Posted by: Harold Knight | 07/22/2011

Family, Creaking floorboards, and Chemotherapy

None of my family (parent, siblings, their children) lives in a lavish home worthy of note by House and Garden (I date myself—I had a passing acquaintance with one of its editors before the magazine died) or whatever the current trendy publication is. None of my family’s homes is large enough to comfortably be awake and working/ playing/ conversing in one part of the house while others sleep elsewhere.

My brother, my sister, and my nieces and their families know that, when I come to stay, putting me up in a hotel might be a good option because no one wants to be awakened at 4 AM daily by my doing what I am doing at the moment. They either don’t mind or pretend not to mind my tromping through their homes turning on my computer, making coffee, doing all those early morning things. I know their houses well, even where the floorboards creak. I think I’ve learned to be as quiet as possible.

Families know things about each other’s lives that outsiders don’t know, even families flung across the country who spend time with each other only occasionally. And the layout of the kitchen and where the coffee is kept and where the floorboards creak are the least of it.

Every morning since I last posted here I’ve written much about family relationships, especially bodies. I have not posted any of that stuff because, as often happens, my writing makes no sense (that doesn’t always prevent my posting it). This week’s stuff doesn’t make sense because it has been mostly about bodies, and there’s something decidedly strange writing about family members’ bodies.

But what would anyone expect this week?

I spent time with my 96-year-old father on Tuesday and Wednesday. He has lost 24 pounds since May. He cannot walk. He had not shaved for several days when I first saw him. His hands are literally skin and bones. He cannot hear (his hearing aid was being repaired). Could I be with him and not think about, be overwhelmed with concern for, his body? This man who, in my mind, is a tall, distinguished, handsome man, immaculately dressed in a business suit, always ready to meet the public.

Paying attention to his mental capacity is more distressing. He has Aphasic Dementia. He cannot speak in full sentences or put ideas together. It is impossible to determine how much he understands although he seems to be present to most conversation when he can hear it. I spent much of our time together writing what I wanted to say on a legal pad—I’m pretty sure he understood most of it. He spent his life using and understanding words. That was his identity. Dementia. “This was the most unkindest cut of all” (1).

Yesterday I sat with my sister as she underwent a chemotherapy session for her breast cancer. This is not some kindly familial experience. This is horrible. This is a debilitating, demeaning, frightening remedy for the disease that causes unparalleled dread because the success of treatment is so uncertain. My sister’s oncologist assured me yesterday that her cancer is curable. We know that. We (I, at any rate) assume the treatment will be totally effective.

not some kindly familial experience

not some kindly familial experience

However, as one of my sister’s friends (who has undergone this treatment herself) so graphically described the process, “It’s like drinking Drano.” The physical effects of chemotherapy are well-known. One needs only to imagine what the effect on the body, mind, and spirit will be (not “might” be) of taking into oneself chemicals strong enough to kill cells so virulent they form intrusive masses in the body. “Oncology,” the science of the study of masses, from the Greek Onkos (2).

Sitting beside my sister— who allows me to invade her home at four in the morning, who allows me to do my Yoga postures in the middle of the living room floor, with whom I prepare meals and eat, with whom I talk about events in our lives that no one else knows about, with whom I share concern for our father, and with whom I share an understanding of the emotional value of a few things from our past—while she was (shall I use the word?) assaulted with chemicals strong enough to destroy her hair, to make her nauseous most of the time, to bring about peripheral neuropathy (at least temporarily), and to cause other debilitations and annoyances was a humbling and distressing experience. Please don’t think I think the atrocity is mine rather than hers. I simply don’t know how (because there is no way) to share her experience. All I can do is report mine. She knows I do so to support and love her.

My sister and I have not spoken personally at depth about the connection between her physical and her spiritual experience (her experience is, obviously, in many ways still too difficult to talk about). However, I read her journaling, and she is open in her more-or-less public discussions, both verbal and written, about her experiences. My intuition is that she understands as I cannot that as

breast cancer strikes, with mastectomy and the challenges it poses for the symmetry of the body . . . women face a potential symbolic and physical death. They are confronted with . . . the greater paradox of love: This is the intensified openness to love which the awareness of death gives us and, simultaneously, the increased sense of death which love brings with it (3).

This openness to love and the awareness of death has, I think, become part of our family experience—as it must of the experience of any family confronting extreme old age and serious illness. Our family has been in a somewhat constant state of this openness and awareness for the last (at least) five years.

Irvin D. Yalom, in his ground-breaking book from 1931, quotes a one of his patients describing her experience as unnerving because

the world seemed precarious. It had lost, for me, its hominess: danger seemed everywhere. The nature of reality had shifted, as I experienced what Heidegger called “uncanniness” [unheimlich] – the experience of “not being at home in the world” which he considered (and to which I can attest) a typical consequence of death awareness (4).

the most unkindest cut of all

the most unkindest cut of all

My family, even if we do not talk about it openly, have come to understand all too well “not being at home in the world.” (I can’t get out of my head the spiritual I learned as a kid at Baptist camp, “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passin’ through, If heaven’s not my home, Oh Lord, what will I do?” It’s not part of my mature belief system, but it certainly fits in some way Heidegger’s thought.)

The best we can do to feel at home in the world is to be at home in each others’ homes. To know where the creaking floorboards are and tiptoe around them when it’s necessary. There, I finally managed to write about family bodies.
(1) Shakespeare, William. Julius Caesar. Act 3, scene 2, line 183.
(2) “oncology.” Online Etymology Dictionary. Ed. Douglas Harper. 2010. Web. 22 Jul. 2011.
(3) Delaloye, J.F,  et al. “Mastectomy, body deconstruction, and impact on identity: A qualitative study.” British Journal of Health Psychology 15.3 (2010): 479-510.
(4) Yalom, Irving D. Existential psychotherapy. New York: Library of Congress, Basic Books, 1931, reprint 1980. Quoted in Delaloye op.cit.


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