A Fatal Diagnosis, an Almost Ghost

Konstantin Flavitsky, "The Death of the Princess Tarakanoff"

Konstantin Flavitsky, “The Death of the Princess Tarakanoff”

At the beginning of the year, I lost a great colleague and superb teacher—Andy Kozak in our economics department—to lung cancer. Now, at the end of the year, another dear friend, this time in the English Department, has been diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer. Three weeks ago nothing seemed to be wrong, then she began suffering from fluid build-up, and now this awful news.

I still haven’t processed the development and want to inhabit a dream-like state of ignorance. I take this image from a Lucille Clifton poem about her husband’s lung cancer diagnosis. Written on the five-year anniversary, Clifton sounds as though she has been sleeping and doesn’t want to awaken to the awful memory. Or maybe she’s writing the poem late on the eve of the anniversary, after midnight, anticipating what the next day has in store for her.

Fred Clifton, who didn’t smoke, died of the cancer, and, as with my colleague, the news came out of nowhere. The date of the diagnosis is etched forever in Lucille’s mind:

4/25/89 late

By Lucille Clifton
(f. diagnosed w. cancer 4/25/84)

when i awake
the time will have jerked back
into five years ago,
the sea will
not be this one,
you will run
under a grayer sky
wearing that green knit cap
we laughed about
and, sweating home again
after your run, all fit
and well and safe, you will
prepare to meet that
stethoscopic group
and hear yourself pronounced
an almost ghost.

I assume the stethoscopic group is a reference to the doctors. The impersonal designation suggests that they could just as well be the three fates, who issue inexorable decrees. Blind to the tiny details that make up life—details that include silly green knit caps—the doctors transform, by their declaration, someone who appears vibrant and alive into “an almost ghost.”

I think Lucille wrote the poem when she was a poet at the University of Santa Cruz. Five years earlier, she and Fred would have been in Baltimore, where he was a professor at Johns Hopkins. Fred might well have been jogging in sight of the Chesapeake, a different sea and a grayer environment than sunny California. Lucille knows that, as soon as she opens her eyes, she will be jerked back to that fateful day.

When I saw my ailing colleague on Thursday, we joked about our courses and she commented on how much better she was feeling since they had drained the fluid from her lungs. I fought to keep from thinking of her as an almost ghost. I thought I succeeded but now I think I was just in denial.

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