Feeling Sympathetic Vibrations While Reading a Book
Books come into my life like people. Some I seek out and introduce myself, and others I meet by chance or through recommendations. Serious and fulfilling relationships might blossom, but not always. That’s why it feels as if I’ve lost a friend when I finish a good book. A book can offer more than an escape from reality; it can become a vehicle for understanding and accepting it.
My sister, Jennie, died on March 10th. Her husband, Dave, held one hand, and I held the other. At the beginning of my 6 week stay with them, I began a book they had both recommended, Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken. Why would I subject myself to this unrelenting treatise on pain, suffering, struggle and courage, while watching my sister bend and buckle under the weight of the last stages of ovarian cancer? I do not know why exactly, but it felt right, so I plunged in.
I learned that Unbroken held a metaphor for the four-year struggle that ended Jennie’s life.
She and I had many conversations, which I will treasure for the rest of my life. One had to do with her wanting to die with dignity. She didn’t want a lot of shouting and carrying on. She wanted to be treated like “more than a sick person” or “a thing in a bed.” Days later, when I came across the passage about dignity quoted above, I gave her the book and said, “I think this sounds like what you were talking about.” Even though she had read it months before, the progression of her cancer gave it more meaning. She read it, looked up and nodded.
The book became my mainstay during quiet times. Olympic athlete and bombardier Louie Zamperini, pilot Phil (Russell Allen Phillips) and tail gunner Mac (Francis McNamara) survived a downed B-24 and floated in the Pacific Ocean for a record 46 days. Their two rubber rafts were held together by a cord. Sharks toyed with them constantly, keeping the three men on edge. Would you be able to hit a shark on the head with an oar?
Just when they thought it couldn’t get any worse, a Japanese fighter plane caught sight of them and instead of rescuing them, strafed one raft to the sinking point, but miraculously missed the other. They survived. Rations gone. Dehydrated. Yet, they invented games to keep themselves occupied and talked about home-cooked meals.
The raft chapters were the first to present themselves as a metaphor for the past four years of Jennie’s illness. I thought about how Jennie, Dave and I were in the raft, and her shark-like cancer taunted us: remission, relapse, remission, relapse, relapse. Her hair grew, then fell out again, her weight continued to plummet until she said one day, “I think I am disappearing.” The cancer sharks kept on circling, bumping our raft when we least expected to let us know we’d better not relax. Surgery. Then another surgery, with more to come. She sat through chemotherapy treatment after chemotherapy treatment; with one, her feet and hands had to be wrapped in ice, so sores would not ravage them. Yet, she kept grabbing the oar to beat the shark over the head, and it retreated temporarily. Dave and I did our best to help her, but it was her battle. Sometimes all we could do was watch her struggle.
When the men were finally rescued and brought to prisoner-of-war camps, the situation became worse. Instead of Nature blindly doling out her punishments, they were at the mercy of a dehumanizing, well-organized system of torture. I thought about Jennie and The Bird, the Japanese officer who singled out Louie Zamperini. Sick, malnourished and stubbornly clinging to life, Louie endured month after month of suffering at the hands of The Bird. Reliving it while writing Unbroken must have haunted and freed both Louie and Laura Hillenbrand.
The Bird’s litany of humiliation, depravation and agony became the metaphor for Jennie’s final six weeks. Did she sit in a chair and talk with people who came to see her? Yes. Did she comb her hair and pluck her eyebrows? Yes. Did she try to forget for a few minutes that she was very, very ill? Yes. Until she couldn’t.
Louie was finally rescued and lived to be 97. Jennie was not and died at 62.