Two women in my cancer support group died last year; both were considerably younger than I am. Furious at the disease, I’m starting the new year with a yowl.
Survivors of patients who have not survived, people dealing with a terminal condition, and their caregivers are generally advised to seek acceptance. However, great artists of anger have taught us how cathartic a rousing roar can be, especially when the object of rage is not a conjured scapegoat but a clear and present danger. One of the greatest of those artists in living memory — the singer, pianist, composer Nina Simone — lambasted the disasters of American racism. Does she have something to teach those of us dealing with cancer-related tragedies?
In 1963, after the killings of Medgar Evers and of four little girls in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ms. Simone began producing a number of anthems for the civil rights and black power movements. One of her most powerful songs continues to be all too relevant.
The lyrics of “Mississippi Goddam,” I thought, might serve me while cancer’s casualties stun me. By tweaking Nina Simone’s words, would I implicitly be comparing rampant racism to metastatic disease or vice versa? I could live with that analogy, as Susan Sontag — the public intellectual who rejected all metaphors of illness — once did.
Ms. Simone reinvented other refrains created by writers of many different ethnicities and nations, shaping them to her purposes. In doing so, she has emboldened me to recycle some of her stanzas for people from diverse backgrounds who live with cancer. When borrowing is acknowledged, after all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
Here, then, is a homage to Nina Simone that I hope will lead you to listen to her terrific rendition of “Mississippi Goddam.” In an aside within this edgy elegy of damaged lives, she calls it “a show tune, but the show hasn’t been written for it yet.” I also feel as if I have been watching a show that hasn’t been written yet.
After too many cancer-related setbacks and deaths of relatives, friends, and correspondents — you readers could not be more moving about your own bereavements — I started belting Nina Simone’s protest with new words, invigorated by her spirit of indignant fury. When cancer feels like an epidemic, it may be easier to rage than to mourn, as all of us undoubtedly will, over rending losses.
Myeloma’s got me so upset
Leukemia’s made me lose my rest And everybody knows about carcinoma goddam.
Metastatic breast has gotten me upset
Mesothelioma made me lose my rest And everybody knows about pancreatic goddam.
Can’t you see it?
Can’t you feel it? It’s all in the air I can’t stand the pressure much longer Somebody say a prayer.
Prostatic got me all upset
Glioblastoma’s made me lose my restAnd everybody knows about ovarian goddam.
Scans and tests on my trail
Kids cry and mates flail. White cat crossed my path I think every day’s gonna be my last.
Lord have mercy on this land of mine
Will we all get it in due time? People gone here, People gone there, I’ve even stopped believing in prayer.
Don’t tell me
I’ll tell you — Me and my tribe are just about due. I’ve been there so I submit They keep on saying “Beat it!”
But that’s just the trouble
“Beat it!”Taking the chemo “Beat it!” Hospital city “Beat it!” It’s just plain misery “Beat it!” You’re too damned hazy “Beat it!” The thinking’s crazy “Beat it!”
Where am I going?
What am I doing? I don’t know I don’t know.
Insurance holdups — Trying to say they’re just mix-ups. All I want is equality For my sister, my brother, my people and me.
Oh this whole country’s full of lies.
Are we all gonna die and die like flies? I’ve been there so I’m in a snit They keep on saying “Beat it!”
But that’s just the trouble
“Beat it!” Reoperations “Beat it!” Focused radiations “Beat it!” Frozen ablations “Beat it!” Do things gradually “Beat it!” But bring more tragedy. “Beat it!” Why don’t you see it? Why don’t you feel it? I don’t know, I don’t know.
You probably live next door to me.
You may have a child not cancer-free.
Everybody knows about Ewing’s Sarcoma.
Everybody knows about Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Everybody knows about carcinoma goddam.
Susan Gubar, who has been dealing with ovarian cancer since 2008, is distinguished emerita professor of English at Indiana University. Her latest book is “Late-Life Love.”