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352 pages, Hardcover
First published February 9, 2021
I decided to reimagine my survival as a creative act.
Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick,” Susan Sontag wrote in Illness as Metaphor. “Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.”
The tangling of so much cruelty and beauty has made of my life a strange, discordant landscape. It has left me with an awareness that haunts the edges of my vision—it can all be lost in a moment—but it’s also given me a jeweler’s eye.
To learn to swim in the ocean of not-knowing—this is my constant work.
It’s time to step back into sunlight. It’s where I find myself now, on the threshold between an old familiar state and an unknown future. Cancer no longer lives in my blood, but it lives on in other ways, dominating my identity, my relationships, my work, and my thoughts. I’m done with chemo but I still have my port, which my doctors are waiting to remove until I’m “further out of the woods”. I’m left with the question of how to repatriate myself to the kingdom of the well, and whether I ever fully can. No treatment protocols or discharge instructions can guide this part of my trajectory. The way forward is going to have to be my own.
What would you write if you knew you might die soon? Bent over my laptop in bed, I traveled to where the silence was in my life. I wrote about my infertility and how no one had warned me of it. About learning to navigate our absurd healthcare system. About what it meant to fall in love while falling sick, and how we talk — or don’t talk — about dying. I wrote about guilt. I also wrote a will in case I fell on the wrong side of the transplant odds. To this day, I’ve never been more prolific. Death can be a great motivator.
After three and a half years, I am officially done with cancer — more than four years, if you start with the itch. I thought I’d feel victorious when I reached this moment — I thought I’d want to celebrate. But instead, it feels like the beginning of a new kind of reckoning. I’ve spent the past fifteen hundred days working tirelessly toward a single goal — survival. And now that I’ve survived, I’m realizing I don’t know how to live.
I buy a sheaf of road maps and spread them across the kitchen table. Tracing my finger along the curving purple lines of interstates, blue squiggles of rivers, and green swaths of national parks, my itinerary springs to life. The drive will sweep in a counter-clockwise circle around the country, going from the Northeast to the Midwest, through the Rocky Mountain states, down the West Coast, and across the Southwest and South, then finally back up the East Coast. I’ll travel roughly fifteen thousand miles, drive through thirty-three states, and visit more than twenty people. Oscar and I will go to a boarding school in Connecticut, an artist’s loft in Detroit, a ranch in rural Montana, a fisherman’s cottage on the Oregon coast, a teacher’s bungalow in the Ojai Valley, and an infamous prison in Livingston, Texas. We will go where the letters take us and see what we find.