Louisa has been studying poetry in her AP English class this year. For a recent assignment she had to write an essay on a poet of her choosing, and she selected Nobel prize winner Elizabeth Bishop. Louisa’s completed essay was open on my computer and after satisfying my curiosity by reading it, I became intrigued by one of the poems in particular, because it sums up the experience of going through what’s turning into months of chemotherapy. As background, here is Bishop’s poem.
by Elizabeth Bishop
The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster;
faces, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.
-Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
As Bishop so eloquently points out, the art of loss descends on you and progresses at such a gradual pace that after a while each loss becomes easier to accept, as I’ve learned over these last few months.
The first loss to cancer and chemo began with the scrambling of my tastebuds, and the inability to eat without an antacid to calm my digestion. As the months have progressed my interest in food and eating has declined – what was once a joyful source of amusement is now a futile endeavor to find a taste that matches the one in my memory. I’ve learned how much of my entertainment and social life revolved around food. Meeting friends for a cup of coffee, or a group dinner out, a gathering at someone’s house for a potluck meal. Going out on the weekend with Joe to sample a new restaurant, trying a fun-sounding new recipe, sipping a cup of coffee on a weekend morning – all lost to the loss of my tastebuds. I’ve become an “eat t0 live” person- a loss of the person I once was.
My conversational abilities, which I’ll admit have never been my greatest skill since I’m an introvert from way back, have become even less, especially in the first week after treatment as my mouth and tongue dry up and it becomes slow and difficult to form words. Oh well, a loss that’s been replaced with the texting skills of a teenager.
There was the initial dramatic loss of my hair, which was traumatic at first, but has since become an ordinary thing. I un-self-consciously walk around bald if the air is warm enough. Several treatments after losing my hair I lost the ability to use my fingers to pry open anything like a jar, or pop the lid off the cat food. I thought the pain was the sign of neuropathy but instead discovered it was the precursor to my fingernails dying off. There’s nothing attractive about my hands as the nails are turning ugly shades of yellow and purple. Typing is uncomfortable. And even more horrifying, there’s an unpleasant odor coming from under my nails which is noticeable each time I blow my ever drippy nose (who knew how important nose hair is?) or eat a finger food. My once mild case of vitiligo has spread to a very noticeable degree all over my hands and fingers. I’ve lost my chance to be a hand model. No loss. The death of my toe nails is even more uncomfortable than my fingernails if I wear tight socks or shoes that used to fit properly. And yet by mastering the art of loss I can accept the loss of my appearance more than the discomfort that accompanies it which is hard to ignore. You see, you have no choice but to lose your vanity once it’s out of your control.
I almost forgot to mention the loss of one’s dignity as you endure the examinations and procedures performed by countless doctors, nurses and technicians. But if one just realizes you’re another patient to them, that loss hardly matters at all.
Energy, now there’s a loss that might be more of a disaster… as I spend my days wondering if it would be wrong to crawl back into bed. But losing my energy would matter more if I cared that I have become the most unproductive I’ve been in my entire adult life. Oddly enough, however, few of my old interests or goals hold any interest for me now that I’m much too tired to care – is that circular logic? So that’s hardly much of a loss either.
Perhaps the toughest loss to accept is the loss of momentum in my life. Cancer and chemotherapy bring life to a stall and with it plans for the future. My old confidence in the future, and mistaken belief in my immunity from illness have been given a chilling dose of reality. The threat of cancer, illness and loss will always be hanging over me. Past plans are now seen in a new, less interesting light. My crystal ball has gone foggy and I can’t tell you which of my losses will be restored, and which of my interests will return once this long year of treatment is over. Will I still write? Knit? Draw? Care about food and cooking ever again? I honestly can’t tell you because the “art of losing isn’t hard to master” and now that I’ve become good at it, I’m not so sure how easy it will be to find another “art” to master.