TRAVELOGUE OF ILLNESS
“The first trip to the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center is like arriving anywhere new. A plane takes you down through thick clouds, a train moves you through a dark tunnel, a bus pulls up to the rear of a terminal while you paint images in your head of this foreign land soon to be revealed … We are the pale new arrivals at the beachside resort, catching a glimpse of a sliver of its life.” This is how I described taking Nadia to MSKCC for the first time.
Without making a conscious decision to equate illness with a physical place to which one arrives and journeys through, I found the vocabulary of travel apt. I hesitated when it came to comparing a medical center to a resort, worried that it would minimize the horror of bringing my eight-year-old daughter to a cancer hospital. But I couldn’t escape the sensation that we were entering as exotic a world as any unknown vacation or adventure destination. MSKCC was a mutant Brigadoon, a place you see only when you take a trip there.
The travel metaphor is used by many writers to describe the experience of illness. Anatole Broyard, in Toward a Literature of Illness, describes his prostate cancer as, “… a visit to a disturbed country, rather like contemporary China.” In Autobiography of a Face, a memoir chronicling her treatment for, and the aftereffects of, Ewings sarcoma, Lucy Greeley observes, “Suddenly I understood the term visiting. I was in one place, they were in another and they were only pausing.”
In his introduction to The Tao of Travel, Paul Theroux says, “The travel narrative is the oldest in the world, the story the wanderer tells to the folk gathered around the fire after his or her return from a journey.” Journey, of course, means more than a trip to a distant geography. The listener is not as interested in what the traveler packed in his or her suitcase (although a sidebar is always helpful), but what is carried within that person—the reason for the trip, what or who is being left behind; does the narrator have a hearty appetite for adventure, a delicate stomach, claustrophobia, a sense of humor, frequent flyer miles, many friends or a chosen few, a need for high thread-count sheets. It is the emotional and transformational souvenirs that the storyteller returns with that keep listeners around the fire, that equip them for going to that place themselves.
Whether you are a patient, a family member, a caregiver, or a healer, you are traveling a new path. You are entering a new culture, hearing new languages, encountering different norms of behavior, negotiating a new topography and geography. Perhaps you are dressing differently, eating different food, changing modes of transportation. Write a travelogue of your journey. Use all of your senses to bring the reader into the same space in which you find yourself, in the same way you would describe a city street scene, a seaside boardwalk, or a hike on the Appalachian Trail. For example, you can write about the hospital as a foreign country—what are the rules about entering, who lives/works/visits there, what language is spoken, how do you travel there, what do you bring, how does it feel to inhale the air. Or the place can be your home. You didn’t travel there, but imagine you lived in Russia when it became the Soviet Union. You are now in a new country with new norms and rules. What would you say about this new country you live in so the reader can understand what has happened to you? You could place yourself in school or the workplace or a visit to your hometown for a Thanksgiving family reunion. Take photographs to accompany your travelogue, draw pictures, add recipe of the “local” cuisine, and, yes, say what you have packed—in the suitcase you carry and in your heart.
Tell your story by using your body as your landscape, the journey it has been on.
Are you an enthusiastic or reluctant traveler? Write about your relationship with travel. Can you travel now? Where would or do you go?