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The year that Hillary Clinton moved into the White House, Nancy Young was passing the hours watching chemicals drip into her veins, poison for the cancer that had overtaken her ovaries. It was another extreme turn in a life that had always seemed wilder and harder than her classmates': from her blue-collar childhood to her volatile husband, her night school MBA to tantric sex at the Rajneesh ashram to the illness that had suddenly accelerated her life, leaping her twenty years ahead of her generation.
Nancy's life may have been an exaggerated version of her classmates'--more damned with men, more misfitted at work, more ceaseless in her search for meaning, more fragile in her health. But it has confronted her with the same essential and complicated negotiation between the personal and the public that has shaped all their lives. Like all of them, Nancy would struggle to reconcile her own values--etched into heightened clarity by her cancer--with the values of the wage-paying world. She would grapple with the official stories--medical, theological, psychological--that describe her place and her prospects. She would seek communities of support. She would insist on being loved, and also try to transcend her small, needful self.
When she found the lump in her breast, the size of a coffee bean and rock hard against her rib cage, she was living with Steve but deeply unhappy and close to leaving. "I was tired of having always to be the emotional leader--this will be the universal story. I kept saying we should commit ourselves. He would be, like, 'What's the hurry?' Even when I got him to agree to buy a condo together, we had to draft an agreement so he could get out of it the minute he wanted to. He kept saying he wanted time alone, and to see old friends by himself, many of whom were women. It was a game, a head trip to say, 'You're not going to run my life.' But I also think that commitment is genuinely harder for men. Women are better at knowing what we feel, so we can say, 'This relationship has enough that is good.' Men don't pay the same attention to their feelings; their inner dialogue does not include the constant examination of where they are emotionally. I see so many relationships where the women do all the emoting while the men watch TV and go to work. I'm not talking about dumb guys. I'm talking about my own relationship. I'll think, 'Today I have this little edge of feeling.' Steve thinks you deal with emotions when there's a crisis but it's not something you work on all day long."
Over time, Nancy's dissatisfaction grew. "Steve continued to insist on his independence and remained fairly closed off from me. I felt I still didn't really know who he was." Frustrated, she turned her attentions to her old, crippled dog, a German shepherd she had carried with her from her first troubled marriage. "Over time I became more and more the dog's nurse--I couldn't bear to put her down or leave her--and Steve spoke to me less and less. By the summer of 1986, when I finally put her to sleep, Steve and I had become strangers. Our relationship lacked life; it still had little intensity or commitment. And it had not healed by the following March, when I found the lump."
The doctor ordered a biopsy, which brought good news: The tumor was benign. A week later, Nancy went to have her stitches removed. The doctor met her with an apology. He'd been wrong. The growth was malignant. "I started pounding the table and screaming. 'It can't be; it can't be.' I was totally unprepared and furious. This had totally derailed my plans. I was only thirty-nine; I was just starting a new job; I thought Steve and I were going to split and I was going to have to build a new life." The doctor listened, then told Nancy that while she was in the recovery room, drugged and gape-mouthed and drooling, Steve had turned to him and said, "You know, I really love her." This is not the time, the doctor told Nancy, for you to leave this man.
"I went crazy, and turned on Steve. He wanted to be in there with it. I told him to go away, that this was a poisonous relationship, that I'd put enough into it and didn't get anything back and wasn't impressed with his eleventh-hour protestations of how he really cared about me."
The doctor sent her to a breast surgeon, who advised a mastectomy. Though the tumor was small, he believed that it wouldn't respond to radiation. Nancy refused and went to a doctor at another hospital, who told her that the idea of a mastectomy was "off the wall" and ordered a lumpectomy. Nancy had a stage-one cancer with no lymph node involvement, the doctor said, and would probably not need radiation. Days later, she called to say she'd made a mistake; there were cancer cells on the margin and they might need another lumpectomy. They finally decided on radiation--every day, all summer long. It exhausted Nancy and burned her skin, but she never missed work. "Right away you're looking for lifeboats. I was utterly uninterested in my job but grateful for someplace to go.
"Then it was pretty much over and done. I had an 80 percent chance of surviving, which I thought nice odds. And I knew at last that Steve really did care about me; I finally had what I wanted from him. When I finished treatment we went to California, to a beautiful inn by the Pacific, and decided to get married." A justice of the peace performed the ceremony in their apartment, witnessed by Nancy's brother and his boyfriend and a few friends.
For the first time in her life, Nancy felt that she wanted children. She went to a fertility doctor and learned that her tubes were scarred and could probably not be unblocked. In vitro fertilization seemed to her too much like the hospital again; she was not prepared to "pay any price" to have kids. "I wasn't terribly disappointed, because I'd never really expected it to happen. My life had never had the stability children need, and my own miserable upbringing had convinced me that you should only have kids when you can make the right environment for them. I wasn't heartbroken. But as time goes on, I grow more sad about it; having children is such a big part of being a human being."
The day Bill Clinton was elected in 1992, Nancy got much worse news. For fifteen months she'd been having a heavy vaginal discharge, enough to soak her underwear, and long painful periods. They'd done Pap smears, but found nothing until an ultrasound located a mass the size of a grapefruit on one of her ovaries. Told she would need immediate surgery, she left the doctor's office and ran as fast as she could all the way home, desperately trying to outrun her terror.
Her doctor sent her to a gynecological oncologist. "He had a horrible personality and was not the least bit reassuring. I wanted him to leave an ovary, because I knew I couldn't take estrogen, which tends to grow tumors in the breast. I tried writing an agreement: 'If you find this, then you can do that.' He was bullshit about it. Going into surgery, he was furious at me and I was terrified. I had to give this guy I didn't like, who seemed to have no feeling whatsoever, a blank check. When I woke up from surgery, he said: 'This was quite an afternoon you gave me. The tumor was cancerous. The lymph nodes were full of it. There was a second tumor. It took me four hours to clean it out.' He really was a dodo. I had stage-three ovarian cancer." For a tumor so advanced, the doctors told her, the survival rate was 10 percent.
For the next six months Nancy had chemotherapy, an "unbelievably horrible" experience. Each time, it took an entire day to get the full dose. The drip burned out all the veins in her hand, and several times she had to be hospitalized and given intravenous fluids, because she couldn't keep anything down. Her hair thinned and the weight on her five-foot-seven frame dropped to 105 pounds. Every tremor in her body became a cause for alarm that the cancer might be coming back, in her bladder or her colon.
Through it all, Nancy felt an unexpected, wonderful peace. "It was a kind of religious conversion for me, which transformed something that most people would find unbearable into a profound experience. People don't know how you can bear it. They don't think they could ever muster the grace of acceptance. I couldn't, the first time. All I could think was, Why are you doing this to me? But this time I felt chosen, given a deliberate message. I believe in reincarnation, and that you choose the life you need for your consciousness to evolve. In this lifetime, illness is my teacher. Most of what I will learn I'll learn because of my illnesses. The moment I got the diagnosis, I knew I was looking at my life from its end. From that vantage, for the very first time, I had clear knowledge of what mattered to me.
"I finally understood that what's important to me is the spiritual life, finding a path that keeps me aligned with God. Not that God is ever out of sync with us, but your actions can bring you closer or pull you away. If you expose yourself to all the junk that tells you over and over again all day long that what's important is being young and beautiful and having lots of money, if you're bathed in that, with nothing that guides you to compassion, to being sensitive to other people's sufferings and not turning away from them, then your ability to feel close to God is going to be compromised. It takes work and a supportive community to be a tranquil and kind person. So while I could never say this illness was good, it has been an illumination, a great spiritual challenge."
Nancy has a deep, sonorous voice, which, as she tells her story, is dry and matter-of-fact; it neither breaks with tears nor works too hard to prove her uplifted state. "I'm not like an enlightened being, where all the terror and anger goes away. I'm afraid of dying--the actual physical process. It's hard to imagine there won't be panic at the moment of giving up, losing absolutely everything. I don't think there's a beautiful light you follow and feel no pain. But I do believe that you can die well. Thich Nhat Hahn [in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying] says that the monastic path is preparation for death. When I was in the hospital, I realized I was not prepared, that I must become prepared. I started reading about death and went to a workshop with hospice workers and people who'd lost friends to AIDS. I saw that some people die in an inspiring way. To die that way myself, and maybe help other people do so, seems important. And to savor the life I have, the prospect of good work. Thich Nhat Hahn says that every time he wakes, he celebrates that he can breathe."
Though she had been absorbed in her adult life mostly with Hinduism and Buddhism, in crisis Nancy found herself turning back toward Christianity, "the religion most deeply imbedded in me." Buddhism's universe of emptiness offered too little comfort. "It doesn't have the same heart quality as Christianity. There have been great, good Christians, even if it has become a withered affair in most churches, obsessed with people's sex lives, a haven for bigots. It moves me with its dramatic stories and tenderness." After her experience with the Rajneesh cult, she had no desire to join another religious community; "the conformism would drive me up the wall and a lot of those people are crazy." But she found an Episcopal church with an interfaith spirituality institute, "where they were not fazed by a Sunyassen who had hooked up with Rajneesh. One priest said, 'Oh, he had wonderful meditations.' I felt my sins forgiven for having dipped into this and traipsed into that. They saw it as a natural seeking."
Nancy wished her husband, Steve, would join her in her spiritual search, but in vain. "My husband has been very loyal and very stoic. He has kept most of his fear to himself. He believes life is as it is, that you can't measure it by what's fair, that you have to make the best of what you're given. But he's not interested in my meditation groups or retreats. He's skeptical and doesn't like groupy feelings and is not a person of great spiritual yearnings. I sometimes wish he were. I know people who pray with their families every day, and would like it to be part of my home life."
The integration of her spirituality into her work life has seemed to Nancy more urgent. "Certain things that were never good for me, like corporate work, are now out of the question. Most of those jobs were an immense waste of my time. They gave me nothing but money, and time is too precious now. I probably couldn't get hired anyway. Not many employers value the wisdom of a cancer survivor, someone who has faced death. You have to do your best to conceal it; they worry you'll rack up their insurance bills or take off too much time. But I've had to face the question: How do you make a living in this world knowing more than it wants you to know?"
Her solution was to apply for a joint degree in social work and pastoral ministry at Boston College, with the intention of working with the dying. The college turned her down, explaining, with no apparent irony, that "she didn't have recent experience working with the target population." They advised her to spend a year doing volunteer work and reapply, so she began visiting the chemotherapy ward at Brigham and Women's Hospital. She was well suited for the work: Where others might have shrunk in horror from tipping juice into the mouth of a man who'd lost an entire shoulder to lymphoma and spoke through a voice box, or tucking in the sheets around another, who was having bone marrow transplants and had to be completely covered except for his eyes, for Nancy it was a familiar environment. She spent her days greeting patients, helping them find a place to sit, and bringing them food, all of which gave her "a tremendous high." "It did not feel like work, but an opportunity to have a powerful experience. Illness called me out of my small self."
Harder for her was listening to cancer patients tell their stories. "My own story is in there, which leaves me tongue-tied. I have an overwhelming reaction to people who are in late stages of treatment, having bone marrow transplants. I see my worst fantasies played out. It stirs my dread: the paralyzing fear of the unknown. I do keep trying. Thich Nhat Hahn says you should seek out suffering to grow. I guess I feel there's no way out but through."
When Nancy finally began Boston College, she again felt as she had at Wellesley: deeply alienated. She was briefly thrown out of the school after dropping a mandatory course in racism, which she saw as "an opportunity for black faculty to get up and revile white people." She was also put off by what she thought to be an excessively politicized perspective in the pastoral program. "They were busy with feminist and Marxist liberation theology; their concern was justice, not spirituality. Their Old Testament was not about a personal relationship with God but about a people working out their political problems, with God just a player in those politics. They would get angry if I asked about the soul. But I kept wondering: If the Bible is just about some third world country two thousand years ago, why would it be of any use to us?"
The feminist analysis was somewhat less alien to Nancy. "We were taught by ex-Catholic nuns who had left the order because they couldn't find a way to be a woman in a church that excludes them from the priesthood and magisterium and consigns them to a life much poorer and more obscure than men's. They were trying to redeem the Bible and Christian tradition from its patriarchal orientation. I could relate to that. The woman thing is why I'm not a Catholic; what do a lot of dried-up old men have to say about my life?" Nancy read Sandra Schneiders's Beyond Patching on the exodus of women from the church for the goddess movement, and Elizabeth Schussler-Fiorenzo's argument for a woman's church and Bible. "I do question Christianity's androcentrism, with God the Father and His only Son. The Virgin kind of fades out of the story. Mary Magdalene is central, present at the Crucifixion and the tomb, but she has been terribly slandered by being called a prostitute. I realize the power of symbolism, and that the basic stories in my religion give women second status. So I tried to read people who would help me re-image this stuff, like Elizabeth Johnson, who argues that Jesus is the incarnation of Sophia, the goddess of wisdom, or John McDarr, who shows how we project our own family dynamics onto God. Until I got sick, my God was authoritarian and remote with bursts of love just like my father. Now, like my father, he has come closer. But again, it was more about politics than transcendence, which brought a lot of confusion in my mind."
Nancy was still less at home with the medical model employed in the social work school, where she spent half her time. "They taught us to listen to a patient just to pull out their symptoms and then look at the diagnostic manual, which is like a big reverse cookbook: You have all the ingredients and try to find the recipe, then do the prescribed drug and behavior therapy. They viewed as suspect any behavior that was too religious; psychotic people are always having religious experiences. I discovered I'm not comfortable approaching people as insects, pulling off that leg and an antenna to figure out what kind of bug it is and then make a better bug."
The New Age alternatives repelled Nancy just as thoroughly. She despised the idea implicit in the New Agers' self-healing practices that illness is a kind of failure, proof that one has lived with too much bitterness or anger; she would not accept that cancer, as Camille Paglia once wrote, was "nature's revenge on the ambitious, childless woman." She also found visualization, which she had tried at a mind-body clinic after her lumpectomy, "really kind of stupid. Golden beams of sunlight come into your body and seek out the cancer cells and beat them up and now you're healed. It was so obvious and without imagination and grating. They would critique your visualizations. 'Oh no, you've got the color yellow in there. That's the color for disease. That's a bad visualization.' "
At the interfaith institute, leading a group called Cancer and the Spiritual Life, she was stunned to find so many educated women "into" what seemed to her simplistic and narcissistic nonsense. "They think that if we can think good thoughts, we won't have cancer. What, you think we're that powerful? There are Zen monks who have died of cancer. It's not a disease of neurosis. One guy, a psychiatrist, had a wife with breast cancer. She was doing visualizations, refusing conventional treatment, casting herself as the guru, and is now dead. We had an Irish Catholic nun in the group talking about bioenergetics. I left. All the crystals and massages don't have a lot to do with the spiritual life, as I understand it, which is not about aggrandizement of the self but about a relationship with the Other."
Her classmates' sojourns into the New Age also perplex her. "Angels? Well, what's the theology here? Are they just benign spirits? From where? These people seem to have no questions. On other subjects they'll be scientific and rigorous; on this they lose their critical faculties. From what I've seen, the goddess movement does no grappling with tough issues. You still have the issue of evil and suffering no matter who you put up there. Make it a goddess. If she's a real goddess, she's been there all along, so why hasn't there been all this peace and ecological harmony? And why were all those pagan goddess worshipers, like the Canaanites and Egyptians, not terribly nice? If you start making up your religion, it's shallow. I'm always looking at the dark side. How does this work on the dark side? I take it deadly seriously."
Nancy's story is more harrowing than the stories of most in her class, but in midlife she feels their same mixture of sorrow and acceptance. "Sometimes I think, Shit, why haven't the things that have come to others also come to me? Why don't I have children? Such a natural thing. I'd love to have some kids around, to have a sense of life on the upswing and not just in decline. Why doesn't my life make sense, have some coherent direction? Why have I had this incredible amount of illness? It never stops, you know. I've had carpal tunnel surgery. Now a doctor wants to operate on my sinuses, and I think, Leave me alone. But I don't cry much, not too much. Oh, I cry over day-to-day disappointments. But I don't wake up in panic; I don't often feel overwhelmed. I've accepted that I live in a new place, that I can't go back to where I was. My life has been shipwrecked. Illness has thrown me out of the ship onto some other shore. All I can say is, 'Well, who am I now, and what do I have?' and go forward from there.
"The cancer diagnosis forced me to come to grips with deep wounds. Knowing I might die very soon, I wanted to make peace with all that I'd hardened my heart to. I tore the cover off a lot of things where the story had been written, realized I couldn't hold on to the set stories that protected me from having to reevaluate my life."
"I wanted to understand my parents and not hate them anymore. I found I could love them even with all their limitations. I try to help my mother, who nearly died from a thoracic aneurysm and is by herself. I've quit being angry at her for not developing her mind more. I see now that her father was so intimidating--he would not have permitted her to do other than what she did. When my father left her, she was fifty-eight and had never worked, but she got a job at Filene's and became a terrific saleswoman, working till she was seventy-three. She made the steps she could, and was forced to, make.
"She was ghastly when I was in the hospital. She talked about what a hassle it was to get into town to visit me. I finally said, 'Look, my life is in jeopardy here.' And she said, with this look of utter terror on her face: 'I just ask God, Why didn't this happen to me? You're a young person, and I've lived my life.' I was touched by her wish to sacrifice herself for me, the ultimate motherly impulse. I saw that she really does have feelings she can't ordinarily articulate. It would have given me a lot of consolation along the years to know that she was behind me in that way.
"My father, I also realized, has had a fairly miserable life. He was acutely unhappy with my mother. He'd loved being an auto mechanic and would have loved to go to college, but he felt forced to do things he didn't love to make more money, to satisfy my mother's desire to be more securely middle-class. He considers himself a failure; to me, he no longer seems a villain, but a victim of the times and men's assigned roles. That he had to be the sole breadwinner limited his life terribly.
"He waited a long time to leave my mother, feeling it a bad thing to do, a great taboo. He's a pretty tightly bound person. He wouldn't be in the vanguard, but then the changes initiated by our generation rippled upward. He finally left, and moved into a one-room apartment, and has been married three times since, not so happily. His second wife died. His third was a disaster: He was with her when I had cancer, which seemed to make no impression on them at all. His fourth, well, with her he seems pretty happy. He's certainly ended up in a far better place than he ever would have with my mother, which I guess is an argument for people to make the changes necessary to try to keep some happiness for themselves. He calls a lot now, and I go to see him.
"My parents are in their eighties, but there's this funny bond, like we're all old people wondering how much longer we have. I drew up my will and then made sure my mother's was in order. I jumped into their generation. Everyone will enter this place in time. But somehow a young person faced with her mortality, well, I speak from a place most people my age don't know.
"I never thought I'd go back to a Wellesley reunion, but for the twenty-fifth I sought them out. I was apprehensive, but wanted to understand why I'd hated it so badly, why it had been so traumatic. I ended up loving it, and came to think less about how fucked-up the college had been and more about who I was when I arrived there. I saw myself as a victim: that they were privileged and I was not, which I now think was mostly my inherited paranoia. And as much as I wish it had been happier, given who I was and my family, it was the only experience I could have had.
"In many ways, the sad tone of my life was set there. I hoped I'd find a place, and didn't. To me it felt like a cul-de-sac, that things were closing down instead of opening up. Other people whose families thought they were great had a stronger sense of themselves, and just flowered. Martha Teichner knew she was a good storyteller and found her place in TV and . . . zoom. I wish I'd had that sense of myself early on, but I couldn't have: My father was too critical of who I was, and what he told me about life was too poisonous and frightened. I thought you had to sell your soul to have a secure life. I felt alienated and lost, and that feeling stayed with me.
"At reunion, I stood up and said, 'Here's the most important thing that's happened to me,' and told them about my cancer. People were really moved, which moved me to tears. I thought, How kind to give me that recognition, to offer courage. And what a shame I had felt so isolated as a student, when I feel so close to these women now. What a terrific community I might have found. All the time I thought we had nothing in common, that they all had it made. Now I see they've struggled, too, that their lives played surprises on them, that everyone has endured grief. No one has gone unscathed. We had more choices than we knew how to deal with, and most of us still are confused. Should I be doing this, or that?"
From the Trade Paperback edition.