Long Gone Conversation About Cancer

Jenny Burkholder 2013LBBC blogger Jenny Burkholder shares her thoughts on the novel Oz, by Nancy Eimers and how she feels it relates to her personal story and journey with breast cancer…

The last time I saw Jessica alive, we had just watched our 3 and 4 year old daughters perform in their winter concert. Our daughters, like all of the other preschool students, were adorable, and the whole audience melted when they paraded onto the stage sang songs in Spanish. At the time, we were both bald, clearly cancer patients. At that point, I was Stage II and done with chemo and treatment; she was Stage IV and dying. As we walked out into the winter cold, we talked about cancer. At one point she said to me, “If licking the sidewalk would cure me of cancer, I would do it.”

In her 2011 book, Oz, Nancy Eimers, one of my former poetry teachers, imagines a conversation in a parking lot with her friend and colleague, Julie. The poem titled, “Long Gone Conversation about Cancer” is –for Julie. Julie died in 2008 after a 16-year battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

In the first two stanzas, Eimers writes, “The certain dark of a parking lot/not going anywhere: yeah we have to go/and maybe there’s even/ a future awaiting us like two tin cans/on the ends of a string,/maybe we’re both worried soon there won’t be anything/rippling in the string/but we stay a little while.” The image of these two women, lingering in a dark parking lot, a parking lot that will exist after both have driven away, after one has died, is beautiful and heartbreaking.

Both know that the future is uncertain and that death is inevitable, but they are transformed, each holding one end of the tin can, a future. I imagine Eimers standing in the shadow—she will be the one to survive—and Julie, in the yellow gaze of the parking lot’s bright light. Here, they can already predict how their paths will divide, but for this one moment, they are both alive, lingering over the minutiae of their days, the challenges of teaching, the slipperiness of the icy patches.

Like Eimers, we know what’s next: cancer, the image of nothing and that “there won’t be anything/rippling in the string.” Seemingly, the worry is there, but the “string” is a space without tension, a space without talk, without holding. What Eimers does in the next line, where she turns the reader back to the parking lot, away from cancer, is where I like to exist. Masterfully, she uses “but,” a coordinating conjunction that implies contradiction, consideration. It’s not an “and” that connects; it’s a “but” that divides. Here, instead of staying with cancer and the inevitable death of her friend, she returns them to the parking lot and allows them to “stay a little while” in this innocence, in this moment, hanging on a string between two tin cans.

In my mind’s eye, I return to the last conversation I had with Jessica.  Just five months after it, she passed. I hardly knew her, and the only thing we really shared was cancer. We never had a chance to linger on that sidewalk square in the middle of December to become friends. We never had a chance to know each other without cancer. I continue to think about her and remember this moment. It reminds me of the image of Nancy and Julie in the parking lot, their conversation “long gone,” but for that moment, their space is a liminal space. It’s a space of neither death nor life. It’s a space of just being, where illness and disease, toxic drugs and harmful side effects, joy and sorrow, converge and just linger. It’s a space where one doesn’t have to make a choice or say goodbye.


Jenny Burkholder is the mother of two girls, a teacher at Abington Friends School, and a published poet. Here, she explores the nature of language used to describe cancer. 

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