This post is more personal than what I usually write but I’m sharing in honour of everyone supporting someone with a chronic illness. Whether you’re a friend or family member, a health care professional, social worker, what have you – this one’s for you.
It’s been roughly a year since someone very close to me, who I’ll call Chan, became ill and was prescribed roughly six months of chemotherapy. I’ve known people who’ve received chemo so I had some idea of what to expect in terms of physical symptoms. But the thing no one tells you about chemo is that it’s also really fucking boring. You’re basically lying around in the hospital or at home, too tired to concentrate on even a dumb tv sitcom (they call it “chemo fog”) while toxins ravage your body. I tried all kinds of things to help Chan pass the time: magazines, DVDs, YouTube videos, photography books, reading news from my phone – nothing stuck. Chan was bored, but too tired to be interested in any of it.
After chemo wrapped up, Chan was looking forward to recovering and we were looking forward to life returning to some semblance of “normalcy.” Unfortunately, one of the chemo agents, Doxorubicin (aka The Red Devil, named so for its colour and highly toxic nature), had done some serious damage and in less than a month, Chan had to be readmitted to the hospital. It occurred to me that the “roughly five years to live” the doctors suggested might be more like “five weeks” or “five days?”
Instead of recovering, Chan’s health continued to decline. As new treatments were prescribed, you could see a profound exhaustion settle in. It was then I remembered Chan was a huge fan of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts and owned piles of Peanuts books which I borrowed when I was young. Chan was too weak to hold books and flip their pages so I began finding Peanuts strips online, especially those with our favourite character, Snoopy, and printed them onto sheets of letter sized paper. They were the only things I ever saw Chan want to read. For someone who barely had energy for… everything, this was encouraging.
What I didn’t realize until I re-read Peanuts as an adult is that Peanuts is actually pretty bleak and at times, existential.* In Peanuts, life is cruel. I mean, check this one out:
Most of the characters in Peanuts are pursuing some kind of futile project and they know it. And yet, Peanuts also manages to avoid being dark, intense or nihilistic, often using a brand of humour that I can only describe as sardonic, yet friendly. In fact, Peanuts manages to be rather charming and endearing – adjectives you’ll never hear being applied to the existential texts of say, Heidegger or Camus.
Chan is still in the hospital, in stable condition. Five days has stretched back to maybe five months or even an ambitious five years. But in my mind, whether death comes sooner or later, this is pretty much it. It’s time to say goodbye. But how to say goodbye?
The thing about a prolonged chemo treatment is that it gives you a lot of time to consider the question of how you want to conduct yourself as you walk with someone toward the finish line. Personally, I understand the importance of narratives that offer closure/restoration/meaning, but I am also wary of them because I believe clinging to meaning denies an essential and erotic part of living that is absurd and anarchic. And really, in confronting death, what is there that can be said?
In that strange twilight zone following Chan’s latest brush with death, it seemed to me that the Peanuts, with its friendly sardonique, had all the elements I needed to capture that inexpressible-ness of mortality that I was grappling with. And so, I hurriedly drew my fan-art which I present to you below (n.b.: Chan identifies with Snoopy so this is not meant to be read as a direct representation of our relationship):
What does Woodstock say? Is it something meaningful, emotional, or absurd? Is it complete or does death cut the sentence off partway? Perhaps it is all those things; perhaps it is none.
Thank you for reading.
* Check out 3eanuts which removes the last panel of Peanuts strips to show how bleak the comic can be.