Jacob Brogan

The world is always ending

Survival: III. Full Fathom Five

            Shortly after the shipwreck that opens The Tempest, Ferdinand, prince of Naples, washes ashore by himself. Before the young nobleman can catch his breath, the spirit Ariel arrives to taunt him in song:


            Full fathom five thy father lies

            Of his bones are coral made

            Those are pearls that were his eyes

            Nothing of him that doth fade

            But doth suffer a sea-change

            Into something rich and strange.


These lines suggest Ferdinand is truly alone, and not merely lost. Ferdinand’s father, Alonso, has sunk with his ship. With him sinks any possibility of comfort, any semblance of home. Shakespeare underscores this sentiment of loneliness in loss by aestheticizing Alonso’s supposed death, Transformed into coral and pearls, his body becomes something to be admired, not to be touched. Centuries before Kant’s third critique, this verse implies that beautiful things can have no bearing on our lives. In death, Alonso has been enriched, but this very richness makes him a stranger to the boy who would inherit his wealth.

            Suppose you are on stage during this scene. The set is spare, a sunsoaked beach suggested only by yellow gels over blinding stage lights. Your costume is more sumptuous, composed as it is of layered velvets, artfully stained and torn to suggest the ravages of the ocean. Ariel’s song drifts to your ears, though you never glimpse the spirit that sings it. Listening, you learn that your father is far from you. How do you respond?

            Eager to move the audience, you might first think to convey sorrow. No community theater ham, you would not drop to your knees, shake your fists, curse the sky. Instead, you would let the revelation of loss wash over you, inexorably but slowly, much as the now calm tide caresses the shores of Prospero’s island. Your jaw would unclench, molars separating invisibly. Tiny muscles around the edges of your eyes would begin to twitch. If you are lucky, these miniscule contractions might make a single organic tear roll down your cheek. As it fell, you would straighten your back, reclench that slackened jaw. Knowing loss, already learning to mourn, you would soon set out, ready to meet the Miranda who awaits you.

            But what if you felt you might feel something else? What if guilt, rather than sadness, caught you in its currents? How many mariners were cast overboard during the storm? You hardly knew those men, addressed them only by their titles – the master, the swabber, the boatswain, the gunner and his mate. Your regal father is only the symbolic summation of these innumerable and unnamable losses. Knowing this, knowing their faces, you cannot straighten your back, you cannot prepare yourself to meet your Miranda. This new world has no people in it, none of yours, anyway. Without them, you do not know how to be brave. You are guilty because so many others have drowned, guilty because you have survived. Sorrow, even a lonely sorrow, can ultimately beget agency. In guilt we are truly stranded, cast away from those who would make us bold.


            Few forms of cancer are more survivable than mine was, and few have been curable for quite so long. Papillary thyroid cancer can sometimes be treated – as mine was – by purely surgical means. As such, it theoretically became possible to remove it from the body as early as the 1870s, when new anesthetics and antiseptics made it increasingly feasible to operate safely on the neck. Other cases are more intractable, but doctors have employed radioiodine, which targets thyroid cells, to treat disorders of the gland since the 1940s, long before the development of most similarly focused forms of radio- and chemotherapy. The techniques for both forms of thyroid cancer treatment have continued to develop in the subsequent decades, made ever more precise and painless in the process, but the fundamentals of successful care have been in place for far longer than they have for most other more aggressive cancers.

            Insofar as we are ever lucky when we develop cancer, then, I was fortunate to find myself with a kind that both grows slowly and can be treated with relative ease. In his mammoth Emperor of Maladies, Siddhartha Mukherjee mentions thyroid cancer only three times, and on those occasions he only alludes to it analogically. Surely he does so because his book, which he subtitles A Biography of Cancer, is really a history of cancer treatment’s vicissitudes, as if disease were only worth discussing when we must struggle against it. His elision of my own ailment can only be a product of the relatively simple story of its defeat.

            And yet I do not imagine that these medical victories came easily. I think of the diagrams my surgeon drew for us when we first met her. She showed us how close the nerves of the vocal cords were to the thyroid. With patience and care that smoothed over any threat of alarm, she told us what might happen if they were damaged. You could, she said, lose the distinctive qualities that give your voice its sound. Or you could lose your ability to project loudly across a room. (Here a thought drifted by: Too old to play Ferdinand, I would never again creep about the stage as Caliban.) She discussed also the steps she would take if the trachea were torn open during the procedure. Such accidents were rare – here and elsewhere she had statistics – but they happened and we should be prepared.

            She told us all this and more, but mostly she described the steps she would take to prevent such traumas, meticulous and always particular to the individual patient. Though she did not speak of it, a long history of mishap must have hung behind her own caution. Other patients had suffered under other surgeons’ hands so that I could emerge from my surgeon’s operating theater breathing clearly with my voice intact. These nameless others are my king Alonso, my Alonso and the mariners for whom he stands, an endless procession of symbolic fathers. Theirs are the faces that sunk beneath the waves so that I might swim to shore.


            This is what I mean to say: I cannot help but think of those who suffered to ease my own treatment. Beneficiary of the sweat of some and the pain of many more, I have already been healthy longer than I knew I was sick. But my health has the texture of an unearned inheritance. Unaware of Prospero’s art, Ferdinand must think he survived thanks to the ministrations of drowned men. Even in his royal privilege, he must wonder for a moment whether and why he deserved such care. I know that I wonder.

            Still on stage, still wearing salt-stained raiments, you must pause for a moment after you clamber to your feet. You must pause and stare out at the sea. To stand when others have fallen is rarely to witness their fate. Ferdinand only thinks himself a sole survivor because Ariel claims the waves have made him an orphan. Precisely because he escaped, he cannot know what it would have meant to sink. If he is guilty, then, he is guilty because he knows that things could have been so much worse, knows that and knows nothing more. There is a kind of knowledge beyond his ken, if not his kin, that others have gained. He does not hold it, and his empty hands make him a survivor. He knows, then, that he only is what he is because of what he does not know.

            This is where I find myself: How can I say that I have survived something I never really knew? I am confronted by the simple fact that I remain what I am because others are not, or because they are no longer. Even as I revel in my own persistence, I am haunted by the silence of those unable to revel with me. Guilt may inhere in the very concept of survival. I experience my ignorance of a literally fatal knowledge as a fault, perhaps as a crime. This is not to say that I romanticize suffering or aspire to martyrdom. But I know that others have suffered where I did not, and so that I would not. This knowledge circumscribes everything I do not know.

            Ferdinand, at least, finds some solace. Ariel’s song is a ruse. Alonso lives, as do the crew members of his miraculously preserved ship and all its passengers. They will fête this fact together before their drama is done. Here, though, I must break from literary likeness, refuse to further aestheticize the losses that predicate my own survival. Cancer can never become coral and a pain is not a pearl. Those who came before me may be gone, but they are no less real for it. If I am to celebrate I will do so by learning their names.