Smith: Remembering Elaine

Jul 22, 2015

As the Commentary Producer at VPR, I help to bring public voices to the airways through essays that we hope will have special meaning for you. For five years the voice of Elaine Harrington was among those voices.

After her recent death at 65, we learned that she’d been working on a commentary about living with cancer. While she didn’t have a chance to record it - I’d like to share it with you.

Some adjustments to her diagnosis of cancer were relatively easy. She wrote,

Following the advice of Mary Poppins, I discovered that the bitter pills required at 6 a.m. go down much better with a ginger snap cookie. And a piece of crystalized ginger helps take away a metallic taste that is a byproduct of chemotherapy later in the day.

Others were harder - taking a medical leave from teaching, no driving or skiing, not sending Christmas cards, and not taking food scraps to the composter through deep snow.

Then again, there was more time to read and write, and she thought an article in the New York Times "Well" section by Susan Gubar offered good advice. She wrote,

In "Living with Cancer: Playing the 'C' Card," Gubar talks about opportunities for doing things you wouldn't before. 'If you have lost your pre-diagnosis occupations and your life ... the C card can serve as a license to disregard the consequences.' Savings accounts and cholesterol? Go ahead, and take that long-planned trip to Greece, Gubar advises, or enjoy a trip to the ice cream parlor every Tuesday.

Elaine wrote about time with family and friends. She said,

I'm learning how my daughters now cook: the one living on Cape Cod has learned amazing ways with fish. The other daughter, living in Texas, organized theme dinners for Thanksgiving and Christmas: a smoked turkey, barbecue brisket, cowboy pinto beans, and Christmas tamales. My sisters, and brothers have also been here and helping. Friends and neighbors are bringing loaves of homemade bread and offering rides to lunch or appointments.

And Elaine wrote about inspiration.

I'll never forget the spirit and courage of my mother-in-law, Joyce Harrington, who used her last 18 months to create beautiful oil paintings now cherished by her family. Playing tennis and traveling to see her daughter, who was studying in Denmark, were other pursuits that she enjoyed. But more important, she kept a positive attitude that bolstered everyone around her.

And by her own account, that was also the spirit in which Elaine Harrington spent her final days.

Elaine Harrington's Commentary Archive

Full draft text of Elaine Harrington's last commentary on living with cancer:

The "C Card"
By Elaine Harrington
     As you adjust to a diagnosis of cancer, there are many choices to make. Food is probably the easiest one, I discovered in mid-November, when my life was thus changed.
    Following the advice of Mary Poppins, I discovered that the bitter pills required at 6 a.m. go down much better with a ginger snap cookie. And a piece of crystalized ginger helps take away a metallic taste that is a byproduct of chemotherapy later in the day.
    The need for smaller, more frequent meals (plus the holiday season) led to the adoption of daily cheese plates. My daughter and I enjoyed Vermont and Spanish cheeses every afternoon for a week or so - until we discovered our new "cheese bellies." Another easy decision is to wear yoga pants instead of jeans with stiff pockets and
zippers.
    Other, more serious choices that you make during a challenge like cancer treatment are
unlike anything I've experienced. Right away, I had some difficult limits (like no driving and no skiing) and opportunities (more time to read and write, more visits with family and friends.)
    What things should you decide to do more of, for fun or healing? What things can you just skip? I wasn't able to send Christmas cards this year, which was hard to give up. Hauling out food scraps through deep snow to the garden com poster is not an option for me nowmuch as I believe in it. I needed to work on the taxes, which I did, but I may not reorganize all those other files.
    An article by Susan Gubar for the New York Times "Well" section is influencing my thinking on this. In "Living with Cancer: Playing the 'C' Card," she talks about opportunities for doing things you wouldn't before. "If you have lost your pre-diagnosis occupations and your life ... the C card can serve as a license to disregard the consequences." Savings accounts and cholesterol? Go ahead, and take that long-planned trip to Greece, she advises, or enjoy a trip to the ice cream parlor every Tuesday.
    Resting is important for healing, I've learned anew. This is not my usual state - which is doing lots of things that I find interesting. Not doing is much harder for me. I've had to take medical leave from my teaching, due to chemotherapy and radiology treatments and side effects. I miss my students and colleagues, but I do hope to get my responsible, normal life back again. This, I hope, is a temporary "carpe diem".
    Gubar encourages her readers with a "C card" to engage in fly fishing, pedicures, photography - whatever interests were always being deferred. "After a cancer diagnosis, you may finally find the time to follow your desires," Gubar advises. Writing creatively about family stories from the 1920s is one of my goals. This may be my chance to do this - if I can get back the energy needed.
    On her list of things "not to do", Gubar decides to ignore some paperwork being repeatedly sent to her about her mother's death during World War II. This makes Gubar feel much better, as the group sending this was involved in the death.
    My family - starting with my husband and daughters - has been very generous in their caring. I'm learning how my daughters now cook: the one living on Cape Cod has learned amazing ways with fish. The other daughter, living in Texas, organized theme dinners for Thanksgiving and Christmas: a smoked turkey, barbecue brisket, cowboy pinto beans, and Christmas tamales. My sisters, and brothers have also been here and helping. Friends and
neighbors are bringing loaves of homemade bread and offering rides to lunch or appointments. I'll always remember this winter as a special time with all of them.
    I'll never forget the spirit and courage of my mother-in-law, Joyce Harrington, who used her last 18 months to create beautiful oil paintings now cherished by her family. Playing tennis and traveling to see her daughter, who was studying in Denmark, were other pursuits that she enjoyed. But more important, she kept a positive attitude that bolstered everyone around her.
    The real priorities - if my time turns out to be limited - would bring up a more serious discussion than just playing the "C card." There's no doubt that I'd use those months for more travel and time with family, and some creative endeavors. Getting back to normal - while accepting the help that you still need - will be interesting.