texture
The first hour is the loneliest, and it gives form to all those that follow.
Looking through my phone, I am surprised to discover that the initial call with my endocrinologist lasted only three minutes. I say surprised because our conversation seems longer and fuller when I call it back to mind. Though she is precise and thorough, something in her tone suggests sorrow. This is a call she has made many times.
It is late afternoon, still sunny, a Tuesday. I am at home, perched on the living room couch, books and papers piled all around, secure in a fortress of letters. That brief exchange is a hinge: One version of me remains on the left side, forever staring at the computer, forever willing myself to write. On the other is a creature made more vital by the knowledge that it is sick. New born, this second self comes into the world bereft. For an hour, it has no friends, no family. Do not worry: It will find them.
Many of those who write to me explain that they remember the moments after their own cancer diagnoses with uncommon clarity. One friend tells me that even after a decade she can still feel the plastic of the black hospital telephone she used to call her parents. She says that we become survivors as soon as we hear the news. Are we survivors because we are, if only for a moment, alone? We find ourselves in a frozen world and we are shivering. Accompanied only by our diseases, we find that we must make our own way. We will teach ourselves to kindle fires, learn to forage for food. When we are strong enough, we will follow the river until we make our way back to the camp where the others wait. They will cover us in blankets or blanket us with their bodies and we will be warm again. We will be warm again, but we will carry the wilderness with us all the same.
On Tuesday, I rise from the couch, hesitantly at first. Standing on weak legs, I fumble with my phone, determined fingers tapping simulated keys. Catherine texts that she is in a meeting, writes that she will call as soon as she gets free. My mother is not answering, Karyle is not answering, my father is at work. Not wanting to upset before I have the chance to assure, I leave no messages, give nothing away. I know that I will reach them soon enough, and soon enough I do. But for that first hour I, newborn, am an unaccompanied minor – fumbling for language, gasping for air.
In these solitary minutes, I sense the shape of days ahead. Call the loneliness of that first hour the arche-texture of cancer. Arche-texture? The tangible feeling of an origin, an origin that gives shape to everything after. Our first experience of cancer is ours alone, and it forever characterizes the specificity of our own cancer. Some version of us will always stand apart, at home in the house that cancer built. Loneliness is the insulation in the walls, muffling the clatter from without. Loneliness is the lock on the door. Who else could turn the key?
Let me be clear: Others provide comfort and solace. To be persistently lonely is not always to really be alone. There is, however, a place where they cannot join us, a place they could have never kept us from entering. Ask me how I am feeling and I might tell you that I am a little lonely. But I’ll tell you this too: It’s not because you’re not beside me.
On Tuesday, Catherine rushes to my house as soon as she hears the news. I still haven’t left the living room by the time she arrives. The couch, piled high with my books and papers, is an island now and she joins me there. It is a small place. Huddling together, we make ourselves smaller still.