The first John Irving book I read was The World According to Garp. I remember a section at the end of the book in which the main character, Garp, has become a well-known novelist. In a book-signing discussion with a reader who had just lost her young son under tragic circumstances, Garp posits that fiction can trump any real life tragedy. A good writer can take any tragedy and, through the careful use of language, magnify the circumstances and the emotional response to the event. A sorrowful event is rendered even more grief-filled. A heart-rending recitation of a real personal disaster can, at least momentarily, be transformed into a raw, accessible, exquisite form grief to be felt by the reader just as keenly as by the actual sufferer. This, he argues, is why fiction is valued and celebrated.
The effectiveness of good writing is hard to argue against. Good writing has always been at the heart of our criteria for Guest Posts. Good writing opens up for us something more than the common narrative of events. I receive numerous copies of books written by cancer survivors. These books are almost by definition written as sincere, heart-felt accounts of tragedy overcome by redemptive scenarios, some that involve physical healing and others that do not. How to judge these books? by what standards? what separates the ordinary cancer tale from the extraordinary? Someday I will write more at length about this quandary for the reviewer of books on cancer.
In the meantime this discussion serves as an overly long introduction to today’s Guest Post. Marissa writes at Unravel Cancer: Experiences with family battling cancer. She is a relatively new blogger who’s mother and brother were both diagnosed with Grade 3 Astrocytoma tumors within about a week of each other. Her blog postings are chiefly inspired by her family. The following is a work of short fiction she wrote in a creative writing class she took at a local community college. It was inspired by her trip to visit her brother in October. She has since seen him over the New Year holiday, and he is much worse.
His face was bloated. Red burn scars swept over his bare skull. Stubble remained where once long blond strands fell to his shoulders. He was Sampson, then: lean, tall, with the rugged face athletes and laborers have from spending long days outdoors.
Twenty-five minutes were spent trying to get the pickup as close to the kids’ football field as possible. Two large men hooked my brother’s arms, carrying him to the folding chair. The sky was wide, blue, and cloudless. Parched hills pock-marked with brittle shrubs hung nearby, emotionless. They had no opinion about the goings-on atop their sides.
My brother collapsed into his seat with a smile on his face. Boys in silver and gray clumped around a man with a silver & gray baseball cap. My brother’s son was there. Eventually, the sun announced itself on our skin. My brother’s dry scalp yawned with joy when I rubbed in the shea-butter cream. Then came the sunblock.
The parents and friends along the sidelines shouted and cheered, my brother’s face glowed. The boys scored. My brother’s smile puffed his cheeks out, like a squirrel. His arms flapped awkwardly as he attempted to clap. Parents from the team strolled by often to see how he was doing. Their questions and chit-chat attempted to be supportive, but couldn’t hide the awkward pity & fear of their own demise that his presence represented.
I was there the day it happened, later that week. I saw my brother cry when the wheelchair was pulled out of the truck. I heard the sigh weighted with sorrow, anger, and despair slip through his thin lips. He brushed away the tears when the boys voices echoed from the upstairs porch. The friend said there were black-handled levers to lock the wheels on each side.
“I can’t believe it’s come to this”, my brother said.
His sons tumbled down the deck stairs to where we were standing, their rounded faces arranged into slackened jaws. They ran behind the chair and began to push. Their stubby legs strained against the driveway. They fussed over who could hold which handle. My brother became dad again, delivering orders and encouragement. The chair got wheeled to the edge of the driveway, overlooking the steep hill. Half-gold, half-green aspen leaves wavered in the afternoon breeze, cueing Autumn’s approach.
The kids twirled my brother around through sun and shade patches scattered on the driveway. With his instructions, they quickly collaborated on how to pop wheelies. We all seemed to release unknown clenched breaths at the same time. As quickly as they ran down, the boys shot upstairs to get some item he had forgotten. Or maybe it was his gentle way to get them out of the scene, so he could take his own turn at moving the oversized wheels of the chair. He looked up at all of us. His cheeks puffed out in a smile. It was going to be alright. For today at least, it was going to be alright.