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I Have Taken a Farm at This Hard Rent
“Chemotherapy is boring,” I’d warn people, and “cancer is terrifying but mostly banal,” and it was true, but by the time Juliana Spahr came to visit, I’d discovered cheap blonde wigs—my favorite one called “the Juliana” because of how much it made me look like her plump cousin. Wellness, like gender, was so constructed, on a good day I could fabricate its appearance in eighteen minutes. I took to wearing blond wigs, red lipstick, thrift store silk pajamas, and a white fox fur coat I’d found for $35 at a garage sale.
I was a spy to myself, I looked so different, and this was all part of me getting through. I was to become unfamiliar in the mirror not just by the anonymizing effects of cancer treatment—the disfigurement of a cancer patient so ordinary it is a filmic cliché, bald head, gray skin, large eyes—but by my own hand. My friend Rafi sent me D’Angelo’s new album and a dozen pairs of false eyelashes, and I now existed in sick glamor and a cosmetically-rendered appearance of health in the first dusting of snow. Juliana and I went to the wine bar in the dark winter of all that pain. Men would talk to me like I was attractive. It was a funny weapon against the patriarchy that my body itself had become dangerous just by being ill. I was so full of the red death by then that my sweat, my tears, my urine were actual poison.
In a photo, David Buuck and my friend Cara are in the Quiktrip parking lot at night, touching a giant hot dog on the side of semi-truck. We were often silly, or mostly it was our silliness that we wanted in our pictures. Buuck pretended to be my husband for the insurance company, whom he had called to help me work some stuff out. My friend Daniel, an art historian, came next from LA, and we played backgammon near obsessively after chemo, got dressed up (I wore a light blue suede vintage maxi skirt) and listened to a very old man (who had himself just been very ill) play jazz organ—it was, after all, Kansas City, and I wasn’t dead yet.
We didn’t know what to do. It looked like a treatment existed that could increase my chances of survival considerably, but it hadn’t quite been figured out in the science and the long term consequences could be rough. Dr. Baby was vehemently against it. “I’ve seen people DIE from chemotherapy,” he told Cara, urging us not to go forward. But I didn’t want to die from the cancer, either. Someone once said chemotherapy is like jumping off a building because a person is holding a gun to your head. Now the building was taller, but the gun was really big. I changed to a different oncologist, one who was researching the new treatment. The tumor—which was large, painful, palpable, and pretty much untouched by all that hard chemo I’d had—disappeared to the touch after the first treatment with the new doctor.
There were so many hours in the cancer pavilion contemplating the artwork, all of it apparently chosen to make the sick person feel as inconsequent as possible. There is nothing that feels more dangerous than an environment built to protest-too-much that the people inside of it aren’t in danger. Perhaps the faux-innocuousness of the art was to signify “the danger here is slower,” but a slow danger just leaves more time for fear. And every time they’d use my chemo port, they’d have to flush it with saline. Soon, I tasted saline in my imagination, hallucinated terrifyingly calm landscape paintings the moment I walked in the pavilion’s door.
Sandra Simonds came to visit, and we transcribed a giant poem about the mistakes everyone kept making. Every broken or forgotten thing, clumsy effort, looked like a love note from where I was. Maggie Zurawski came and put together, with the help of Cara and some whiskey, my daughter’s Christmas gift of IKEA bedroom furniture. “Maggie,” Hazel said, “Can do anything.”
I swore I would not be embarrassed by money, not even to write about it here. I got an unexpected check from the Poetry Foundation—it turned out, Juliana had been writing poetry organizations to get money for my care fund—and rather than interpret the money as a humiliation and a sign that I would surely die, Maggie and I got dressed up, and spent some of the money on a vivid French lunch, the kind in which lots of food is in shells and the shells are in butter. I’d never eaten anything like that. Claudia Rankine had given Maggie money to take us out to a nice meal, too, and so there we were, mixing the money from a genius and that of institutional dubiousness in our lunch of the invertebrate and unfamiliar.
Jasper Bernes came to Kansas City and roasted me a chicken. He had been around for so many of my fears, the first person to know about the cancer. He was the person to help me think through treatment, to help me sort through research, and I was scared then, too, because the tumor began to hurt ferociously, so we went to the movies. Erin Morrill came for Christmas—all the restaurants closed that day but Hooters, and we sat in it drinking stupid sweet pink breast cancer cocktails, trying to stomach fried things, waiting for the next day’s chemotherapy. We spent the New Year’s together, too, in which we dressed up like we were going out, then stayed in with Cara because I could barely keep myself sitting up by that time, having been through eight rounds of chemo and thirty million different kinds of pills and five different kinds of slowly infused poisons. That year—2014—my friends had successfully and temporarily rivaled the family, had invented themselves into a provisional phalanx of care, the weight of this work mercifully falling on no one person in particular.
My friend Laura came back for the last chemotherapy treatment. She and Cara got me a giant pink sheet cake for it—one of breast cancer’s insipid customs—which I then stepped on in shiny, low-heeled pumps, in the manner of anarcha-surreal film Daisies.
We drove around at night, like we had during that early autumn daytime with my fistfuls of lost hair, this time throwing handfuls of cake into the sad parts of the wintery territories I’d been sick in. We threw cake for Dr. Baby, cake for Hooters, cake for disfigurement, cake for CVS pharmacy, cake for infusion rooms, cake for radiology, cake for the red devil, cake for cancer trolls, cake for pain’s inarticulate empire, cake for all our weeping.
After chemo was over, after Laura left, things got bad. I ended up in the hospital alone again in terrible shape (my heart): the care list went to hell, everyone was fighting, we all wanted cancer to be over, no one knew if the chemotherapy had worked, no one—even the doctors—knew if the chemotherapy was or wasn’t killing me. Cara said, then, of the poets, “I hope I never have to belong to a community.” My friends wanted to hire someone professional to take care of me. I read that intention as what I had feared—abandonment to institutional modes of care. I had very little life left in me and spent almost all of it fighting the people trying to help me. I had been hurt so much that I didn’t want another stranger near my body. I don’t know how we got through it.
Then a recliner showed up, bought for me by Buuck in anticipation of my surgery. Cassandra came back. Laura came back, too. We made movies of the recliner, which lifted us up to our feet, or laid us out flat as if we were corpses. Four weeks after the end of six months of chemo, I had a double mastectomy. After surgery, I reached out my hand when I heard an ambulance go by and said my first waking words—Beyonce!