For a cancer survivor, life can be a continuing and recurrent struggle towards normalcy. My recent bout with H1N1 influenza was yet another reminder of the sometimes tenuous thread holding us to health and well-being. My trip to Las Vegas, as optimistic and invigorating as it first seemed, turned out to be the trigger for my short descent into the fevery world of illness. Everything has its price.
But now I am finally pushing back to “normal” with a regular Monday discussion of our current book club selection – “Lisa’s Story – the other shoe” by Tom Batiuk. One of the few pluses of my brief hospitalization was that I had the time, and sufficient energy, to finish reading the book.
Mr Batiuk created the comic strip Funky Winkerbean in 1972. Starting off as a typical gag-structured comedy, the series evolved by tackling more serious fare suh as teen dating abuse, teen suicide, school violence, the Gulf War, alcoholism and divorce. So by 1999 the tone had been set for one of the main characters, Lisa Moore, to deal with a personal crisis of breast cancer. As our last author, Evan Handler, taught us, the experience of cancer often includes occasional doses of humor, however black that humor might be. We survivors find it easier than most to identify with this dark laughter.
The structure of the comic strip, while imposing some limits on the narrative, also liberates it by combining pictures with words aimed at a final punch line for each set of frames. The story, meant to be told in distinct daily installments, is broken up structurally and emotionally. But strung together in a book, each set of frames builds on one another. One gets the same sense of time passing as in the real experience. What will happen tomorrow? Will Lisa achieve remission? Will the cancer return?
Much of what happens to Lisa is familiar to most of us. The vague, early signs of disease, the first physician appointments leading up to diagnosis, the attendant shock and disbelief. The casual conversations, the exchanged glances that occur outside the medical drama all hit home. A running joke regards the finanicial obstacle course set up my Lisa’s insurance company, “Denialcare”.
The long trajectory allowed by the daily comic strip format lets Lisa encounter a whole range of questions and issues. Lamenting over the need for a mastectomy and then feeling guilty, Lisa wonders “what is is about God that makes him hate pride so much…while being so indifferent to suffering.” Crises of faith are frequently attendant to a diagnosis of cancer.
Lisa’s relationship with her husband Les reveals the subtleties of the cancer patient/caregiver dynamic. Lisa loses her hair and then a breast. She endures reconstructive surgery while trying to recontruct their marital relationship before cancer. Les attempts at emotional support do not always succeed. “I just want to be alone! I’m disfigured, exhausted, going bald and gaining weight…!” “What do you want from me?” she demands. Les answers helplessly in his mind “I want things like they were.”
We follow Lisa through therapy and its aftermath. She joins local support groups as well as on-line ones. The first part of the book closes at a support group meeting where Lisa receives her five-year survivor pin. She answers “Thanks…although this is a heck of a way to collect jewelry.”
Next Reading Assignment: The second part of the book “The Other Shoe” in which Lisa faces relapse and progressive disease.
Discussion Questions: In what ways did you find the comic-strip format easier or harder to relate to? How is this atypical format effective in dealing with such serious issues as cancer, relapse, and dying? As the story progresses, Lisa’s physical changes are also expressed with the artist’s pen. This is somethng we don’t always see in purely narrative works. How did this affect your response to the tale? The story does not end with her death, but rather continues on illustrating the effect of her life and death on the people in her family. How effective was this epilogue?