Our second instalment of our Cancer and Creativity series, where writers and artists look at how art can respond to the diagnosis of cancer, whether for themselves, a family member or a loved one. Below, poet Gareth Osborne recalls how a week in Donegal awoke his own need to write, which helped in the aftermath of his father’s passing from throat cancer.
I had a lump in my throat.
Eight years ago my father choked on his food at a business dinner. He didn’t think it was anything other than embarrassing. Turns out it was cancer; stage four. It was a lump in his throat. He couldn’t swallow. Cancer of the oesophagus is particularly aggressive. It needed surgery, and quickly.
When he was in the ICU, the surgeon told him, “I was inside you up to my elbows.” They took out a big section of his gullet, pulled his stomach up through his ribcage, and fried his immune system with chemo. He lost his hair. His skin was grey. When he smiled, which he tried to do often, he looked like a memento mori – all eyes and teeth and hollow cheeks.
The doctor told me he was dying while they were cleaning his room. He said my father was shutting down. That they were trying to drain off the fluids from his chest to stop him drowning in the sea inside himself. He said it would be a few days. Then I went back to his room, fed him an ice-lolly, and shaved his face so he would be presentable when mum came to visit.
I read his eulogy. I organised the funeral. I dealt with a lot of the paperwork. And a few months later, I had a lump in my throat.
I went to the doctor. He told me cancer of the oesophagus wasn’t genetic and that I wasn’t symptomatic. I worried, because it was like a fist in there. I kept dazedly working, if you could call it that. My employer was indulgent with me, until he wasn’t. A friend told me that the lump in my throat was grief. I didn’t believe him. What I was feeling was physical, like being strangled.
On a whim, left with a week to myself, I set off for Donegal, renting a small cottage in the Glengesh Pass – the Glen of the Swans. For a week, I was alone with the wind and horizontal rain, and an empty notebook. I had a lot of false starts when I tried to write. I had pretensions that it needed to be immediately perfect or I shouldn’t bother dirtying the page. It came out all wrong. I was writing what I thought a person would like to read, emotions that I thought a person ought to have – I wasn’t working.
I still had a lump in my throat. I was alone, in Donegal, with writer’s block and a lump in my throat that I was certain was killing me. And I couldn’t sleep. Just after dawn on Saturday morning, I got up and drove to Maghera Beach. The rain had eased. The beach was like a grey desert with the tide far, far out. I walked for a long time, entirely alone and singularly small, watching the waves.
I’m still not sure what happened out there. If it weren’t for my ardent atheism, I suppose you could call it a spiritual moment. A connectedness of things. Each time I have tried to describe it has been unsatisfactory to me. And I wrote it all down, just the way it felt. Fictional, factual, truthful, unstructured, broken – a paper howl. I drove home the next day.
I no longer have a lump in my throat.