The Squirrel’s Heartbeat

Part of going through something inexplicably traumatic and random is realising the invisibility of suffering, or rather, the extent to which it is a solitary experience. There is great power in the privacy of the self – a dark limitlessness uninterrupted and unseen by others. But when something we want to communicate is suddenly too far buried in the dark, the invisible nature of it can also be incredibly limiting. Lonely, even. Especially when a different kind of darkness begins to take hold – the sort which spreads across CT images.

Diagnosed with stage four cancer three days before my twentieth birthday, I realised that some things are too opaque to put into words. My first Oncologist did a good enough job, but only a year or so later, after the dust had settled and I was more used to receiving bad news. Looking at the computer’s historic projection of my lymphatic system, he summed up the confusing devastation quite succinctly: “It was a car crash” he announced, solemnly.

From that very first diagnosis, the shadows began to lay hold of the person I thought I was. Physically and mentally, I became a body put on ice while the chemotherapy rushed my veins. The mundane way this all happened was grotesque. Moments before that first injection of poison, I was offered a tuna sandwich. Worst of all, I ate it. Sat on a bed, with two of my brothers and my mum watching, my life changed forever in ways I wouldn’t realise until I was much older. Being driven home, pale and clutching a cardboard bowl, my former self was shed with every mile we crawled along the M6.

In his book about the many different ways of viewing art, John Berger recognises that ‘Seeing comes before words’. If someone cannot see the picture, however, and the words to paint the picture also do not come, trying to communicate what is beyond the other person’s knowledge is extremely challenging. Although exposed by biomedical imaging, the experience of having cancer remains this invisible, unutterable picture, developing in the dark room of the self and invisible to the mass of people innocent of its knowledge.

Edvard Munch and Francis Bacon famously painted human screams in attempts to capture these otherwise imperceptible forces of suffering as they pierced through the body’s frame. People aren’t paintings, however, and it would have been pretty horrific for everyone involved if I’d have gone around screaming (although I remember a few bleak moments in the car, with the music turned up). Instead, the PICC lines were pulled from my body like the last cold strands of spaghetti from a pan, the scars faded, and hair eventually covered my head. Many years and many haircuts later, I look like any other human female you might sit next to on the tube.

The person you might see sitting next to me would exhibit a similar opaqueness. Perhaps this is as it should be, as George Eliot determines in Middlemarch: ‘If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence’, the lid blown off our now no longer quiet desperations. The tragic truth, as Eliot confirms, is that ‘the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity’. Somewhat devastating, however, was my realisation that the same can be said of life experience which falls outside of the ordinary. Like the images of human suffering beamed through our smart phones and into the palms of our hands from across the globe, I realised that perhaps cancer was regarded as a similarly foreign problem, cauterized by our everyday lives, a Munchian scream during an evening walk with friends.

For example, most people would agree that cancer – and particularly cancer in a young person – is a shocking thing to happen. Certainly, I experienced compassion. But in the four-year slog for survival – as I found it harder and harder to process and communicate what was going on inside my own body – I began to lose touch with people, finding it harder and harder to break through the layers of wadding we all inevitably protect ourselves with.

I wanted people to see how world-stoppingly horrendous the whole situation was, but instead, I could not articulate the acute and very particular pain of what I was going through. Like the pre-chemo tuna sandwich, my family had to get up and go out into the world as it continued in all its mundanity, knowing that I was in a hospital bed and not knowing how I’d be by the time they were able to visit. As much as I tried to engage with my old life, I fell into generalised responses to generalised questions. In many cases, a gulf began to grow between me and my friends. I felt angry that they couldn’t hear the tree falling, probably because I was making all of the wrong sounds.

I suppose this could have been worse because of my age. People were continuing with university, going to festivals, visiting places far different from hospital waiting rooms. Well-meaning jokes – ‘You can’t keep dropping the C-Bomb’ – were as stultifying as: ‘It’s going to be fine’. That is, damaging refusals to listen to the very real and biologically growing possibility that it might not be, that I’d been in a consultation just the previous day where they’d specified the narrowing options of treatment left open to me. I would never be the same again. I would have to face things and think about things that they might never have to. I had to grow up. My eggs died and my body stopped producing any.

I find, then, that what made me angry not so many years ago – as I sat in my hospital isolation room and thought of all the ordinary human life happening beyond its walls – still shocks me now. That is, even something as horrific and nonsensical as a young person living with cancer, is but the beating of a squirrel’s heart that most people cannot hear. The initial frenzy of medical examinations and appointments, the explosion of support in the real world and on social media, settles into the slow march of weekly chemotherapy appointments, vast expanses of time waiting in corridors or behind closed doors, lying alone in a sterilised hospital bed, surviving.

In the stillness of these moments, however – ‘on the other side of silence’ – the squirrel can hear its own heart beat. This is of vital importance to the squirrel, and perhaps all that really matters.

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