There is something so profoundly powerful about being in a room four other young adults who have had cancer and two women who really get it, and listening. It’s not just us, listening, either. It feels like all the other young adults who have ever sat in that circle, under those skylights, around beautifully prepared food are listening, too. Listening to the rain pounding on the skylights. Listening to the silence, to the quiet on everyone’s lips, to the way we sit together and wait until someone decides to speak. Tonight I went to the young adult group. I hadn’t been in a few months, because I’ve been teaching. But what a relief it was to go tonight.
We shared stories and sorrows and the way cancer is met by utter mis/understanding by… well, by the world. As there always are, there were tears and tissues and times when I think all of us had to sit on our hands to keep ourselves from reaching out and gathering the other in our arms and holding them and whispering in their ears “It’s all going to be ok.” The thing is, this is a crowd that is way too in touch with what happens when it isn’t OK, way too aware that its not always OK, way too weary of believing in OK when its so consistently not OK, because cancer isn’t OK and how are you supposed trust there is even an OK during, or after cancer? It’s so interesting because I can know and believe and want things to be OK so profoundly for each of those other young adults. At the same time, I can be so completely unable to know that I will be OK, and also so completely aware that someone telling me it will be OK is so entirely useless. Those words fall on my ears like oil poured into a glass of water. They don’t stick. They simple cannot get inside of me, those words. And maybe that’s why the group is so incredible. No one says “its going to be OK.” They just listen. And then we listen back.
I thought I would write about all the things that we laughed about after all the tears had been shed, about the way we all know the stand-out characters that make the Cancer Agency feel like you’ve tumbled down Alice’s hole into a warped Wonderland, and about how we all avoid hand sanitizer because it reeks of the alcohol swabs that were used to clean our ports pre-chemo. But I won’t. Those stories are ours. They are little treasures we can share, treasures that we don’t have to give away. They are common touchstones, ways to identify camraderie in a world in which we feel otherwise so lost, so alone, so without others. I want to hide those stories, hoard them, protect them, save them. I want a whole jar of them to keep to myself and admire, a whole jar full of silly experiences and weird encounters that are common in this tribe. A whole jar of stories that remind me I am not alone, a whole jar of stories that remind me I’m not the only one, a whole jar of stories that remind me there are lots of others who can grasp these feelings, those worries, this knowing.
When I was a young, my childhood bestie and I had our own secret language. We thought it was amazing, and it really kind of was. Rong-e-bong-e-cong-cong-a a-nong-dong Cong-hong-e-long-song-e-yong. But what was really special about it was that it identified us to each other, it gave us a way to make our very own world, it was a special passport to our own little make-believe world that we ong-spoke into reality, into something all our own.
The stories I want to stuff in my jar and tuck away for safe keeping, the anecdotes and smells and experiences of all those weird characters, the way we all know about that one really weird porter on the fifth floor- it is our language. It is our way of connecting, of showing each other we understand, of being not alone, of knitting reality together from the broken shards of what feels impossible, of world-making in this absurd Cancerland. It is a language, just like Ong was. It is a language, and it is ours. It is such a relief to speak this language, and have it recognized. It is such a relief to hear this language, and identify. It is just a relief that we can share this writing into being, together.
Judith, of course, wrote something about this. And it is brilliant. I find such comfort in her words, just as I find such comfort in the discursive practices of tonights’ young adult group, in our language of being, making, and social existence, in hearing others call, in answering that call, in the social definition of being together as young adults with/out cancer, in the recognition of my existence in each of them, and their existence, in me.
And by Judith, I mean JB folks. Judith Butler.
Language sustains the body not by bringing it into being or feeding it in a literal way; rather. it is by being interpellated with the terms of language that a certain social existence of the body first becomes possible. To understand this, one must imagine an impossible scene, that of a body that has not yet been given social definition, a body that is, strictly speaking, not accessible to us, that nevertheless becomes accessible on the occasion of an address, a call, an interpellation that does not “discover” this body, but constitutes it fundamentally…….. Thus, to be addressed is not merely to be recognized for what one already is, but to have the very term conferred by which the recognition of existence becomes possible…” (Butler, 1997, p.5)
Butler, J. 1997. Excitable speech: A politics of the performative. New York, Routeledge.