Tone-Deaf to Death


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A month ago on this blog, I wrote an open letter to Jack Layton in the wake of his announcement that he’d decided to step down from his duties as Leader of the Opposition to focus on his cancer treatment. It spoke of the hope, that very real belief that I shared with a lot of Canadians that Jack and his moustache would be back in Parliament at the end of the summer; but now that we know how his story unfolded, that hope smacks more of denial.

When I started chemo for Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2001, I was nineteen years old — one of the few patients under fifty at my cancer centre. A social worker put me in email contact with Rachel, a twenty-two year old with a brain tumour who was undergoing treatment at the same time. Rachel described her cancer in a message to me, explaining that her doctors gave her a one-in-twenty chance of surviving five years. With my own nine-in-ten survival rate, I was floored. She followed her explanation with, “Oh well, we’ll see how things go.” She assured me that she would one day marry her boyfriend. I don’t know if it was denial or hope, or if those two things are the same, but I agreed that she would.

We stayed in touch for a few months and shared funny stories of hair loss and the awkward but usually endearing things said by people who don’t know what to say, but as we both carried on with our treatments our emails dropped off. Six months into my treatment I was told my cancer was gone. A month later I got an email from Rachel’s boyfriend letting me know she’d passed away.

I immediately thought of the wedding they were supposed to have as I stared at the computer screen, wishing that I hadn’t seen it coming. I still had a month and a half of treatment ahead of me but I knew my cancer was gone. Rachel’s diagnosis and prognosis were just as random as mine. Her dance with cancer stopped just as randomly as mine. Only mine ended with a pirouette, arms up, a grand ta-da, and the crowd cheered. Meanwhile she tripped, stumbled off the stage, and the crowd wept. The odds had always been in my favour, but just like hers they had also been dealt entirely by chance.

The language around cancer — of “battles” fought, won, lost, and succumbed to — fails to consider the sheer chance of it all. Sure there are cancers that we bring upon ourselves, but most are a result of the tiniest bits of bodies going rogue for reasons we’ve yet to understand. To speak of lost battles as though the warrior didn’t want victory badly enough projects our proclivity to control outcomes onto something that cannot be controlled. It’s futile, and it does a great disservice to people like Jack and Rachel who “fought” as hard as I did.

And as much as we want to control outcomes, we want to understand them immediately as well. Whenever death happens to someone close or well-known to us, we reel back and flounder to come to terms with it. When it happens to someone like Jack in this age of broadcast weapons itching to fire, we feel all-the-more rushed to understand or simply to say something, anything, about it. Christie Blatchford quickly churned out a much-criticized column in the National Post that rightfully questioned the spectacular nature of reactions to the passing of a public figure, yet stupidly took cheap shots at a man and his legacy within hours of his death.

In the September issue of The Walrus, editor John Macfarlane discusses the news industry’s culture of first dibs and proposes a slow-news movement to counter it. The risk of jumping the gun on breaking news is inaccuracy, but the kind of knee-jerk commentary that Blatchford whipped up adds the risk of insensitivity. And all for what? True to the columnist’s form: to provoke, to sell newspapers, but also to leave a mark, an “I wuz here” on an event that affects a country.

The outcry against Blatchford’s words was strewn about social media outlets alongside the general public’s similar (though a lot more tasteful) attempt to mark our own involvement with the developing story. As the country woke up from east to west, the news of Jack’s passing spread, and because no one really knew what to say or how to spell out that queasy feeling of heartsink, so did shared links to the same news stories and retweets of the same quote from Jack’s letter — as though there was an obligation to broadcast your empathy, to prove you care too, and all you needed to do was hit the “Share” button.

We don’t need to grieve alone or be untouched by the passing of strangers (albeit well-known ones), but we do need to take it easy with the tools we have at our fingertips, whether we’re Christie Blatchford or not. Few people don’t care, few people aren’t touched by Jack’s unfortunate passing — although that’s implied by virtue of the death of a man who may not have earned the votes of every Canadian, but certainly earned our collective respect. Rather than blurting out regurgitations of what’s already been said and noted for the sake of publicly declaring that you’ve been affected, slow down and let it make sense over time.

Next month marks the ten-year anniversary of my own cancer diagnosis and everything that followed that word that day, including considerable reflections on what death is and what it means, yet it still makes little sense to me. This, however, seems certain: whatever that meaning is, it’s diminished when attempts to understand it are made on a deadline.