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To Cure the Sharp Accidents of Disease
I thought I was telling a joke when I woke up from surgery and said, to the sirens of the ambulance, “Beyonce,” but it came out weirder, like a poem. And if I hadn’t been a poet, none of these precise events—the art project or political experiment of caring for a really sick person who is not an easy fit in existing structures of care—could have happened. Its actualization had something to do with the way that the arts mix up the classes, that sometimes people in them have some family money and also have the political and social good sense to give it away. It had something to do with the way the people I loved live their lives—even that their lives are precarious, as mine often was—that they don’t have property to tend to or big careers and can sometimes just pick up and leave. It had a lot to do with how poets are, at least the ones I’ve always liked—reckless with spirit, maybe, and love, and political experimentation, familiar with exciting modes of sacrifice. It’s not hard to imagine how it could have gone different, if I had just been who I was and not a poet, too.
Everywhere, somehow, this catastrophe was met by a provisionally formed and unexpected kind of care. This is not the case for so many people—women especially and women without money the most—who are abandoned or made to care for others when they need the care themselves. Who gets cared for and why is the most political of questions, its answer structured not just by the gendered division of labor, but by white supremacy, too, and class society and its violences, like how incarcerated people who are sick or disabled exist in the multiplied abandonment created by capital, how trans and non-binary people are often denied necessary care. And who does the caring—both the waged and unwaged kind—is also so often determined by these systems, the burden of the unwaged work of care so generally and disproportionately falling on all but the wealthiest women.
I had been writing about care and the coercion of what is so often called “love” under capitalism and how it structures survival before I got sick. Now here we were, in the utmost crisis that is the everyday of the world, trying to work out a practice. I don’t know if we developed a lendable model of what to do: we put it all together so wildly and the conditions and resources became exceptional, too, but at least we were trying to learn something new about our existing, and I kept writing during, thinking we were learning something I could share.
My friend Laura was able to stay with me for weeks after my surgery and did everything I couldn’t while I recovered, she and Cara making it possible that I could work, my FMLA leave (the federally mandated leave of 8 weeks that is comically inadequate for cancer, how it often takes a full year or more to treat) long having run out. Laura was hosted by a family—parents of a friend in Oakland—who took care of her while she took care of me. After my surgery, Cassandra took the fluid from my surgical drains (which we had to empty and measure every few hours) and painted bloody valentines for Jackie Wang, Eileen Myles, one to Juliana that said “Tim McGraw” and one to Buuck—a ransom note written in blood—“SEND US A PONY.” With my friends’ help, I was back in the classroom a week after a double mastectomy leading a three hour class on Whitman’s Sleepers—“wandering and confused, lost to myself, ill-assorted, contradictory”—in which I started with Djuna Barnes’s—“Watchman, what of the night?”
It was all good news. We learned that the chemo—and the provisional structures my friends had built to get me through it—had worked. The surgery revealed the tumor—which had once been so large and aggressive—had become, through these mutual efforts to keep me alive, nothing but a ghost and a grave.
I only had to get through reconstruction and recovery after—“only,” the most terrible part. I saw an ad for that movie, Everest, where everyone got to the top of the mountain, feeling like they’d won the thing, but the real struggle was the trip down. 2015 was the year of the hard times of reconstruction and recovery, but I could watch the spring come around as my body tried to, as I learned to be better and all the ways I would be different and assessed the damage of how I would be worse, too. I kept a journal of symptoms, and over months some diminished: a nerve ending stopped burning, an eyelash came in, I could walk a mile, then five miles again. Cassandra came as often as she could to take care of me until she finally just moved in.
After the final major surgery, in June 2015, I was happy to re-enter poetry life at the Berkeley Poetry Conference. Then it fell through because of the forces of history. But that was okay. Poetry didn’t need me. I’d just needed it, and in its most animate form: the poets, who came over and did my dishes, drove me to chemo, sent me stuff to cheer me up. Instead of California, Cassandra and I went to the center of the world—to Ecuador, where my friend Leo had moved back to. I threw my pink surgical garment into a valley near Vilcabamba. Cancer was done.
It wasn’t even a year after all this started that CAConrad came back, and we drove around with my miniature death (a plastic skeleton I’d kept near me during treatment), put a daylily on its head (the flower that is always so common and here-today and gone-tomorrow). Then we set off to Kansas City’s Loose Park to drown it. We’d gone to the museum before that—I’d shown CAConrad a favorite painting there, one with the Latin in it for learn to die.
“Let’s give death the middle finger,” you could hear CAConrad say in the video, and my laugh, too, as we drove death to the pond—the one where Cassandra and I had seen the first ice melting as I recovered, and the koi swimming underneath—to sink death at dusk. Death slipped into the deep easily: it left behind only the floating yellow flower. Meanwhile, not far from us, a drum circle had shown up, as if they knew CAConrad was coming. And we walked through the drummers’ storm of patchouli to the rose garden and its perfect, according to CAConrad, vibration. The moon was a crescent. There was this dude in Kansas City Chiefs spirit gear with a headlamp on riding his bike around the garden in circles. I was brought to this task by gratitude. Then I showed up to attempt an answer at the inobvious: What does it mean to have senses at the end of the world, and what does it mean to have them in common? We let the darkness come to us. Then we’d had enough of all that and went home.