Monday, September 10, 2012
My friendships have always been limited to a few people -- individuals whose unique qualities make it virtually impossible to label or categorize them.
Sherryl, about whom I've written voraciously, is one such friend. McEwan is another.
McEwan does possess a first and/or given name -- two of them, in fact -- but I've never called her anything but McEwan.
We met as returning (i.e., non-traditional age) students at a private college in California and found we had more than a little in common. For one thing McEwan scored extremely high on the verbal section of just about every standardized test and extremely low on the math section. I did not score quite as high on the verbal or quite as low on the mathematical but the discrepancy was nonetheless remarkable.
We also shared the difficult combination of high expectations and low self-esteem. "I think I flunked that exam," she'd say and I'd inevitably respond, "Me, too." By "flunked" we meant we probably wouldn't get an "a." Nine out of ten times, though, we did. Get an "a" that is. We possessed a fanatical, almost frantic determination to excel but we knew this and were able to laugh at ourselves. In fact, we laughed quite a lot -- applauding our own wit, our mutual talent for satire and our capacity to view ourselves as slightly absurd.
McEwan's poetry was poignant, subtle and professional while mine was melodramatic, self-evident and puerile. My expertise was more in the short story genre, an area where McEwan perceived herself as more of a novice. Whatever the genre, her facility and artistry with language was always astonishing.
One of the many things McEwan excelled in was her descriptions of food which were so tantalizingly accurate they made my stomach growl. Whenever one or several or her characters dined in style, her easy flow of words was rudely disrupted with audible gastronomical protests from my rebellious body. This was especially true when our creative writing class took place just prior to lunch.
During leisure hours we indulged in diet Pepsi served in tall glasses crammed with ice and a wedge of Meyers lemon. If I stayed at her apartment for dinner, we often dined on what we called "dog food" -- some brand of canned chili, I believe, but I can't remember for sure. I do remember that it was quite tasty.
McEwan has eyes which I was once inspired to describe as "glass blue." Her eyes have appeared on the faces of various characters in my various short stories, though sometimes "glass blue" changes to "ice blue." Just one of many examples of McEwan's generosity is that she's allowed me, for literary purposes, to borrow her eyes.
After graduation McEwan went away to graduate school while I remained in California and held various positions in the field of special education. We communicated off and on via the phone, email, short visits. She returned permanently to California just months ahead of the time I retired and left for New Mexico.
Fate has rarely been kind to McEwan. Most of her life she has suffered a number of excruciatingly painful medical issues, both chronic and acute. Her husband had serious medical problems which precipitated his early death, while various friends and relatives have suffered painful crises. Amazingly, no tragedy or calamity ever blunted her sensitivity or eroded her enormous capacity for empathy. She is one who really has walked in someone else's moccasins.
Now, while still in her forties, she has been diagnosed with an especially pernicious form of Stage III breast cancer.
Breast cancer is an illness that has been highly romanticized and embroidered over with life-affirming, self-affirming psychobabble. Like my late friend, Sherryl, McEwan shoots from the hip and has little taste or tolerance for fluff and frosting. She does not think of her disease as a self-transforming opportunity. She does not wish to cuddle a pink teddy bear. In fact, she doesn't much care for the color pink.
However, she does not appear to be harboring that perennial outcast of the human potential movement -- i.e., a negative attitude. Simply, she prefers to be honest and finds it frustrating when people respond to her honesty with pasted smiles and perky cliches.
In a culture where virtually everyone suffering from cancer is described as being brave, it becomes hard to honor the truly brave. It is hard to wade through the flotsam of denial, the pep talks and the slogans out into open waters where illness means exhaustion and pain, and half of all roads to the future are signposted with fear and sorrow.
As with Sherryl, I am angry and frustrated because I cannot bargain with some disease-dispensing deity to allow me to bear half the pain, take half the cancer cells into my own body.
All I can do is say "I love you." And hope those words will shed their cliched shell and actually mean something however small and pitiful.