So I have this little app on my phone. It’s a throwback app. It tells me what I posted on Facebook a year ago, two years ago, three years ago, even five years ago, on this day. Mostly I am embarrassed to have posted whatever it was, especially as the posts get older and older and I see the evolution of how we used to use FB in my own posts.
But today, today this image of my marked up dissertation showed up in my Throwback. The Facebook status below the photo begins with “I love my dissertation… it’s just so perfectly me.” I would like to point out that I was professing dissertation love exactly eight days after my cancer diagnosis. I was sitting in the same cafe I’m sitting in now, and I was drinking the same coffee I am drinking now, and I was writing my dissertation. What the f*ck?
Mostly, when I think about getting a cancer diagnosis, I think of wallowing underneath seventeen pounds of blanket, of only eating ice cream, or numbly watching rom-coms and of ignoring the onslaught of phone calls. Except I wasn’t doing those things, I was professing love for my dissertation. It was a shock and it wasn’t. I’d known something was wrong for weeks before I got the diagnosis. I’d felt it in my body, I knew- like so many others who have had a cancer diagnosis- that everything was not going to be OK, even when everyone was certain it would be OK, even when the mammogram, ultrasound, biopsy, and Dr. Google pointed to not-cancer.
It wasn’t entirely shocking. It was numbing and weird and startling, and shocking at the same time that it was not shocking at all. It wasn’t a total unknown. While I’d never thought it would actually happen, some part of me knew it was inevitable, and that part of me relieved when I was no longer the only one sensing the pending doom. And just as I knew something was wrong in my body, I knew I needed to finish my dissertation. And apparently, that’s what I did. I marched myself down to this coffee shop, I brought a red pen, and I marked that sucker up. And most importantly, I forgot all about cancer, on day eight, because I was preoccupied with youth media and mobilities and democratic practice and ethnographic methods. The dissertation became my security blanket, my numbing rom-coms, my excuse for avoiding phone calls and retreating into a land of theory and ideas and writing, writing, and more writing- a land in which I could write myself into a different reality, a land that let me disembody my sick reality and breathe ideas, a land in which I could feign normalcy.
People always used to say, “Why are you still working so hard?” or “I can’t believe you’re doing this.” It was like a missed the memo with instructions on how to be with cancer entirely. I literally had no idea, at the time, how anyone expected me to stop working on the dissertation, or how I was supposed to cut my teaching short, or what exactly was supposed to fill my days if I closed the academic work. It really felt like there was no other option.
And yet, that throwback popped up on my phone this morning and I was horrified that a year ago, eight days into cancer, I was writing like a woman on a mission. I saw that photo and I blinked. I checked the date. I thought “what the f*ck?” My phone was sitting on a stack of to-do lists and theoretical maps and Assistant Professor job descriptions when it buzzed with the throw-back this morning. And on one of those papers, I had doodled a human heart as I had my morning coffee. It seemed so timely, the professing of dissertation love in the face of eight-day-old cancer a year ago, on top of the black and white image of a human heart drawn a year later, a heart forever changed, an image I keep drawing again and again and again, a black and white heart that begs to be filled in with color and yet resolutely remains black and white.
What a year its been. That heart has broken and torn, it has been patched together by people I met only because I had cancer, it has continued to pump blood around my implant that feels like a plastic sack of water in my chest. That heart has been full of dissertation pride and opened itself up to tender friendships and the total unknown as I dragged it through cancerland. That heart has been through so much. Sometimes I wonder if it’s even the same heart, if my actual heart didn’t hold so tightly to my left breast that when they lifted it off my body my heart went with it to the land for breasts that died to soon. But then I remember how much I trust Dr. Yoga-Surgeon, and how I know she would have pried my heart from my breast before she sent the breast away forever. So I do still have that heart, and that heart is working hard to pump blood all around the implant, and to fill the space the surgery left behind, and to keep the skin warm. I do still have that heart, and it’s OK to take care of it carefully, tenderly, slowly. A year ago, there was nothing to be done but let the heart keep pumping blood and theorize feminist democratic practice in youth media. Today, though, today there is time and urgency to attend to matters of the heart. Because still, she beats. Even after being poisoned by chemotherapy, even after letting a breast be sliced off, even after wandering resolutely into the unknown, even after knocking on deaths’ door, even after being entirely unable to imagine health returning, even after all of this, still, she beats.