When my mother Susan Sontag was diagnosed in 2004 with myelodysplastic syndrome, a precursor to a rapidly progressive leukaemia, she had already survived stage IV breast cancer in 1975 that had spread into the lymph system, despite her doctors having held out little hope of her doing so, and a uterine sarcoma in 1998.
'There are some survivors, even in the worst cancers,' Susan Sontag would often say during the nearly two years she received what even for the time was an extremely harsh regime of chemotherapy for the breast cancer. 'Why shouldn't I be one of them?'
In the notebooks for the book that I found after her death, I discovered one entry that stopped me cold. 'Leukaemia,' it read, 'the only "clean" cancer.' Clean illness, indeed. My poor mother: to think of what awaited her.
So terrified of death that she could not bear to speak of it, my mother was also obsessed with it. She was an inveterate visitor of cemeteries. And she kept a human skull on the ledge behind her work table, nestled among the photographs of writers she admired (there were no family pictures) and various knick-knacks. 'Would I think about it differently if I knew whether the skull had been a man or woman?' she wrote in one of her journals.
Obsessed with death, but never resigned to it: that, at least, is how I always thought of her. It gave her the resolve to undergo any treatment, no matter how brutal, no matter how slim her chances. In the 1970s, she gambled and won; in 2004, she gambled and lost.
Given such a prognosis, I suppose that my mother might have decided simply to accept that she was dying. But my mother was about as far from Dr Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's famous and influential (not least among doctors themselves) five-stage theory of dying - denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance - as it was possible for a human being to be.
My mother's refusal to accept death was not one 'stage' in the process leading first to acceptance and then (perhaps conveniently for the care givers who could parse their patients' deaths in this way?) to extinction itself. It was at the core of her consciousness. She was determined to live because she simply could not imagine giving in, as she put it to me once, long before her final cancer, to the imperative of dying.
In order for her to believe that she would be cured, my mother needed to believe that her loved ones were convinced of this as well. Virtually from the onset of her illness, what I felt she wanted from me - she never said this explicitly but the message was clear enough - was to find hopeful things to say about her prospects. She wanted optimistic or, at least, less pessimistic ways of construing even bad news. Cheerleading her to her grave was the way I sometimes thought of it.
Instead of dying in physical agony, I thought, my mother would have died in psychological terror, abject and inconsolable as she was in the first few days after her diagnosis until she righted herself.
By choosing - if it even was as volitional as that - to go to her grave refusing until literally the last two weeks before she died to accept, let alone admit to anyone else that she was dying, my mother made it impossible for those close to her to say goodbye properly. It was impossible even to tell her - in a deep way, I mean - that I loved her because to have done so would have been to say: 'You're dying.'
I have wondered since I wrote my memoir of my mother's death why I did so. I have never been confessionally inclined, and during my mother's illness, I very consciously chose not to take any notes because I thought that to do so would be to seek and perhaps gain a measure of detachment I neither wanted nor felt entitled to. And for a long time after my mother died, I believed that I would not write anything.
I still believe that I would not have done so had I been able to say goodbye to my mother properly.
I do not pretend to have served anyone but myself. Memoirs, like cemeteries, are for the living.
[Both a memoir and an investigation, Swimming in a Sea of Death is David Rieff's loving tribute to his mother, the writer Susan Sontag, and her final battle with cancer.]
Из книги Кэти Ройф (Katie Roiphe “The Violet Hour: great writers at the End”, 2016)
Третий рак Зонтаг оказывается в центре внимания после того, как домработница Сук-Хи Чинхан, подготавливая ванну, замечает гематомы на спине Сьюзан.
Миелодиcпластический синдром, вызывающий опаснейший вид рака крови: такой диагноз ставят в марте 2004 года.
Эта болезнь неизбежно возвращает нас к первому страшному диагнозу Сьюзен, поставленному в 1975 году. В возрасте сорока с небольшим Зонтаг узнала, что у неё рак груди в 4-й стадии. Но она прибегла к агрессивным методам лечения — и выжила.
«Я сияю витальностью», — писала она в 80-е годы.
Пока Сьюзен лечилась от рака, она не переставала мыслить и работать. Посреди курса химиотерапии она делала заметки для эссе «Болезнь как метафора». В нём она выступает против разнообразных фантазий, окружающих болезнь. Она утверждает, что больной человек нуждается не в поэзии и чисто эмоциональной вере, но в ясности, рациональном мышлении и медицинской информации, которая могла бы подготовить его к напряженному процессу лечения.
После диагностирования миелодиспластического синдрома Сук-Хи иногда ночует в гостиной, так как Сьюзен не хочет оставаться одна.
В 1975 году, перед первым оперированием рака груди, она писала: «Мы больше не изучаем искусство умирания, эту дисциплину и гигиену, привычную для древних культур, но знания об этом есть во всех остановившихся глазах».
Её друг вспоминает, с каким удовольствием Сьюзен цитировала Сэмюэла Джонсона: «Будьте спокойны, сэр, когда человек знает, что через две недели его повесят, это замечательно способствует концентрации мыслей».
Но сейчас, в 2004 году, при новом страшном диагнозе, Сьюзен стоит немалых трудов сохранить и поддержать веру в эту свою уникальность.
Она не хочет оставаться одна. Не любит гасить свет.