The monster

Published by pam on Wed, 03/28/2012 - 7:29pm


A few months before my diagnosis, I read a book that tells the story of a boy coming to terms with his mother's impending death.  She's dying of breast cancer, of course.  What else?  The story, A Monster Calls, would most likely be shelved under middle grade since it is largely a magical fantasy.  It is written by Patrick Ness. His stories are beautifully written, but they are dark.  Very dark.  Patrick Ness doesn't hold back.  He is the only middle grade/YA author I know who doesn't hesitate to 'kill the dog'.  It is a fairly well understood rule in among middle grade and YA writers that you can kill off a lot of characters - moms, dads, sisters, best friends, boy friends - but you can't kill the dog.  You just can't.  Suzanne Collins of the Hunger Games trilogy tells the story of children killing other children.  But she doesn't kill the dog.  


There are no dead dogs in A Monster Calls, but it is no less dark.  Late one night, a giant, gnarled nightmare-of-a-tree tree comes to life and dares a young boy to hear the three tales it has to tell.  Each will reveal a truth about the boy's mother.  After the stories are spun, the boy is warned, he will have to reveal a truth of his own.  The boy believes the truths imparted by an ancient Yew tree - which happens to be the source of the medicine used to treat his mother - will help I'm save her. As a point of interest, Herceptin, a powerful drug in the arsenal deployed against breast cancer, is in fact, derived from the Yew tree.  In the few illustrations scattered through out the pages, the tree is towering and dangerous.  It appears ready to devour the boy at any moment.  The tales are terrifying and they drive the boy further and further into his rage.  Eventually, there is only one way out.   Acceptance.  But it comes slowly.  


The boy's truth, the one he has desperately tried to bury, is this:  The only way he can save his mother is to let her go. 


It is a powerful book and it comes to mind frequently.  Given what I'm going through, it is no surprise the story resonates.  But it's the images that haunt me the most. The tree towering over the boy, that's how the disease feels.  Like a monster.  Gigantic.  Hungry. Desperate.  Dangerous.  All along, I have told myself that as frightening as the disease might be, it isn't very smart. It's real power is its ability to scare the crap out of me.  


But the disease can be out maneuvered.  It can be outsmarted.  That is truth I spin for myself.  I can win as long as I don't lie down.  As long as I don't let the fear paralyze me into submission


And most of the time, I believe it.  But, in the back of my mind, there are questions.  How far would I go?  How much quality of life would I give up to survive?  Is the cost too high - literally and figuratively?  Unfortunately, once one starts down the road of conventional treatment, it's hard to turn back.  Theres always one more thing to try, one more chance.  One more shred of hope.  Changing course invalidates all the decisions made to date.  


There are so many stories of people fighting cancer in novel ways, ways that don't involve ravaging the body inside and out.  It is hard not to wonder.  How many years would I trade for quality of life? For hair.  Hopefully these are theatrical questions.  But as I wait for definitive results of my kidney tumor, it is hard not to question how much would be too much.  I have never doubted that I can beat the breast tumor.  Only dumb luck would let it win.  


But my luck hasn't been so great lately.  


The lesson of A Monster Calls is that acceptance is difficult, especially when the monster breathing down your neck isn't a monster at all, rather a giant and scary future that is completely inescapable.


I like to think I understand the monster towering over me.  But sometimes, out of the corner of my eye, I catch a glimpse of a different creature altogether.   


Images from A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness from an original idea by Siobhan Dowd & illustrated by Jim Kay.  Published in the US by Candlewick Press, September 2011.