Archive for the ‘cancer treatment & progress’ Category

Vivian and me, July 14, 2015, taken by Izzy: Alexandria’s yearly birthday party, a large park area by the Potomac, a concert and fireworks for all for free; we had a picnic

Dear friends and readers,

We are near setting off on our journey to Milan, Italy — Laura, Izzy, and I — where among other things (a visit to a friend who lives near Zurick which will necessitate a train-ride through the Alps and beautiful lakes; a visit to a fellow biographer of Veronica Gambara, in Reggio Emilia) we plan to attend the World Figure-Skating Championships, and find and look into what fashion museums and exhibits there are in this famous world city.

The last time the three of us were in Italy was 1994, 5 weeks with Jim in an apartment in Rome, from the which we took 4 trips: to Pompei, to Naples, to the island of Ischia for 3 days (where there is a beautiful beach and Vittoria Colonna lived for a number of years it’s thought), to Marino (where Colonna was born). We all three have many memories of that time. Upon coming into the flat, Laura, then 15, declared Italy had not invented air conditioning yet. Izzy said to another child at the beach: “mi chiamo Isabella.” A high point for Jim and I was a fresco we saw in a fourteenth century church one morning. We all wandered in the heat over the forum, the Colosseum, saw an opera amid some ancient Roman stones.

And early yesterday evening my good friend, Vivian, died: she went quickly, three weeks after the cancer resumed. I wrote about my visit to her in a hospice place in my last blog. I have learned as she died she was quiet (perhaps sleeping?), appeared to be at peace, kept out of consciousness of pain by drugs. Did she go gentle into that good night? I was not there and in her two earlier phone calls she expressed anguish.

What is it Macbeth says upon being told: “She should have dy’de hereafter;/There would have been time for such a word.” I will not be here when the memorial service is held. I grieve for her and will miss her.

Every moment I’ve been able to I’ve been either reading, writing, thinking for the courses I’m teaching (The Later Virginia Woolf; Sexual & Marital Conflicts in Anthony Trollope: HKHWR), or taking (The Brontes, a book club whose first item is Atwood’s The Blind Assassin), or still at that paper (Woolf & Johnson, biographers), or online with friends, blogging, nurturing (so so speak) my 3 groups.io (the book, the extraordinary American Senator) — not to omit getting through all things needful for the trip. Some of them arduous, time-consuming, confusing — like airline reservations supposed to be on a website which are not there. Not to worry: Laura made a phone call in her firm determined voice and our tickets & we now exist again. “Able to” is the operative phrase: many a later afternoon or evening I give out and succumb to a movie that can keep me up; this weekend I reached the fifth episode of Alias Grace (another Atwood adapted).

I’m more awake tonight than I have been for several, enough to tell of how this past Wednesday I went to the last of the four lectures on Impressionism outside France: so to my last blog on Russia, the low countries and Italy, I add the UK, and I was not surprised it was the most interesting because he had the most paintings to show. Gariff went on for nearly 3 hours. This time I had heard of most of the painters, but had not realized that the work of many of the painters I had “placed” in separate schools when regarded as impressionist made a different kind of sense. Elizabeth Forbes (1859-1912), who I’ve written about as an Edwardian woman painter in the Newlyn School, links to Laura Knight (1877-1970), who I wrote more briefly about as a Cornish artist. Victorian artists familiar to me as recording the abysmal poverty of the countryside and cities, i.e., George Clausen (1852-1944) belong here; and some I’d never heard of, Spencer Frederick Gore (1878-1914):

The Icknield Way (1912) — a road in Surrey since Roman times

Roger Fry’s Omega Workshops, and his fostering of post-impressionism, his pictures belong here too. A Scottish woman artist, Ethel Walker (1861-1951) now fits. She painted Vanessa Bell, the first image I’ve seen that enables me to begin to understand why Bell was so liked:

Vanessa 1937

Two American artists this time were very influential: Whistler and John Singer Sargent. I learned that the next time I go to London I should go the London Imperial War Museum. Its name (because of the militarist connotations) is misleading: it is a leading place for artist painting during WW1, which most of these people did. Sidney Starr (1857-1925) has such a poor wikipedia page, I have to link in a sales one (he was an important art critic):

Starr’s City Atlas (1889-90) was part of an exhibit or talk about how difficult to get to know London

Philip Wilson Steer (1860-1942) ended up an important teacher (teachers matter), he was influenced by Monet and this is his most famous painting.

Children Paddling, Walberswick (1894)

But perhaps this curiosity, of an over-dressed woman with a cat called Hydrangeas is more characteristic

Vivian’s favorite painter was Monet, and during the visit her brother and sister took her on to Paris this summer they took her to Giverny. She also had a cat called Sammy (Samantha) for seven years.

Izzy and I almost didn’t go to a performance by Catherine Flye accompanied by Michael Tolaydo as narrator at the Metrostage of a revue of the life and songs of Joan Grenfell. We had tickets for Saturday, and were so preoccupied we forgot to go. The woman who basically runs the Metrostage single-handed phoned us 5 minutes before, and offered to let us come Sunday instead. This remarkable pair of actors presented a later afternoon of witty cheer with an undercurrent of desperate acceptance; there were some twee moments but also direct hits at frustrated longing hearts. My favorite was a piece called “The Telephone Call” (a woman spending her life caring for an aged parent). A couple very funny: one of a woman on her first airplane flight when people were still treated with respect and given comfort as human beings. The pianist played wonderful older melodies I recognized, one famous from WW2, The Warsaw Concert by Richard Addinsell (who wrote most of the music performed).

Michael Tolaydo and Catherine Flye, 2002 (Gardener McKay’s Sea Marks)

We had both wanted to go because we both remembered the moving play Sea Marks, with Tolaydo and Flye, which we saw with Jim in 2002 at this Metrostage. I’ve had that black-and-white newsprint picture on the wall of my study all this time

I return to Vivian. One of the class members of my Later Woolf came for the first class and for the rest I’ll keep him in the email list as I send comments and readings out, and lectures too. He can’t come regularly as he’s taking chemotherapy and radiation for cancer. Vivian was killed by lymphoma (as was Jenny Diski) combined with brain cancer. She was no reader: odd for a best friend for me, but there are other things that matter. She was a kind person, sensitive. Charitable and forbearing at others’ flaws. She shared my politics, my lack of religion. While she didn’t read books, she always seemed to know the latest US political development; she’d take the progressive side most of the time, and post about it on face-book. We went to Bernie Sanders rallies. We also took wandering walks in Old Town. We’d go to some movies together (we didn’t quite have the same tastes): I went twice to Kedi (the movie set in Isanbul about feral cats and their caretakers in that city) so she could see it, and she cried. She stayed up (she had problems sleeping so would often fall asleep at movies) for and was moved by Still Alice.

Here is one of the poems Flye recited, movingly:

If I should die before the rest of you,
Break not a flower nor inscribe a stone.
Nor, when I’m gone, speak in a Sunday voice,
But be the usual selves that I have known.
Weep if you must,
Parting is hell.
But life goes on …

That doesn’t mean one forgets however little one is given chance to mourn with any ceremony. I feel bad because Vivian had emailed the suggestion when she still thought she would live (some 5 weeks ago) that she and I go to the Grand Canyon this coming May. I had balked at the idea of the plane and asked if there was a way to go by train. No. It would take some absurd amount of time. A drive was ridiculous. I was adjusting to the idea of taking yet another plane (how I hate them all) and was beginning to propose we look into a package tour. I told her I imagined us on donkeys going up and down vast cliffs, which probably showed how little I know about modern tourism in the Grand Canyon. It was still in the realm of half-joke when she phoned to say the cancer had returned and she was in hospital. We had some good walks in Old Towne this summer: a ghost tour, one night along the water eating ice-cream listening to street musicians in the mild crowd.

We all come from the past … life is a braided cord of humanity stretching from time long gone … it cannot be defined by a single journey from diaper to shroud … (Russell Baker, Growing Up, an autobiography I read with freshman composition students decades ago, which I remembered tonight)



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It must’ve been in the mid-1990s that I came to the conclusion that Gwen Ifill would make a better US president than any candidate I had seen since I began to vote, and certainly better on what was on offer that year. The thought occurred to me regularly because at the time we regularly watched the PBS Newshour, with Jim Lehrer as the anchor and she as a chief correspondent (the titles they used). A memory comes back to me of Laura visiting a friend at this time, voicing shock that the family did not turn on this news program (these were arch-conservative people who I assume voted for Trump this time), and coming home to tell me they had laughed about this. “Not everyone watches PBS reports” they had said.

She died today of endometrial cancer, age 61. Apparently she had been sick for over a year.

As you can see I feel a kind of personal connection with Ifill (different from but analogous to my feeling about Jenny Diski, also destroyed by cancer), so choose to put this as part of my life-writing. It is, though, now also political, more in the vein of what I write on my first Sylvia blog nowadays. On such a bleak desolating day (where we can see how what we have is a hollow pretense of democracy), it seemed to me to keep spirits up not to be cowed and offer some effective force against the coming racist fierce militarist capitalism (a gov’t which will crush civil liberties even more than they have been!) now being put in place, let us remember her life and work.

I was reassured about the PBS Newshour tonight too because they devoted most of their hour to her. I have been disappointed and at times dismayed by the lack of rigorous questioning and truth-telling about Trump, the failure of Judy Woodruff as a woman to “call out” (as it’s articulated) Shields and Brooke for their equating Trump’s corruption and fascism with Hillary Clinton’s atttempt to keep her emails private, for their sexism; the worst moment was Paul Salmon’s shameful disrespectful tone towards David Kay Johnston while interviewing him on his thoroughly-researched exposure of Trump’s business practices, The Making of Donald Trump. Tonight for the first time I am aware how often Gwen Ifill was not there. In these last few years she had become more bland, more discreet, reined in the acute thinking mind of the earlier years: PBS is so dependent on corporate sponsors. So I didn’t miss her as much as I would have when she was merely a memorable part of a team questioning and talking or an on-the-spot reporter.

But I remembered and knew what she was capable of delivering and still did deliver in interviews from time to time. She projected and was a strong presence in her role of moderator, facilitator in recent years and I just enjoyed the line-up of segments she and Judy Woodruff produced together. It seemed to me a woman’s news hour of serious news, far better in scope, in what was understood and shown to be important than almost any other (a sole exception is another woman’s news program, Amy Goodman’s DemocracyNow.org). Precisely because it was a woman’s show they chose Malcolm Brabant on refugees, Fred de Sam Lazaro on the marginalized of the world, always showing how the intimate small experience is large political and affects us all.

with Judy Woodruff on their show together

Two panels, some tapes of reminiscent, and excerpts from an appreciation of Ifill comprised the beautiful tribute. I was much moved listening to those who had been helped in their careers, whom she worked with, whom she knew for many years in her private life. Charlene Hunter-Gault began to tear up more than once, Judy was unsteady and towards the end Hari Svrinavasin called her his mentor. It felt especially important to voice all this and present the worlds she came from, belonged to, and those she reported before because soon (before long now, January 20th to be precise), we seem headed to have media dominated by repression of all but fascistic points of view. That she lived and worked with the ideals she did should cheer us, even if her ending reveals much more emphatically than other parts of her existence, how we are are subject to the results of little ameliorated capitalism:

She was another victim to the cancer pandemic: and I feel a personal connection tonight because I can discern in the pattern of her behavior in this last year a paradigm like my husband’s: in summer she was off-the-air, said to have had a serious operation, after a considerable recovery period, she was back and looked strong, but only for one season, the she suddenly disappeared and in what felt like no time, was dead in a hospice. Like Jim, she had the show of force in a drastic operation, and then shortly after recovering, the cancer re-appeared in vital organ and devoured her.

With her sister, Sherrilyn, Ifill

Her book was The Break Through: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama


I was strengthened and consoled by the truth-telling of two more presences on the Internet. The first, a poem by Adrienne Rich, written

What Kind of Times Are These
By Adrienne Rich

There’s a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows
and the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows
near a meeting-house abandoned by the persecuted
who disappeared into those shadows.

I’ve walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don’t
    be fooled
this isn’t a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,
our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
its own ways of making people disappear.

I won’t tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods
meeting the unmarked strip of light—
ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise:
I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.

And I won’t tell you where it is, so why do I tell you
anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these
to have you listen at all, it’s necessary
to talk about trees.


The other the consolatory voice of retreat, Garrison Keillor’s “I’ll sit back and wait.”. What is most valuable in his words is his saying firmly Trump is the candidate of those who whooped it up for cruelty, ignorance and bald-faced stupidity. Especially cruelty (“by your 20s, you should be done with cruelty”): that was what was repeated across his most hooting jeering withering derision — of the disabled, of women, of people who grieving for the death of a son in a (colonialist) war, pensioned veterans (weak), the list is long and I need not take us through it. This was funny until he got to “deport the undocumented” (it is too much like Hitler that Trump’s first planned presidential order is to deport millions of hispanics):

Democrats can spend four years raising heirloom tomatoes, meditating, reading Jane Austen, traveling around the country, tasting artisan beers, and let the Republicans build the wall and carry on the trade war with China and deport the undocumented and deal with opioids, and we Democrats can go for a long, brisk walk and smell the roses.

What we who have voted for this party have now to do is spend four years pressuring for a re-invention of this democratic party into a body of people who respond to what their constituency wants and needs. I agree with Glen Greenwald on the Democratic Party self-destructing itself. In one of his last speeches before conceding the nomination to Clinton, Sanders said this election was about an impoverished woman (maybe he said on food stamps) struggling to bring up her children.


On election day I was in my local supermarket and had had on a real line in front of me a latino woman with two young children. Her meat was in plastic bags. Huge bags of dried vegetables. Well it was time to pay and she pulled out food stamps. Alas, it appeared that she had pulled the wrong product from some shelf and taken a bigger of whatever than was coming to her — 3 such wrong-size bags. These food stamps are very tricky; you are allowed to buy only certain specified products. The manager had to come over to settle the dispute (as there was a sign and she had an ad saying this product was for sale for food stamps), and then Linda (the checker, a kind hearted long term employee) was helping her dismantle her cart. On the other side of me a tough-looking (in her face) woman with blonde hair (clearly dyed), in jeans, looked very mad. Need I say she had a Trump t-shirt? So I said, “I think we ought to have a National Holiday to vote. All states stay open until 9. Everyone then could do it easily.” I do think that. She glared at me and was about to erupt with angry comments, when the manager sent another checker to open another register and make the long line of people vanish. This young woman cannot access any money through the welfare system that she could then use for her family in the best ways possible for them.

That woman with her food stamps is but for Jim me. I will now return to support Bernie Sanders.

But for now, tonight, we can remember Gwen Ifill and think of the good she managed to do, embody, and encourage others to achieve. It is necessary to talk about trees, real as well as metaphoric.

David Lohenberg, Gwen Ifill

Miss Drake

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From Danger UXB (one of the great anti-war mini-series)

This is the anniversary of Jim’s dying two years ago. He has lost the ability to speak back as of October 7th and on October 8th he was beginning that terrible ordeal/agon of literally dying.

I feel I’m living through these days for a third time: the first two years ago, as he lay dying; the second last year when somehow I kept the sense of it all at a distance; and now:

On October 3rd this year when Jim would have been 67 I felt how uncanny it is that he is not here, how weird is death in comparison to how we feel about someone’s existence. We have to feel deeply that the person we are attached to has deep reality, and yet they are no more than 98?% water (as I’ve read in different places). I felt haunted the way I had for a time after my father died. Then it was the irretrievably of never being able to make contact again, and I felt such a strong desire to I projected psychologically a presence hiding somewhere, invisible, silent.

It’s not like that for Jim. I have this sense of the unbelievability of existence itself. I can hardly believe I am here concretely if he’s not. I don’t know why I don’t vanish away softly in the night — like one of Lewis Carroll’s mad figures — if he could so vanish.

I’d call such feelings are one of the origins of religious belief. Tonight we would have been married 46 years, met 47 years ago.

I remember Shakespeare’s lines as Prospero: we are such things as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded by a sleep.

And also that 90th sonnet: Do not drop in for an afterloss … in the onset come; so shall I know the very worst … which compared to loss of thee will not seem so

Jenny Diski’s latest entry as she moves into death is devastating. Her cancer is for now (what a sardonic joke in such words) in remission, for how long (ditto) the doctors can’t say (as they know nothing). Like the heroine in Wit, she is dying in immiseration because of the effect of the treatments on her, her lungs gone, she has (like Hilary Mantel) been made to look awful so that she is alienated from her body. at once feeble, unable to walk steadily and fat. Why should she care say the heartless neat doctors and nurses. She opens with talking of letters she has received; I was almost tempted to write. We learn in this one she has two grandchildren and we know the father of her daughter, once her partner-husband died a couple of years ago. So her daughter parentless.

People have asked me (well one person) what is gained by telling of Doris and me, well the same thing that is gained by her telling of these dreadful symptoms, her pain, her feebleness, how others will not help except for the Poet. Insofar as you can stop people from mouthing nonsense about triumphs, conquests, and bravery and instead tell what cancer is, you help a little in the pressure to do fundamental research. The research that is done is expensive surgery to prolong life and pills that cost huge sums — all garnering profit. What they discover fundamentally is a bye-product and not much sought. The TTP was signed yesterday: a key provision fought over was the US on behalf of the pharmaceuticals (like the fascist gov’t it is) to give them the right to charge outrageously for 5-8 years; 12 was what was wanted and the “balance” is it’s just 6-8 and uncountable thousands excluded because of the price at least until then.

I omit all the provisions which supercede workers’ rights and hand a good deal of the world over to corporations (with military backing) to exploit and immiserate everyone who is not in the elite genuinely rich and well connected.

Cancer is our great and ever spreading plague — like the engineered (in effect) famines and mass diseases of early times — India, Ireland. Settler colonialism now exterminating the Palestinians a little at a time — punctuated by the terror of lethal bombing.

Diski speaks for us all — she says don’t talk about bravery so instead I’ll say she writes what she does because she cannot help herself and thinks truth has a function in the world that helps others– if only by saying see here I am, is this the way you are? if so, we are not alone.

Diski (before cancer)

She does say it’s hard not to feel what’s happening to her is a punishment — like it’s hard not to feel the death and disappearance of someone is uncanny. But what it’s vital to remember is not to take what happens ever as a punishment. That is your psyche doubling in on itself and wanting to find some reason, some ultimate meaning for what is happening. For me not comfort, but that way madness lies.

Miss Drake

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Henrietta Pussycat (Mr Roger’s Neighborhood)

I’ve had cats in my life since I was fostered at the age of fifteen. When I arrived at the house in London, the woman who was fostering me greeted me at the door, holding a small grey kitten under her arm.
    ‘This is Grey Cat,’ she said, ‘I only got her yesterday.’
    Grey Cat and I were co-fosterings. She was supposed to be my cat … (Diski, What I Don’t Know About Animals, Chapter 4)

Dear friends and readers,

Since reading Kathryn Shevelow’s For the Love of Animals, about the rise of the animal rights movement and development of real fellow feeling in people generally for animals and animal protection laws and effective agencies, I’ve been wanting to know more about how such feeling develops — for myself, an exponential increase since Jim died. Since I’ve also became interested in Jenny Diski’s writing in the last two years, I noticed her What I don’t Know About Animals. Billed as a serious philosophical essay, I wondered how much it was written in reaction to Doris Lessing’s On Cats: Diski, it was said, went into human anthropomorphic responses to animals, and certainly, Lessing’s moving book on two of Lessing’s many beloved cats depends on endowing her cats with complicated moving lives.

Diski’s book has a highly problematic center. Her purpose is to make us agree that animals are “other;” to see that, acknowledge it, and yet give animals full rights and (as she apparently does) treat them when pets as real companions, equals in their way. She goes over several examples to “prove” we attribute feelings to cats (ever her example) that we can’t say they have. For example, when you leave a room and a cat sitting there, near a toy, and then you come back some time later and the cat is still sitting there, is he or she waiting for you? You don’t know that, but then I’d reply, you don’t know she isn’t. Briefly, her examples don’t hold up. Worse yet 2) as she acknowledges the “otherness” argument is the fundamental ammunition of those who want to use animals to benefit humans first and foremost, not attribute real value to their lives. Hers is a philosophical book where she argues with various experts on animals and philosophers of the type Kathryn Shevelow discusses.


However, Diski has what might seem a strange and telling procedure. She begins by telling us her experience of animals by telling us of her early dolls, stuffed toys, and of the animals she came across as dead which she and her mother (biological, a back formation) ate. She calls herself “post-domestic. ” A “domestic” life in animal studies means you grew up with working animals around you (cows, chickens, horses). So her first experience of animals includes watching her mother buy and cook a chicken, eating the bird. This seems to have been enough for Diski to imagine this as a once live animal victimized, and she says soon after she felt impelled to save a baby bird from a nest who was not grateful but terrified. The bird couldn’t understand what she was aiming at, could not trust, much less love her. The result was the poor bird hid behind the stove in their small kitchen where it was dangerous, and they had to pull it out by force. By the time they prodded it out, it was badly wounded; Jenny ended up wishing the bird would die immediately. The point was how vulnerable animals are to us in our habitats. She then moved onto stuffed animals she saw in museums, caught up in death, very dreary (no tigers burnt bright here); then dream animals, as in storybooks and especially Disney films, where they are not quite children, but dressed; and finally zoos, the early ones where the animals were put in caged prisons, for human entertainment.


Me and Llyr, 1971 (in 76th Street flat in NYC)

I grant these are influential and perhaps where our earliest attitudes towards animals are shaped, but somehow to me this is not where my feeling for animals came, and I rather suspected she wanted to deny the importance of her first pet, that cat pushed on her (in effect) by Doris as an intermediary between them. Perversely (rather in the spirit of Jenny herself there), I tried to remember if I had an early relationship with a real animal and could not think of any beyond those I’d see as other people’s pets when my parents and I visited. That I saw dead chickens hanging up at a butcher’s (which I did as when I was young there were butcher shops and chickens that still had their heads and feet hanging from hooks on walls), well the interaction just doesn’t hack it. I must’ve been taken to a zoo but it didn’t affect me that I can recall. My aunt had a dog but I never got to know her; I wasn’t there often enough, and when I was I wanted to be with my cousins and paid attention to them.

I remember I longed for a pet, or thought I did. My parents refused saying the dog or cat would ruin the furniture and was a responsibility. I was an only child with only one or no friends at a time. After we moved away from my aunt and cousins, my father bought me a blue parakeet which we called Joey, thinking the bird was a boy. I did love it for a time but then even though I dutifully cleaned the cage once a week (I was an obedient child, especially good at routines), I didn’t play with it enough, my father said, and we got another because (he said) Joey was lonely. Well, Joey grew listless and unwell, and one day we found him dead; we went to vet then and discovered Joey was girl and had gotten pregnant and we needed to hep her give birth. This occurred before the days of the kind of animal medicine people regularly nowadays buy from vets. Nancy, the green parakeet, named by me with a girl’s name, but a boy, died son after that. Was she pining for Joey? The experiment was a failure. Now I see from Diski’s book, yes, animals are vulnerable to us.

Much briefer: when I was 10 or 11 my father attempted to buy me a dog; but he wouldn’t pay money for one and didn’t want to go to a rescue shelter; the dog really belonged to someone else. I had already begun to withdraw from painful experiences and didn’t try to make friends with the dog. I don’t even remember his or her name. Only that he or she was medium-sized and white. He or she was returned to the owner before the end of one week.

So truly my second experience of an animal for real was a feral cat (if that’s the appropriate term) I half-adopted shortly before Jim and I married (September 1969) and we came to live together permanently in a “self-enclosed flat” (£2 10 shillings a week), both of us with jobs (Jim a stockbroker’s clerk, me a personal assistant cum-secretary in a toy-packaging firm, Waddington’s). We lived in a poor Pakistani area of Leeds (England) just off a great park. Somehow he got into our flat. My hunch is it was through a small opening with a flap in the wall next to which the milkman left milk. I gave him a dish of milk. I did not know milk is not good for cats! Stories and films pictured cats happily lapping up milk. He did not know he was not supposed to drink milk either. He began to show up regularly, sat under the cooker (as we called the stove) where it was warm, and I began to buy cat food for him, also cans of fish, before you know it, he was sleeping in bed with me most nights. Jim wasn’t keen, but didn’t object as long as the cat stayed on my side of the bed.

I didn’t name him that I can remember.

I had to abandon him when we left for Southampton and the US (April, seven months later). It was not practicable for us. I understood we needed money to pay to make him healthy enough, for shots, to vouch for him, and who would take him on board a plane? Would it not be prohibitively expensive? We didn’t begin to have it. And after all, he was a stray; sometimes he didn’t return for several nights or a whole weekend would go by without seeing him. Who knew if he wanted to come? I’d have to put him in a carrier. He would not care for that. One night he came in all bloody, looking just so awful. I cried and exclaimed and began to wash and care for him. I’ll swear he looked at me and communicated the idea, ‘You should see the others.’ Was he really triumphant? Or did I imagine this (as Diski might ask). He stayed in for a couple of nights after that. I wasn’t sure how attached to me he was. Maybe he preferred Leeds. When I’d get home from work, Jim and I often went out to a pub because we didn’t have central heat. We had no TV or radio even in those days. Or I read.

Years later (14 to be precise) I realized I was very sick for 2 weeks shortly after my cat came to live with us on-and-off because I caught some potentially deadly virus from him. My immune system had thrown it off with difficulty. I was out of work for over a week and went back before I was quite ready (lest I lose the job). I found out when Yvette was born prematurely, and the tests showed she had these antibodies to this dread disease. At first this panicked the hospital staff in Fairfax hospital, and they thought she had this dread disease, and looked funny (suspiciously) at me; but then they saw it was rather that I had actually transmitted antibodies to this premature baby. The disease hadn’t been known about until AIDs had spread and homosexual men came down with it and died. Jim’s mother had had a cat and dog (called Judy, a Pomeranian) during much of his childhood and so maybe he had developed antibodies early on to this disease and that’s why he hadn’t gotten sick.

I left one last bowl of milk and dish of cat food and the door ajar when we left that flat.

Jim and Llry (same day as above)

Then there was Llyr, the dog we bought shortly after we came to NYC and who lived with us for 12 years. I walk around with intense guilt over her last two years or so of life — which coincided with our last two years in NYC. I was very good to her for 10 years, so too Jim; but we didn’t act to her as we would today. One evening after we came home from work and discovered she had torn apart a couch, we wanted to go out and so we tied her long leash to the radiator so she could not get near the furniture. I can almost still hear her cry of distress as we left. We rushed back and took off that leash and told her to destroy the furniture if she wanted to. But that we could even think to do such a thing to her (tie her to a radiator) shows how thoughtless as young people we could be. We did play with her; she slept with me, one summer when I was studying Latin night and day to pass an exam in it, she was my steady companion.

Another time a year after Caroline was born (1979) she may have saved our lives. I heard a man’s voice making a huge ruckus and opened the door to see someone there in uniform. Llyr suddenly began to growl ferociously and showed her teeth. That was most unlike her. The man angrily demanded I “put away that dog,” so he could read the meters. What meters I asked. Nervously I shut the door. Later that day I heard the man was not an employee of a utility company and had attacked another woman in another building later that day. How grateful I was to Llyr. When I’d walk with her in Central Park, I believe she functioned to protect me. When I had Caroline, Llyr would look at her over her cradle. When Caroline would cry, Llyr would howl. Jim went nuts trying to pay attention to his math studies.

It’s probably true to say about 10 years on, I was having a nervous breakdown (finishing my dissertation and unable to contemplate looking for interviews, no idea how to cope with them), Jim in a bad way (his dissertation had been rejected!), no money for food even at times. He had quit his full-time job to get a Ph.D. in math and we were both adjuncts with small salaries. So Llyr suffered too — as much because I didn’t have an emotional strength to companion her properly. Then she looked terrible, so thin (like us), and my father paid for a vet and we discovered she had cancers on her legs. He paid for an operation, complete with cone upon coming home, and I began to pay much more attention again. But within the year the cancers returned. The vet told us we should “put her down,” she was old, 14. Nowadays I’d question that, and take my dog to another Vet. Nowadays maybe the Vet would try again.

I cried hysterically the night she laid on the bathroom floor after several nights of not wanting to sleep with me. Jim kept saying, “it’s just a dog.” He was upset at how upset I became. I had failed her and couldn’t retrieve what I had done.

Then another of these brief incidents. We came to Alexandria, and Jim agreed to get another dog. We went to a rescue shelter and brought home a dog that Jim worried had been abused: Gueneviere her name. White, middle-sized. Caroline liked her and we said it would be hers. Of course I knew she was too young to care for a dog. But soon after that again I was feeling this was too much for me, when the dog acted oddly and was difficult to train to make outside, and a phone call from the shelter told us the dog had not been given up by its master. It was “a mistake” of some sort (?). Jim said let’s not look into this; let’s return her. We did. Poor creature.

Clarissa (as I called her then) and Ian as kittens

Fast forward to 7 years ago now when Caroline and I went to buy Clarycat and Ian. Caroline had two cats and I was seeking to have common ground with her. I thought too (like my parents the presence of the two kittens might keep Yvette company (she was home from college) and bring her out of herself. Jim did not want this and I overrode what I knew he was against. It turned out, he became far closer to Clarycat than I did because he was retired and at home. I was still working (in effect) full-time, and after an initial destruction by said kittens of the wires in this room attaching the computers to the outside world, Jim forbade them this room. Since I spend a lot of time here, I didn’t see them enough. About a year before I retired though, I felt they so disliked my staying in the room without them, and I myself disliked it so much (we were missing out), I insisted they be let in again. That’s nearly 4 years ago.

And now they are my close companion-friends — as anyone who reads this blog regularly knows. They are attached to Yvette too.

Jim was not post-domestic. His mother had a greenhouse where she grew vegetables and also chickens who she would kill, pluck and cook and the family eat them. Jim told me that one day when he was around four he was “playing” with one of these chickens and it pecked him hard. He ran away, but then he came back and told it his mother was going to kill it and they would eat it, so there. Now I wonder if he was teasing the animal.

The second early experience of animals Jim told me about is fuzzy. A dog is after him, and he is terrified, and his mother puts him high on a shelf. I wonder now if he teased animals when they were around him, and had done so to this dog, and it lunged for him.

He also had a long-term experience: the cat and Pomeranian, Judy. He said Judy was fierce and every once in a while would attack the cat and it would flee in terror. When we came to Southampton and lived with his mother and father for a month, I saw this pair of animals. The dog was long-lived; the cat was one of several his mother had had, one after another. Jim thought there was not much sentimentality or emotionalism towards these pets since he could not remember anyone grieving over each cat’s death; each one (in his memory) was simply replaced by another. But perhaps Jim under-estimated the complexity of his mother’s feelings: she was a woman who had grown up in the countryside of Hampshire.


Caroline’s calico cat, Keira

Nonetheless, Diski persuaded me of the importance of all our contacts with animals (cooked, dream, on film, in books, zoos, wherever). So I feel vindicated that early on and for years in teaching Advanced Comp in the Natural Science and Tech, the second paper I assigned to students was to ask for an observation and most students who had no lab courses, and didn’t garden (a rare choice but it happened) chose to observe animals insofar as they could — complaining often that zoo experiences were artificial. But they had to sit and watch an animal for hours on end, and a repeated comment was they had had a distorted notion of that animal from Disney or animal film. She is probably right to say David Attenborough has had a strong and beneficial influence on how people who get to watch his films regard animals. I loved his Life on Earth; Yvette talked of his Life on this Planet. Like Mr Rogers, he is still on TV talking to young people. Since Attenborough or occurring at the same time, zoos treat animals very differently: insofar as zoos can they offer the animal an environment the animal can enjoy and thrive in, and animal companions, and follow their timetable. The animls are not there for our entertainment in the same way at all.

Caroline’s Mitzi, recovered from an operation to save her life

I am now thinking Caroline developed her love of cats when she watched Mr Roger’s Neighborhood. I remember how she would get so involved with Henrietta Pussycat if anything the least untoward happened to that cat. OTOH, she developed her cat family in response to her husband, Rob. When she first came to live with him, he was living in a close relationship with a cat named Lucy. Caroline was Lucy’s rival, and Caroline took Lucy’s central place in the household by buying two more cats, so Lucy was put in her place as one of three. Maybe Lucy provided an excuse for a long-delayed response to Henrietta Pussycat. Now Caroline has four cats and daily puts photos or videos of her four beloved companions on her I should have been a blogger blog.

My father’s cat when she was 5

My father could love an animal. He told me of when he was a boy coming across a dog hiding in an alleyway. It was cold, looked miserable and beaten. He went over to it to make friends and it tried to bite and scratch him. He was startled out of his complacency: he realized that the dog had learned to guard itself from others from its hard experience of the world. Fast forward many many years later after my father retired. Briefly he had a Siamese cat. It was fierce to outsiders and since I’d never had a cat and cats don’t reveal their inner nature to anyone but their owner, I didn’t believe the cat was as capable as a dog of attaching itself to a human being. I was wrong. That cat loved my father. My father grieved intensely when “Pushky” died.

I can’t resist saying a second core of What I Don’t Know about Cats is Diski’s relationship with Doris Lessing. There is an intense frisson when that fourth chapter opens and there is her foster mother (sort of) never named with a kitten or cat in her arm. Their first meeting together was Doris giving Jenny a cat to have a relationship with. We learn that the cat turned to Doris more than to her as Doris was there much more of the time, was more reliable for food and Grey Cat’s timetable. The foster mother is never named. I have to think that Doris asked Jenny (using their first names) never to in print talk about their relationship. Others clearly knew (from the columns and this book too) or asked that she not until Doris died. I don’t think the latter as Jenny didn’t tell until Jenny was diagnosed with incurable cancer. Jenny Diski did not want to die not having told about this central person in her life, how she fits into her biological parents and having shown that she was very important to Doris too: she is the one who followed in Doris’s footsteps, not just as a writer, but a person with cats. At any rate, this is Jenny’s response to Doris’s On Cats, a very anthropomorphic masterpiece. Jenny’s book is not a masterpiece.

I find myself so drawn to their relationship because 1) I had a very sore relationship with my mother and from other women I’ve known this relationship sore or not goes as deep into understanding the person and their choices in life as any and 2) it’s a central paradigm of l’ecriture-femme, women’s literature. Wolf Hall is not l’ecriture femme even if it has a woman in drag at its center because Cromwell and his fathers are the issue.

Diski’s relationship with the bird she tried to rescue is a kind of fable. It died terribly. I remembered my early experiences with animals and realize the lesson I should have taken away was how dangerous I was as a keeper; they could die if I didn’t do right. In later years I was at long last old enough to see this and thus we didn’t replace Llyr for many years as I feared I would not be up to the responisbility. Her fable is to show how vulnerable animals are and how often if we look they end up dead well before they have to if they are given inadequates mistress/masters keepers, unloving.

Miss Drake

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Time is killing more of us more swiftly:
since time is become cancer,
cancer moves in to the beat of time itself.

It’s now
Look down and see what cancer is doing
Paulina’s line re-booted

As our air and food, straight chemicals
directly imbibed,
become ever-more polluted,
addictive —

“I am afraid to stop the pills …”
Says one unhappy soul
even if they have such side-effects.

Psychiatrists once soul-healers
deal out body altering chemicals
record-keepers for NSAs, DMVs

It becomes a matter of time
The pollution slowly eats us up —
Bloats us — Corrosive

How many years does this or that cancer
give this or that person. Ninety? 51? Ten?
That is the new question.

Miss Drake

For a 21st century Book of Hours

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From Frederick Wiseman’s Near Death

Dear friends and readers,

In a NYRB review (Jan 8, 2015, 72:1), A Better Way Out, Marcia Angell with a few important qualifications heaps praise on Atul Gawande’s latest book on how medicine treats aging and dying, how people sickness, aging, death because of modern medicine’ goals, training, politics: Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters. I’ve discussed Gawande before (see Realities of Medicine: how misunderstood), and Marcia Angell’s writing several times (see her on privatizing all aspects of medicine) and this review seems to be publicly on-line, available to the public. So let me just call attention just to a central section of the book and one of its silences.

In the book’s “most powerful chapter,” “Letting Go,” Angell reviews the book so as to bring out Gawande’s theme about the deeply inhumane and dishonest way cancer is treated by modern physicians and hospital staffs (and I’d add hospices too). Knowing how bleak an outlook, doctors lie and offer painful maiming operations and immiserating chemotherapies and radiations whose outcome they cannot predict. They make the last months or year of a person’s life an experience of toxic suffering, giving them (as I know too well) no opportunity to decide to enjoy what they can of their last months. She does not mention that if you refuse the doctor’s treatments, they tell you to go away; they will not provide half-way or palliative care to enable you to carry on in your own way. It’s all or nothing. It’s also highly exploitative. A multi-million edifice for its practitioners and drug companies. A friend told me recently about The Confessions of a Surgeon by Paul Ruggieri where he exposes the pressure put on doctors to recommend operations in order to make huge sums for hospitals (a brief inadequate review). Statistics quoted include physicians on average telling terminally ill patients they will live 5 times longer than they do; those who can find a palliative specialist and stop chemotherapy very early, having no operation, live about 25 per cent longer than those who submit to these treatments.

Do read Angell’s essay. Everything she writes is worth reading and thinking about.

She faults him in two areas: the first is money. He hardly ever discusses money in his writing: yes there are a couple of essays where he discusses money and the way medicine is delivered generally, and advocates moving gradually to a single-payer system, but since what drives each and every encounter between patient and medical person is a fee (and often hefty) this kind of general discussion doesn’t begin to get near the problems (see Money-Driven Medicine). Worse he gives a superficial and prejudiced account of physician-assisted dying: he is against it — he is strongly for high-tech solutions when he thinks they provide a “good outcome;” she points out there is no evidence in any of the US or European states where such practices have begun that assisted dying is resorted to unless the patient decides for it. That Gawande calls this resort a measure of failure shows how somewhere deep in himself he has not accepted the inferences of his own arguments; he may know enough not to use the metaphors of bravery and courage, and heroism (which should have no place in discussions of killing and therefore painful diseases) but he thinks of the decision to die rather than live through a hideous self-destruction unacceptable. Why? when he himself has said it’s not a question of life once it’s most cancers: life’s not on offer, occasionally it is a question of prolonging life (and this is where patients get sucked in, especially when young); for most it quickly enough becomes how and when and where the person dies.

That latter was Jim’s phrase when at first he wanted to do nothing. I couldn’t face his death, and I should have and proposed we go on a trip, and he try to have the best last few months he could. And then he couldn’t face it either.

Endings matter, for animals too.

A sick kitten being cared for


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People in a gallery

One must live with great seriousness like a cat — a play upon an utterance by Nazim Hekmat

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve been meaning to tell of one last adventure Yvette and I had while in NYC: Friday morning until lunchtime we wandered all about the Metropolitan Museum of Art, exhausted ourselves there too, for me seeing paintings and art work I regard as old friends and with her looking at new art.

Well, we happened on an exhibition of photographs by Thomas Struth. The ones used to advertise his work are like the one above: people looking at vast art, people making things, not just beautiful art, but everything one might think of in an industrial building, wandering in and out of cities, esplanades, woods filled with twisted branches: ephemeral beings given some kind of larger meaning against the shape of seemingly permanent or continuing structures. I’m told that Frederick Wiseman’s latest documentary where he filmed the worlds of people doing things, talking in the institution in the UK called the National Gallery is rapturous. By contrast, Struth shows a family of artists whose living is made by restoring pictures working in the basement of an old church thus:


So (or but) if you go to one of Struth’s actual exhibits (not spread across the globe on the Net), you find there is another sort of photograph among them:


People submitting to technology: the above is a surgery for hymenoplasty. I melted into quiet crying upon seeing one of a woman on a table covered by surgical lines, with IVs all over her, bags of liquids, long sharp instruments all around, of course sheeted: she was having an operation for some dire cancer. I cried because I wished I had seen that image before I agreed to agree with Jim he would have that esophagectomy that made his last 8 weeks of life a living hell of nausea, starvation, pain. On the wall was a little plaque assuring you the woman as still living as of some date. Right. I can’t find a replica on the Net of that photo or a couple others in the Met that day. I knew that the photo was invasive and voyeuristic, but I wish everyone could see that or the other photos before they agree to a surgery. Since the advent of anesthesia people submit to operations with their eyes closed — metaphorically as well as through drugs. We ought to imagine these; maybe we will agree less often.

This is prompted by my having overheard a man at the Toyota Dealer this morning on the phone for over half an hour scheduling a series of appointments for what was clearly a major surgery, which was to be proceeded by a visit to the famed Mayo clinic (for cancer), and a number of other visits to this or that doctor. The man was all eager docility, cooperation itself. He looked about 70, white, had a briefcase thick with papers (perhaps a college professor). I was there waiting for my PriusC to be inspected so I could get my yearly sticker attesting to the safety of my car: it’s put on one’s window shield in Virginia. I wished I had the nerve to ask him what kind of cancer it was.

Don’t misunderstand me. I felt jealous. I sat there remembering how I could not persuade Jim to try to go to Boston, Massachusetts, where we were told we might be able to see a super-famous, (probably) super-expensive oncologist who never did esophagectomies (as he thought them horribly maiming) but poured intense chemotherapies into people to try to subdue, diminish, put the cancer into remission.

I realized that I never saw Jim being active on behalf of his health that way. In life for other things he was often a person who made many phone calls, set up all sorts of schedules for us to travel, engineered itineraries. But when it came to his health he often just submitted to doctors, didn’t question them. He did read about his cancer when we were told, and early on told me what the Kaiser people were doing was common protocol. Was what doctors did when the case was esophageal cancer.

At Kaiser there was no need beyond minimum appointment making. They found for him a man trained at the Mayo clinic (a surgeon outside Kaiser), a radiation doctor, another to do chemotherapy (in the event we never had them because the cancer metastasized into his liver before the series could start). Jim was I know not just thinking of the price, but thinking it would take time to go to Boston, precious time to try to reach this doctor, have his advice, and then maybe go for Kaiser anyway. He didn’t want to stop what was set up already.

I wasn’t sure of myself so I was afraid to say no, let’s not do this operation, let’s go to Boston, let’s insist on chemotherapy first, lest I was wrong — and he suffer from it, he die.

I worried about the worried looks in the eyes of the non-surgical doctors: did they think this guy a jock eager to cut Jim up and that he’d be better off doing chemotherapy first? Maybe he would have lived had he had chemotherapy first and the cancer would not have metastasized? It was a judgement whether to do the operation first because chemotherapy could burn the tissues and then the operation afterwards might result in dangerous complications as parts of the organs would not heal readily at all. So he said.

I found myself wishing I had persisted and made some kind of intense effort to for once listen to me — would he be alive today?

I was like am now a person walking down a stairway where the handrails have been taken away

I asked myself, Is this man I am watching and listening to, going to be alive 10 years from now because he’s doing this? I envied him. I should not have. Sitting there doing that so politely was an ordeal he was controlling. We do not see the terror inside other people. He will be like the people in Stuth’s photographs. I do not know; maybe he’s having his pancreas removed. He was determined the operation should not be put off and all his appointments fit in. I will remember his aging face, short hair, thin body and briefcase.

My car passed inspection and the honest people at Toyota (I’ve been there before and the people there have been all courtesy to me too) charged me $16. I drove home listening to Simon Vance reading aloud Trollope’s Dr Thorne and all day and until now (many hours later) had this man’s image in my mind and knew I would write this blog about Struth’s photograph of a woman having a cancer operation at last.

Struth, Milan Cathedral, 1998


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