In a 2008 essay titled The Angel of Disease, poet Kenneth Sherman surveyed the field of writing that confronts illness. The essay is a somewhat dispassionate, even scholarly account of well-known works in the field: Susan Sontag’s two books on AIDS and on her own cancer; poets such as Ted Hughes and Donald Hall, who apply creative response to illness; alongside darker works by the German poet Heinrich Heine and the American story-writer Harold Brodkey, who confront the nearness of death.
Dispassion is absent from Sherman’s new book, Wait Time: A Memoir of Cancer. In it he provides a passionate, often pained portrait of the months in 2010, after a routine check-up helped reveal that his body harboured a malignant tumour as well as the possibility of a rib affected by cancerous growth.
Following his diagnosis, Sherman embarks on a grim adventure as he faces the possibility of death, pursues timely medical care, and struggles to contain feelings of fear and defeat by maintaining his normal, healthful activities.
One of these is writing. He maintains a notebook – a longstanding writer’s habit – but Sherman’s notebook of his cancer year has its own particular character. It contains “selections from the illness narratives I am currently rereading… Of course, reading and thinking about disease is oceans apart from coping with a potentially terminal condition. Once the doctor tells you you are ill, you begin to eke out your existence as a patient. Your life becomes an improvisation around the theme of illness.”
The notebook also “contains drafts of poems,” which he fears are “too emotional to be of substance. They resonate with self-pity and hurt…”
Wait Time is organized as a diary of the months in which Sherman confronted grave illness. Its entries are never sketchy; they indulge in no trivia or filler about routine daily life. Rather, they contain measured, intimate introspection about the practical demands of confronting cancer’s threats. The disease is met, as Sherman tells it using Sigmund Freud’s words, as “the unwelcome intruder.”
In many ways, Sherman’s story is linked with its Toronto setting. He makes his way through health services at Toronto General Hospital and Princess Margaret Hospital (PMH), where he undergoes surgery to remove the tumour and part of a rib. He provides a detailed portrait of doctors, support staff and the atmosphere of hospital rooms and corridors. And all of this evokes the strengths and flaws of the Ontario health-care system.
Wait Time is not an indictment of big city medical care, but Sherman’s experience raises serious questions: “Are the cogs and functionaries who work at PMH given sensitivity training? As you sit in these crowded waiting rooms, or as you wait in line for your overdue surgery, you can’t help but ask what is being done with the millions upon millions of dollars raised by Princess Margaret Hospital through its lotteries, its fundraising walks and bike rides…? How much money goes to the CEOs of our mega-hospitals and to the heads of their fundraising foundations?”
These practical questions merge with a depiction of Sherman’s inner life, as he and his wife, Marie, make their way through the stages of discovery and care. One goal is greater understanding of the disease; another is an understanding of the broader social response to cancer. On this front, he considers the usefulness of Siddhartha Mukherjee’s bestselling The Emperor of all Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, alongside other specialist writers’ interpretations of cancer’s impact.
But Sherman’s instinctive response to his illness is to continue on as a poet. Some of the poems written in this vein are included in Wait Time, bringing the finished book closer to the character of the writer’s notebook it is based on.
Among the impressive qualities of Wait Time is its unguardedness. Sherman describes periods when he could not write. These periods, he says, added to his “despair,” because for him, “writing, the engagement with language,” is a support in “times of trouble.”
The conclusion of Wait Time, which a reviewer would be irresponsible to reveal, is a deeply felt appreciation of the impact of illness on human character and companionship.
Norman Ravvin is a writer and teacher in Montreal.