Update: Go here to watch Kelly's touching trailer for the book.
The Middle Place by Kelly Corrigan
Rating: 4/5 (Very good)
ARC - Book due out on January 8, 2008
In humorous, incandescent prose, Kelly Corrigan alternates tales of growing up Corrigan with the story of her life and her father's today as they each--successfully, for now--battle cancer. A book that reminds us of the good things in life, The Middle Place examines the universal themes of family, adulthood, and how we all must, inevitably, make the leap to the other side and grow up.
For Kelly Corrigan, family is everything. At thirty-six, she had a marriage that worked, a couple of funny, active kids, and a weekly newspaper column. But even as a thriving adult, Kelly still saw herself as George Corrigan's daughter. A garrulous Irish-American charmer from Baltimore, George was the center of the ebullient, raucous Corrigan clan. He greeted every day by opening his bedroom window and shouting, "Hello, World!" Suffice it to say, Kelly's was a colorful childhood, just the sort a girl could get attached to. Kelly lives deep within what she calls the Middle Place -- "that sliver of time when parenthood and childhood overlap" -- comfortably wedged between her adult duties and her parents' care. But she's abruptly shoved into a coming-of-age when she finds a lump in her breast -- and gets the diagnosis no one wants to hear. And so Kelly's journey to full-blown adulthood begins. When George, too, learns he has late-stage cancer, it is Kelly's turn to take care of the man who had always taken care of her -- and show us a woman as she finally takes the leap and grows up. Kelly Corrigan is a natural-born storyteller, a gift you quickly recognize as her father's legacy, and her stories are rich with everyday details. She captures the beat of an ordinary life and the tender, sometimes fractious moments that bind families together. Rueful and honest, Kelly is the prized friend who will tell you her darkest, lowest, screwiest thoughts, and then later, dance on the coffee table at your party. Funny, yet heart-wrenching, The Middle Place is about being a parent and a child at the same time. It is about the special double-vision you get when you are standing with one foot in each place. It is about the family you make and the family you came from -- and locating, navigating, and finally celebrating the place where they meet. It is about reaching for life with both hands -- and finding it.
Two years ago, at the age of 41, my younger brother was diagnosed with rectal cancer. We had just experienced the absolute worst loss of our lives, only to learn of Chris' cancer 6 weeks after Rachel's death. We were stunned beyond belief. After two rounds of chemo, radiation, and radical surgery, Chris is now, thankfully, cancer-free. Somewhere along the line, in my quest to become more knowledgeable about this particular cancer (to learn how to help my brother emotionally, as well as educate myself about my increased risk as a sibling), I stumbled upon a particularly informative website. While CircusOfCancer is a site for those seeking information about breast cancer rather than colo-rectal cancer, it provided me with an insider's view to chemo, radiation, how to talk to friends with cancer, etc. I was moved by the story behind the website and read everything posted, including the photo essays. Little did I know, two years down the road I'd pick up an Advanced Reader's Copy of Kelly Corrigan's memoir, only to discover that she was the creator of CircusOfCancer! What a small world.
Corrigan is a marvelous storyteller, drawing you into her family and home with the ease of a seasoned writer. When I finished the book, I felt as if I'd met her in person, trading stories about family and love and fear and loss. In typical fashion, I read with a packet of sticky notes in hand and wound up with a dozen or so pages marked for a second reading. This first passage is from the Prologue:
...I called my parents from the maternity ward and cried through the following: "Mom, Dad, it's a girl, and Dad, we named her after you. We named her Georgia."
Three years after that, almost to the day, I called home to tell my parents that I had cancer.
And that's what this whole thing is about. Calling home. Instinctively. Even when all the paperwork--a marriage license, a notarized deed, two birth certificates, and seven years of tax returns--clearly indicates you're an adult, but all the same, there you are, clutching the phone and thanking God that you're still somebody's daughter.
I especially like this brief passage:
I get another e-mail from a particularly grown-up friend of mine, Jen Komosa. She just says, "You are stronger than you think. You are strong enough."
Such truth in these simple words. I never thought I could survive the loss of one of our children and I'm sure there were times when my brother thought he couldn't survive the rigors of cancer treatment. But it's amazing what the heart and mind and body can endure. We are all stronger than we think.
I like the cadence of these particular paragraphs:
There is fear, like the moment before a car accident or the jolt that shoots through you when you see your baby slip under water, and there is pain, like whacking your head into a cabinet door left open or the quiver in your shoulders as you carry your end of the sofa up those last few stairs, fingers slipping. And then there is pain and fear together, like delivery a baby or standing up for the first time after surgery. Until they tell you it's working, chemo is like that, pain and fear, fear and pain, alternating relentlessly.
Yesterday, I took eighteen pills in twenty-four hours for everything from the well-known side effects like nausea and fatigue to the secret ones like runaway infections and tear-jerking constipation. Each side effect can be treated with medication, which usually has its own side effect. For nausea: Zofran. For the constipation caused by Zofran: laxatives and stool softeners. To ward of infection and stabilize your white blood cell counts: Neupogen. For the deep bone pain caused by Neupogen: Vicodin, which in turn causes nausea and drowsiness. And there you are, right back where you started.
I nodded my head in agreement when I read this:
I envy my dad his faith. I envy all people who have someone to beseech, who know where they're going, who sleep under the fluffy white comforter of belief.
I remember feeling this way after Rachel died. And I remember feeling like this, too:
I feel different from everyone these days. Words are loaded now--people who were "so sick they wanted to die," who ate "so much they wanted to puke," who hope someone will "take them out back and shoot them" before they get old and infirm.
And yet, as I relate to quite a bit of Kelly's thoughts and feelings, I became annoyed when I read the following passage (her response to learning she would need to begin hormone therapy in order to temporarily eliminate estrogen from her system, thus postponing the possibility of any more children for five more years):
I shake my head. "They talked about cancer like it was something to get through, to treat, to beat." They never said it was going to change everything, all my plans, and take things away from me that I have wanted since I was a child. "They said it was gonna be a bad year. So doesn't that mean when the bad year is over, when you do everything you are told to do--and with a goddamn smile no less--you get to go back to the life you had?"
Finally, I just stare ahead. I'm so mad and so tired at the same time.
"I thought that was what I was here for--to raise a bunch of kids," I say as we get closer to home.
I wanted to reach through the pages and past and shake this young woman and tell her she should be thankful to be alive. Thankful to have two beautiful daughters, a loving husband, devoted parents and friends and relatives who love her deeply. I wanted to tell her that while my brother is also a cancer survivor, he didn't get to go back to the life he once had either, but he's deeply grateful for his life, physically altered though it may be.
I can't begin to imagine how I'd personally handle the diagnosis and treatment of cancer, but I did watch my brother ride the emotional rollercoaster for the longest year of his life. I'd like to think that Kelly's reaction to the hormone therapy was exacerbated by the stress and emotional fragility of that long year in her life and that she can now appreciate how truly blessed she is to have what she has.
And now to jump on my soap box -- Many, many cancers are treatable, if detected early. If you are 50 or older, get a colonoscopy! I had one two years ago (six years sooner than normal, but highly recommended due to the hereditary risk as a sibling), and quite honestly, it's not a big deal. I was alseep through the entire procedure and the prep the day before was certainly tolerable. I'd gladly have that test once every five years if it prevents the ill effects of chemo (nausea, chemo brain, neuropathy, mouth sores, etc.), not to mention prolonging my life.