This piece originally appeared in the first Full Stop Quarterly. The Quarterly is available to download or subscribe here.
My 2014 was at least several years, perhaps fourteen. If it was fourteen, it was fourteen with four months as one (galloping) month, three months as two (languorous and sunbathed) years, the rest of it (unexpectedly subject to cancer’s unique chrono-therapeutic temporality) twelve years and ten months. Some weeks of that twelve years and ten months that was actually five months were three seconds, while others were years that felt like centuries.
During cancer’s longue durée my impulse has been to mark a calendar with black Xs or the wall next to my bed with a prisoner’s tallies. Any accounting system would be the sensible way to wrangle the nebulous days, many of which I can’t remember. But, like generations of sick people who like to read, I passed my time instead by reading Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain:
[F]or now it is enough for us to remind everyone how quickly a number of days, indeed a great number, can pass when one spends them as a patient in bed. It is always the same day — it just keeps repeating itself. Although since it is always the same day, it is surely not correct to speak of “repetition.” One should speak of monotony, of an abiding now, of eternalness. Someone brings you your midday soup, the same soup they brought you yesterday and will bring again tomorrow. And in that moment it comes over you — you don’t know why or how, but you feel dizzy watching them bring in the soup. The tenses of verbs become confused, they blend and what is now revealed to you as the true tense of all existence is the “inelastic present,” the tense in which they bring you soup for all eternity.
The Magic Mountain’s sick time is achingly bourgeois in the “unavailable” sense of that word. If only there were luxurious alpine chemo-spas full of philosophizers for any of the twenty-first century league of the working-class ill to afford. There aren’t compliant someones to bore us with regular nourishment: this is because we are those someones. I have cancer, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t have to work. I’m sick in the inelastic present imperfect — the tense in which you have to pay the rent for all eternity.
My time in the time of illness has been unmeasurable or ir-measured or a-measured. Yet despite how this time can no longer steadily or predictably submit itself to clocks and calendars, for survival’s sake I still have had to try to measure it. Sick time is always escaping the institutional technologies invented to contain it, and it remains immeasurable despite the measure of treatments, the measure of lab work, the measure of diagnostics, the measure of the work day, the measure of arriving bills, the measure of electronic communications, the measure of deadlines, the measure of paychecks, the measure of an employer’s measure of sick leave, the measure of caring for dependents. That’s a lot of cracked hourglasses.
Chemotherapy is as difficult as you think, and it isn’t as if sickness abandons its temporal weirdness just because the bosses have refused the sick worker enough time to rest. Pain continues to stretch out the seconds while also obliterating them as it has for the human forever. And for the very ill, death still feels, as it apparently has for centuries, both much too near and sometimes too far — like walking through a blizzard to a warm shelter which you know to be the jailhouse to which you are finally turning yourself in. Sick time, despite all of Capital’s inventive temporal bullying, is its own stubbornly and uniquely distorted experience. It is just that in these days, along with sickness’ regular deformations, there is also contemporary life, which is incongruous with living, also with staying alive.
I began this cancer while reading Ingeborg Bachmann’s Malina, which began: “But I had to think long and hard about Time, since ‘today’ was an impossible word for me.” I read it in a lot of waiting rooms, waiting to find out what was wrong with me. Diagnostics are their own timefuck, particularly when you know the tissue-based insights which you anxiously await are going to be some version of doomed: Where can a person be anxious to know what she doesn’t want to know? Only drowning in a stream of fast-slow minutes. Later, in my apartment, which has become more than any waiting room the waiting room (or the place to which one is sentenced to always begin sentences “When I am done being ill . . .”), I read Christa Wolf’s The Quest for Christa T. about Christa T., who will eventually die an untimely death from cancer: “She was reading The Magic Mountain and making efforts to sink into the same kind of vague time-flux: otherwise, I couldn’t stand it, she said.”
“Time is not so!” John Donne declares in a work he wrote in what he believed was his deathbed during December of 1624. He sets off to prove against “this imaginary, half-nothing” time, yet even its title, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, contains an argument that illness is, among other things, a set of temporal events. What occasions have emerged are a symptom, two symptoms, a physician, two physicians, a panic, a death, or a cure, all in the due time of the twenty-three days Donne was ill. These twenty-three days are marked by twenty-three prose sections of three (marking, among other things, morning, noon, and night), each concentrated on another horrible and interesting time-event of being really ill. To argue time’s inexistence in a work semi-about time and structured straightforwardly on the passage of days is the sort of tangle one can get into when spending all of one’s time horizontal, glancing over at death, who sits upright and attentive in a nearby chair:
All things are done in time . . . but if we consider time to be but the measure of motion, and howsoever it may seem to have three stations, past, present, and future, yet the first and last of these are not (one is not now, and the other is not yet), and that which you call present, is not now the same that it was when you began to call it so in this line (before you sound that word present, or that monosyllable now, the present and the now is past).
What is clear enough in Emergent Occasions is that time acquires a compelling texture for the sick: Perhaps the literary among us like, in particular, to keep stroking it. As “That body,” Donne writes in the famous bell-tolling passage, “which scarce three minutes since was such a house” is abandoned by life, the spirit, if one is hopeful, is removed from time (“a short parenthesis in a long period”) into eternity (“when time shall be no more”).
There are, then, at least two literary eternities for sick people: Thomas Mann’s, in which a nameless they always brings you soup, and John Donne’s, in which you will never again be cursed enough to have to eat it. But perhaps there are three if we include our eternity, the one in which you really need some soup but fear you are always going to have to work to pay for it.
There’s a completely different book to be written, the one about the fixed temporal extraordinariness of the unfixed temporality of extended illness as experienced under current conditions. It would be better titled The Banal Valley of The Shadow of Capital than The Magic Mountain. It would last for the twelve weeks of federally guaranteed FMLA leave: That is, it would take that long to read it, and then it would abruptly cut off, whether or not the story had reached a satisfactory end.
This book would have a duration of twelve weeks but a focus of twelve seconds or twelve centuries: there would always be a precarity to the rate at which it would unfurl. There would be the temporal experience of every medicine, their half- and quarter-lives, their infusion drip rates, the time it took for the pharmacy to compound them, the spacing of the iPhone alarms going off to indicate each new medicine is due. There would be the time that medical bills go to collections, the time-sense of being cared for in a special way in particular, or of a long night worried about death, or the temporal uniqueness of the experience of how to be ill is often to be abandoned — abandonment being a feeling which makes for the longest night of all nights — and also the time-sense of waiting for someone to do for you what you have always just done for yourself.
“Can one narrate time — time as such, in and of itself?” Mann asked, and answered, “Most certainly not, what a foolish undertaking that would be. The story would go: ‘Time passed, ran on, flowed in a mighty stream,’ and on and on.” Since I have become ill, some friends have advised me not to think too much of the future, in case it is dreadful or in case I don’t have much of one. The “on and on” of time’s narration is, for them, unbearable worry: The poet Dana Ward more than once has quoted the poet CAConrad to me — “The future is a lie!” But the present has its own peril. As Bachmann wrote in Malina, “I’m just afraid ‘today’ is too much for me, too gripping, too boundless, and that this pathological agitation will be a part of my ‘today’ until its final hour.”
There is the other today of being ill, that one which scaffolds the biological: This is the now of era. An individual illness always occurs in the indifferent grip of history — neutropenia in the time of Ebola, I’d say, when neutropenic in the time of Ebola. With Mike Brown’s murder occurring the day after my diagnosis, I paid fervent attention to struggle-time as it unfolded around the nation. The people on the streets are an entirely different calendar. The Quest for Christa T. captures this sensitive calibration of the biological and the historical, and at the end, the narrator says of Christa, “She carried many lives around with her, storing them in herself; and in herself she stored many times as well, times in which she lived partially unknown, as was the case in her ‘real’ time; and what is not possible in one time becomes real in another. But she called all her various times, serenely: Our time.”
Our time, like our life and our history, is both too much and never enough. Donne says to God, of days, “Thou leavest them for assistances, and for the exaltation of our devotion, to fix ourselves at certain periodical and stationary times.” There are dawns and noons and nightfalls, diseased interludes and riots and political turns, seasons of tumors and cures and poisons, and along with these the daily need to reproduce oneself as a living person (“We study health,” writes Donne, “and we deliberate upon our meats, and drink, and air, and exercises, and we hew, and we polish every stone that goes to that building; and so our health is a long and a regular work”). These are assistances to fix ourselves, too, as what is mercifully tiny, temporary, and more than sensation. The last time Wolf’s narrator sees Christa alive, she writes of her:
If I were to have to invent her, I wouldn’t change her. I’d let her live, among ourselves, whom she, with uncommon knowing, chose as her companions in life. I’d let her sit at the desk, one morning in the twilight, noting the experiences into which the facts of real life had crystallized in her. I’d let her stand up when the children called. . . . I’d have let her live. So that I could sit, as I did that morning, again and again at her table. . . . Then the sun rose, red and cold. There was snow on the ground. We took our time over breakfast. Stay a while, Christa T. said; but we drove off. If I’d been allowed to invent us, I’d have given us time to stay.
Time is merciful, but that does not mean it is not heartbreaking.
Anne Boyer is a poet and an assistant professor of the liberal arts at the Kansas City Art Institute.