A Season in Hell – Mark Dery

This is a wonderful piece, albeit somewhat lengthy, on Mark Dery’s experience with cancer treatment. A good mix of the funny and deep, and engagingly expressed and written.

Some favourite passages:

On one doctor’s bedside manner:

I’ll always remember him as a man who put the “care” in “caregiver,” with a bedside manner whose saintly compassion and twinkly-eyed avuncularity recalled Joseph Mengele at his best.

On hospitals:

Hospitals aren’t like prisons; they are prisons. True, they’re kinder, gentler ones, whose inmates are usually desperate to be admitted, but even the most grateful patient realizes, at some point, that hospitalization is just a more benign incarceration: the lookalike cell and inevitable cellmate; the swill-bucket food; the patient’s powerlessness in the face of the lowliest flunky; his Kafkaesque uncertainty about when and at whose whim he will be transferred from one hospital to another, or sent to the O.R., or discharged to walk the streets as a free man.

On the meaning of malady:

Every patient has his answer. Mine is the existentialist’s koan: the answer is that there is no answer. My first impulse, as a godless rationalist, is to say that diseases like urethral cancer and system breakdowns like bowel obstructions are object lessons in the capriciousness of the cosmos—the unpredictability of life, its random unfairnesses. Our insistence that things have meanings and morals impels us to turn our sickness into metaphor and narrative; to demand something deeper from it than purposeless pain. To my Christian-fundamentalist relatives, my near-fatal cancer was just the Lord moving in mysterious ways, showing me the error of my atheism before death consigned me to eternal torment. To my father, the colorectal cancer that killed him was, he confided in all seriousness, the likely result of a lifetime of emotional repression—karmic retribution for anal retention.

In truth, cancer is a lightning strike out of the godless blue (smokers and workers exposed to environmental carcinogens being the obvious exceptions). Its etiology is often obscure or dauntingly multifactoral. Inspirational tales of sufferers mounting hard-fought “battles” against the Big C aside, a patient’s only active role in his treatment typically consists of choosing an “in-network provider”—a doctor sanctioned by his health insurance—and hoping or praying, as the case may be, for delivery from evil.

And on the limits of becoming an over-empowered patient:

Most of all, though, I simply didn’t want to allow the disease to metastasize across my mind, occupying my thoughts as it already had my body.  ….

As a career patient, I’ve learned one thing at least: the importance of clinging to the rag-end of your sense of self, however you define it—intellect, sense of humor, generosity of spirit, a stoicism worthy of Seneca or Mr. Spock, or, in a writer’s case, the mind that makes sense of itself as a reflection in the mirror of language. 

A Season in Hell – Boing Boing.


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