“The Thing Is” When You Have Cancer

The Thing Is

to love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.

Ellen Bass

Poetry for me is often healing and cathartic. I recently encountered The Thing Is when it appeared in one of my social media feeds. The American poet Ellen Bass wrote it when she was in deep grief and it certainly resonated with me. When I researched the author, I learned that Bass has published nine poetry collections, the most recent of which is Indigo (Copper Canyon Press, 2020). In addition to her poetry, she has written several works of nonfiction, including The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse.

After reading The Thing Is, I felt as though the words had been intended for people like cancer survivors and their families. For those who haven’t actually lost something they cherish or someone dear it’s almost impossible to appreciate the poem or understand its meaning. However, for those of us who have felt the darkness of grief or had to abandon the lives we knew before cancer, we understand the poem completely. We get it. We not only get it, we’ve lived it.

As an ovarian cancer survivor, my life is forever altered, and it will be until the day I die. I’ve suffered, acquired a much deeper awareness of grief and pain, but I manage to still love life. Even in the darkest moments, there are still things to love; the majestic mountains on Calgary’s horizon, the green grass, the brilliant orange poppies that bloom in my backyard, my cat rubbing up against my leg while gently purring. Every season, every day, holds beauty waiting to be discovered.  I know. my family, friends and health care team would all want me to learn to love life fully again. It’s challenging, often still a work in progress, but I continue to persevere.