This is a review of Jennifer Spiegel’s Cancer, I’ll Give You One Year: A Non-Informative Guide To Breast Cancer, A Writer’s Memoir In Almost Real Time.
I had two mornings to dive into this book; I had two mornings to sit on my couch, drink coffee, and allow myself to be absorbed in someone else’s life. The whole time, the sky was gray with dark blue clouds, and it basically rained non-stop, which seemed like a completely appropriate background for the story. Honestly, this book fits me. I come from a family where dark humor, sarcasm, and melancholy are our most natural tones – I felt right at home.
For several different reasons, I found deep connections with the story. In the summer of 2015, when the book starts, I was living in New Delhi with my family, barely three months in, entering a scary and entirely unknown season myself, fighting a different kind of fight, mostly by my own choice. I found some parallels in the wonderings though: How does all this stress and change affect my marriage, my mothering, my identity? In a society ruled by men, what does it mean to be a woman? What kind of beauty can I find in days of darkness and fear? I, too, have always felt that I was built for suffering, made for hardship. My way to process and to use it for good, too, was to write about my experience as truthfully as I could.
Unceremonious transparency always pulls me in. In the book, I devoured all the details of how breast cancer affects a body, a marriage, a family. I was thankful that someone would let me peek behind the curtains and help me prepare for what to expect if it ever happened to me. Tell me honestly what it looks like, tubes, expanders, gunk, colonoscopies, patchy baldness, dripping sweat, bursting stitches and all. I want to know. I want to know the inner existential struggles, the days of no energy, the unsaid words between husband and wife, the breaths held back, feelings of ugliness, planning the future while fearing of dying. I want to know.
Then there were the moments no one wants to admit to. Stopping and noticing these moments that would be easy to skim over because they show people at their most average is one of my absolute favorite things in Jennifer’s writing. Some of these moments made me giggle and some broke my heart, often both at the same time. There were sentences and short dialogues I thought of for days, because they touched on a deeper truth of our humanness and of the nature of our interactions, and were somehow so simply and ordinarily profound. Like admitting after sex that watching Breaking Bad might have been better. Like wanting to be rock’n’roll with a shaved head, but going with the wig. Like a compliment we wait for that’s never said.
Through the chapters, I got to know a mother whose love and tenderness for her children was palpable. My babies, my babies. Anyone who loses a parent young knows the ever-present desire in the back of the mind: “I want to be there while my kids grow up. I don’t want them to have to go through important milestones without me. I want them to have a mother who holds them when they are sick, in whose arms they can feel completely at ease.” I couldn’t help but see the beauty of God’s design in this, His intention for us to live in deep connection with others, so deep that our love for them compels us to heal, and grow, and fight, and live. This is a book about love. And I so desperately wish that my mother had written me one.
More than anything, to me, this book was a gift only a truthful story can offer. I got to see through it how a woman dealt with unexpected suffering that thoroughly affected her body, her relationships, her daily life, and her future. I got to journey with her as she wrestled with matters of identity, womanhood, pain, theology, love, death, mothering, art, physicality, legacy, and truth with transparency. She invited me to see how her faith informed and influenced her journey, God holding her in the ups and downs of hope and fear, trust and questions. No one chooses to go through meaningless suffering. But when suffering comes to us, which it does, inevitably, we can choose to give it meaning through trust, and creativity, and transparency, and faith, using it for the blessing of the world.
In the Alcatraz of cancer, Jennifer’s accordion played a precious tune.