I’ve always had a particular love for memoirs. This love started out with travel memoirs. They spoke to me, to my longing for adventure in parts unknown. The voices of like-minded vagabonds regaled me with stories of steamy, Argentine kisses in the inky Buenos Aires night, of the gentle flutter of Tibetan prayer flags, a prayer sent out to the world with every rush of air. I hoarded every book written about Italy and read them incessantly until the spines broke and pages would detach and I would gingerly push them back onto the hardened glue while at the same time, reveling in this visible, tangible evidence of love. For some, like my husband, a tattered book is more heartbreaking than anything, but it doesn’t stop me from putting my most-adored books through some kind of contortionist audition every time I read one.
Since moving to Italy, I’ve had to give up this physical adoration if I want to read an English book in its original version. I almost exclusively read English authors on my Kindle, something I rebelled against for years and years. In fact, after receiving one as a gift, I left it dusty and rejected in a drawer until I arrived at sheer desperation at not being able to walk into a bookstore and find what I wanted. This introduction to my post is getting slightly superfluous. I started talking about my penchant for memoirs because as of late, since my father’s passing, I’ve gravitated to cancer memoirs. My Kindle Library, at first glance, might cause the average person to question my well-being. It looks suspiciously like I’m obsessed with reading about cancer. From “The Emperor of All Maladies” to “Being Mortal”, I’ve read a decent selection of everything recent and talked-about related to cancer and dying. Actually, I would like to amend that last statement- cancer and LIVING. The latest which has been Joyce Maynard’s memoir: The Best of Us.
In what can only seem like a cruel twist of fate, writer Joyce Maynard meets, falls in love with, and marries a remarkable man, Jim, a San Francisco lawyer, photographer, and musician, only to be faced with his pancreatic cancer diagnosis just after their one-year wedding anniversary. One might be tempted to read this with pity, with that look that people give you, that I know so well now. You might want to call their story a tragedy even. But you would be wrong. Pity and tragedy are really nouns that belong to someone else, much like Lucy Goddard Kalanithi said about her late husband Paul, writer of “When Breath Becomes Air”: what happened to Paul was tragic, but he was not a tragedy. In a similar manner, Joyce recollects their brightest and darkest moments over the nineteen months that Jim lived with pancreatic cancer, so often considered a death sentence the moment it’s uttered from an oncologist’s lips. One of the lines I loved most was “if only you could learn the lessons of cancer without having cancer”. Truer words have never been spoken. Because what rises out of the ashes of this story is the reminder to live joyfully. Maynard writes with the delicate and eloquent bluntness that seems to come out of almost everyone touched by cancer, she hides nothing, not even her despair at losing parts of herself and her own life while supporting her husband during his final days. I have read that she received quite a lot of backlash for these sentiments which I find difficult to understand. Cancer is all-enveloping and all-consuming, and it consumes not only the person with the tumor, but takes with it, wives, husbands, children, and friends. Yet what Maynard demonstrates is that those of us left behind, for the time being, can continue living. Must continue living. And she reminds us that we can always do it better to honor the experience of loss by being kinder, by being more patient, and by making time for the things that we love.
Let me know what your "Recommended Read" is at the moment in the comments below. Have you read "The Best of Us" by Joyce Maynard? If you have, let me know your thoughts as well!
Happy reading! xo
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