I join Co-Star and click I don’t know my birth time. I click Text My Mom, just to see what will happen, and the app generates a text message addressed to the sort of mother assumed by a tech company. I look at the cursor, blinking, in the empty field for recipients.
‘Don’t worry,’ a classmate told me, before my mother died. ‘That only happens in books.’
Cancer, writes Anne Boyer, in The Undying, feels quaintly catastrophic in the manner of the previous century.
I am always thinking of my mother’s death but rarely of her illness. I remember only incidental details: the pool in which she swam after her mastectomy; our freezer filled with grapes, recommended during chemotherapy; a Belinda Carlisle song playing in the elevator to the tenth floor of the Alfred Hospital, where we turned left, walked along a corridor and through a set of doors.
It is as if I am both sick with and treated by the twentieth century, I read.
I have turned to books, always, for guidance. At primary school, in the 1990s, I looked up Breast Cancer in the encyclopaedia. It wasn’t helpful to read. I remember pretending that I was fine, that the book had just fallen open on that page. The teacher proudly reported my search to my father, and perhaps my mother, in a parent-teacher interview, as a sign that I took initiative, was developing research skills.
I read, on Co-Star: find a safe place to work out your foundational trauma.
I read The Undying in the hope that it might provoke memories, lead me to understand how my mother’s illness has shaped my life. I read it, also, because I love Anne Boyer’s poetry and generally agree with her politics, with the idea that we must be both always in this world and looking for another. I trust Anne Boyer. I do not want to tell the story of cancer in the way that I have been taught to tell it, she writes. There are many books on breast cancer, and most of them are bad.
Boyer has written, elsewhere, that poetry is a mystification, something that gives permission and weight, and often to the wrong people, that poetry dangles the ugliness in our faces and names it beauty. Boyer believes in writing, though, still, and so do I. I have to believe in it, as to do otherwise would close down all possibility, strip me of agency and leave me untethered. It would be, I think, a useless form of self-flagellation.
Boyer describes breast cancer, at the beginning, as an illness that never bothered to announce itself to the senses. It is the treatment that hurts, treatment’s effects that are witnessed.
As a child, I was obsessed with long hair.
I dreamt of hair that danced, loose, around my waist, though my own hair, never quite long enough, was always tangling, knotting into painful clumps. I wailed when my mother pulled a hairbrush through it and eventually she cut it to my ears in frustration, punishing me for my refusal to silently endure. I feel horrified, now, to have been that child, crying at a hairbrush while my mother’s hair, in chemotherapy clumps, unknotted, lay scattered in the shower.
It is difficult to read The Undying. I think of it, perhaps, as an untangling of unruly impressions, long strands of thought, which I’d rather brush, even if painful, than cut short. Anne Boyer describes hair, growing, as proof of the possibility that the world could change.
In stories of breast cancer, we fixate on hair and breasts, on attributes that read as feminine, as if that’s all that’s annihilated by drugs like Adriamycin, a red poison with the power to melt linoleum floors, and Cyclophosphamide, better known as mustard gas, now illegal in warfare, but alive in chemotherapy and its consequences. I read about the consequences, about the scent of contaminated bodies, about vomit and toxic urine, uncontrollable crying and lost nails, about the way nerves sting as they sizzle to death. I read about language ceasing to comply, about words forgotten, syntax twisted.
I didn’t know, didn’t notice. I flinch, now, as if my own vicarious agony might protect my mother. I wonder why I’m dwelling on these horrors, if I’m trying to atone for, or obliterate, my childish innocence. Sometimes the only way to survive the worst is to run to the perfect refuge of being dulled, I read. I remember, instead of lost language, unopened mail piling up on the kitchen bench and a forgotten bath overflowing, dripping through the floor. I don’t know, though, if these were signs of strain or if she was, like me, a bit disorganised.
Radiology turns a person made of feelings and flesh into a patient made of light and shadows, I read. Cancer is one of the most effective diseases at eradicating the precise and individual nature of anyone who has it.
I could describe my mother in a range of ways: poet; first female stockbroker in Palmerston North; door-to-door encyclopaedia salesperson. She played the role of cancer patient, though, for longer than these other roles, all of which she quit before my birth. She played the role of mother, too, and I see her through this identity, at the intersection of archetype and illness. If diagnosis begins the eradication of the individual, death confirms it. I can’t know who my mother might have been if she’d lived. If I am reading to find feelings and flesh, I’m not having much luck.
I read that Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, diagnosed with breast cancer, thought: now I guess I really must be a woman. I read a line from S. Lochlann Jain, quoted by Boyer: one charming little diagnosis threatens to suck you under, into the archetypal death doled out by the feminine body. I’m not committed to my gender, but I keep thinking that I can’t escape breast cancer by opting out of the usual binary. I’m happy to be a girl, but afraid to be a woman; I take more joy in being femme than being female. I’ve experienced one world that Boyer describes, all corporate fundraisers and essentialist t-shirts, blood pink with respectability politics, after my mother’s death, and I couldn’t stand it.
I add my friends on Co-Star, read about our astrological compatibility. I wonder, after a while, about Anne Boyer’s star sign. 26 July, I read, online, and my jaw jolts. This is my mother’s birthday, too, and that of Carl Jung, who coined the term synchronicity.
It is usually someone’s mother with cancer, writes Anne Boyer. In literature, one person’s cancer seems to exist as an instrument of another person’s epiphanies.
I, too, hate the made-for-TV sentimentality that Boyer describes. All of it is unforgivable, I read, and I consider my inadequacy as respondent, as daughter. In my defence, I am short on epiphanies. I remember searching for fairies in friends’ gardens and the growing suspicion that my mother might have been at the hospital on those afternoons doesn’t change much. In fiction, Boyer notes, sickness takes the form of how a sick person looks, but I couldn’t, as a child, tell the difference between a wig and natural hair. Sickness, to me, took the form of absence, of a closed door behind which my mother rested, of my father’s instruction to avoid arguments with my brother, to avoid causing stress. I remember, at the end, my mother’s earlobes wrinkling in the hospital bed.
I feel, reading The Undying, as if I am slipping between myself and my mother, and yet this mother, the one that I might inhabit, is a void, a mother of my own invention. I don’t know, can’t know, if my mother would want me to write this. It might be unforgivable. I read, anyway: ‘I’ is sometimes annihilated by cancer. I read: dead women can’t write. I can write, though, and I could be my mother’s ghost, formed by her absence. I don’t think anybody’s ever claimed that writers are morally unambiguous, though we might try to, as Boyer phrases it, critique ourselves free.
The faulty narrative I always tell myself, I read, in an interview with Anne Boyer, is that someday I’m going to find enough pieces in books that I’m going to put the puzzle together into an answer for all of these questions that I have. She consults Bertolt Brecht, who wonders, too, whether we should know our philosophies from books or from experience. It’s only in being disappointed by books, Boyer writes, that we remember we have to live, too, rather than simply reading.
On Co-Star, I read: don’t look in your phone when you could open a book.
I can slip between reading and living, anyway, and use my phone as a bookmark. I can read like Anne Boyer, both always in this world and looking for another, and perhaps I’ll learn something.
Anna Kate Blair is a writer from Aotearoa. She holds a PhD from the University of Cambridge and her work has recently appeared in Reckoning, The Lifted Brow and Landfall.