About 20 years ago I developed a taste for around-the-world travelogues; the first was Who Needs a Road? and I continued through Half-Safe, First Overland, Away from My Desk, Offbeat in Asia, In the Circle of the Sun, and innumerable others.
Something that almost every around-the-world tale shares is a gradual fade from incredible detail in the early pages to facile overview as the journey wanes. As the trips start we might see each day receive a page or two, with the details of every meal and every village related; it’s not uncommon, toward the end, to breeze through a week or two per page – “…and after that we passed through Albania…” Before you know it, the trip is over, regular life resumes, and unless there’s an epilogue, we’re left wondering what happened next. Which would be the most interesting part: it’s easy to cross Siberia on a motorbike compared to what I imagine is the difficult transition from river-fording to resumption of a desk job.
Of late my attention has turned from reading about long voyages to reading cancer memoirs; related genres, in a way. And my underlying motivation, to try to shine light on the vast expanses of the unknown, is similar.
I’ve just finished reading Nina Riggs’ The Bright Hour; before that Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air, Teva Harrison’s In-Between Days, and, many years ago, my friend Laurie Kingston’s Not Done Yet.
The gutting thing about reading cancer memoirs is that the hero always dies at the end. You know this going in, and the note about the author on the dust jacket inevitably reads “lived in Austin” rather than “lives in Austin.” As with around the world books, the minute-by-minute detail of diagnosis and early treatment slowly gives way, as months pass in the blink of a chapter. And then, tragically but necessarily, there is no detail of the final weeks and months, and the epilogue–there is always an epilogue–inevitably reads “…wrote those last words 2 months before she died.”
If, like me, you are reading a cancer memoir as a travelogue, a travelogue for the sort of journey that you happen to be accompanying someone you love on, then this sudden fade to black is confounding in the same way as not hearing how the trip through Albania went.
I have no idea what lies in Albania. And it’s hard to talk about what Albania is like because there is a sneaking, if irrational, suspicion that talking of Albania gets you to Albania sooner than you want to be there. Albania is terrifying both because it’s the end of the voyage and because so little is written about it. And what comes after Albania?
I have the gift of having two friends who, alas, have seen their wives die of metastatic breast cancer in the last year, and they have both been generous with relating their experiences and their wisdom. But even they cannot do justice to the terrain that lies ahead, as they are already on the other side of Albania, in a faraway place that I know I’ll end up but cannot yet comprehend.