It was a bright and sunny Saturday morning. I had decided that I was going to take the day to do things that I wanted to do: no running errands, no cleaning the apartment, just relaxing, taking some pictures for bookstagram, and generally taking a “me” day.
Lately I have been a tiny bit overwhelmed by the amount of books that I own, yet remain unread. (I am not really sure why I feel this way, isn’t that the main requirement of being a bookworm, owning all of these books that we will never find time to read?) So, in an effort to knock off a few of these owned/unread books, I picked up a short read that I could get started on while I took a bath that morning.
A Monster Calls was a book that I had grabbed at Target several months ago, and have just been putting off reading because I was told that I would undoubtedly cry. I don’t often seek out books that will make me sad, I don’t particularly enjoy crying, but I thought “what the heck, lets see what happens”.
Let me be clear: I don’t plan on reviewing A Monster Calls in this blog post, it is a really short read and I highly recommend anyone and everyone take 2 to 3 hours out of their day and read it. What I do want to focus on is not necessarily the book itself, but the buried feelings and hurt this book brought to the surface for me.
Mild Spoilers from this point on.
In October of 2013 I was diagnosed with Stage II Non-Hodgkins Nodular Sclerosis Lymphoma. I was 23 years old. I remember sitting in my hospital bed, stunned. What had I done in my life to receive this diagnosis? Was it the random cigarettes I had when I was out drinking with my friends? Was it bad luck, bad karma? Was this a punishment of some sort? When cancer doesn’t really run in my family – why me?
The three-week time period from being diagnosed to starting treatment went by mind numbingly fast. I felt like I was put on a conveyor belt; it was blood work and surgeries and PET scans and doctors’ appointments multiple times a day, everyday, until I was to start chemo. But, I was told (and assured) that the cancer I was diagnosed with was a relatively common lymphoma cancer, and GREAT NEWS: it was one of the cancers that respond really well to chemotherapy.
Flash forward to this past Saturday now: I am sitting in the tub, reading A Monster Calls and silently sobbing because I feel guilty that I am relating to Conor’s mum in the story. Her tiredness just resonated deep in my soul, and I couldn’t help thinking “I know that feeling”. It was the simple act of her picking up the kitchen only to immediately fall asleep, it was her pretending that she wasn’t sick for Conor’s sake, it was all of these weird little actions that brought back the most vivid memories of my treatment. And suddenly something clicked for me.
Patrick Ness never even labels, or explicitly explains what is actually wrong with Conor’s mum. But he doesn’t need to.
When I was going through chemotherapy and radiation treatment, I almost felt ashamed for being sick, for being weak. There were too many other people out there that had it so much worse than me. It wasn’t like I had to even actively seek these people out, all I had to do was look around the infusion suite at the hospital to know they were there. I never really felt in danger of losing my life. I never really had any doubt that once I finished with my 9 month treatment plan that I would be okay. I almost regretted using the word “survivor” because I didn’t feel like I had to fight for my life; I relied on my family to take care of me, and they did a damn good job.
But there in lies the problem. Because pain is relative don’t you think? I have been trying to teach myself in the past few years that I shouldn’t get upset when my boyfriend complains about his headache or that he is catching a cold, just because he has no idea what it feels like to be strapped up to a machine pumping poison into his body. And subsequently I need to stop this weird line of thinking that my pain and experiences are not valid when compared to other people who have it “worse”.
When I was going through treatment, I couldn’t walk from the kitchen to my bedroom without being out of breath and feeling exhausted. I felt so isolated and alone from the rest of the world, that I would take showers that lasted for hours, just sitting on the ground watching my hair fall out and get stuck in the drain. I couldn’t eat this or drink that or do anything without my parents watching to make sure I didn’t overextend myself. I slept for most of the 6 months I was receiving infusions.
That was real. That hurt, that pain, that suffering was real. So why should I feel guilty? Did I not suffer enough then? Why should I feel guilty for relating to Connor’s mum in A Monster Calls through her suffering, just because we had different outcomes?
I am not, let me repeat, NOT saying that everyone’s pain and sufferings and experiences are equal. That would be wholly unfair and insensitive. What am I trying to say is that we all should be and need to be respectful of ANY pain, whether it is personal, familial, or by any other extension. And that absolutely includes being respectful to myself. I should not feel guilty for being overwhelmed with ache and memories when I look at all of my scars from three years ago because there are other unlucky people out there that maybe didn’t survive what I did.
I know this has been an extraordinarily long, and mildly rambling post, but I haven’t stopped thinking about all of these things since I closed A Monster Calls almost a week ago. I thought it was worth mentioning, and worth exploring, mostly because every day that goes by I realize more and more that being a cancer survivor makes up more of my identity than I had previously thought. And I think this is a great learning experience for people in general to be caring and kind and respectful to those around them BUT also to themselves.
So thank you Patrick Ness, thank you for writing this amazingly heartbreaking book. I know what I took away from this probably wasn’t the original intention, but it is important all the same.