On the morning the world learned that David Bowie had died of cancer, nearly every person on my London commuter train had open a copy of the local paper, its front leaf showing Bowie in all his angular and sparkling glory. The carriage was Ziggy upon Ziggy, the headline announcing his death so startling that we seemed to assimilate it only through repetition. Black Star streamed in the cafes and pubs, and flowers piled in a memorial on a Brixton sidewalk.
Tributes came sweeping across social media, too, of course. For a few days, it seemed that the entire world was grieving, taking comfort in being part of a chorus of voices that offered condolences and gratitude, and that registered shock. But as always seems to happen, after the initial sting of the news, the editorializing began. We had to see the headlines claiming that this newly passed icon of ours wasn’t so important after all, or that his finances or views on copyright were somehow suddenly critical to discuss.
Strangest of all, at least to me, was an opining tweet claiming that, “if we learned anything from David Bowie,” it was “that cancer can be private.”
I had to stop and read again. Surely I was missing something. We weren’t about to forget the bottomless well of creativity, the power of self invention and reinvention, or the generous sharing of talent with the world, were we? We weren’t about to wash over Bowie’s contributions by saying that the great lesson of his existence was that he chose not to talk publicly about his diagnosis…were we?
In the following days, as the first sting of the news faded, I’d see many more such statements creeping up across media of all kinds: more bizarre praise for Bowie’s closed-mouth policy about his cancer. I wondered: what were other cancer patients supposed to make of this public rallying in support of non-disclosure?
To be clear, I have no personal experience of cancer. I hope I can live out the rest of my life saying so, and that all the people I love can do likewise. I hope—in a Pollyanna-ish way, given statistical realities—that all those reading this can do likewise. But even as someone on the outside, I suspect that, if there is one thing cancer patients don’t need, it’s a pack of strangers judging the merits of their highly personal choices on what to say or not say about their diagnoses.
No, I don’t know what it’s like to deal with cancer. But I know how it feels to live with a disease that kills some while sparing others, has no cure, and comes with some highly toxic treatments that, together with the disease itself, affect every area of life. And I know what it’s like to face the twin pressures that affect all sick people: to be inspirational, or to be quiet.
If you are going to disclose your illness, our culture tells us, you had better do it in such a way as to make other people feel gratitude for their own good health, to take advantage of their robust bodies, to dredge up whatever peppy feeling they get from that horrendous “I Hope You Dance” hit of the 90s. It typically involves a great many 5k runs with graphic tee-shirts, and words like “battle” and “courage” used liberally. The brute facts of your existence should make others feel lucky not to be you.
Yet the inspiration path is an exhausting one for the person trying to travel it; it’s less about a positive attitude than it is about performance art. The energy it takes to look put-together rather than disheveled, to keep from crying when you receive the news that a promising treatment isn’t working, to speak like a broken record of your hope for a cure when what keeps you awake at night is the fear that you might not wake up—that all takes more energy than most people have.
So it’s really no surprise that others—especially someone like Bowie who was already so exposed the public’s prying interest—choose to say nothing at all. If you don’t have the stomach to deal with others’ expectations of what your experience should look like, is there any other choice but silence?
Of course, you could choose to speak plainly about the circumstances of sick life in the same way that others discuss frustrations with work, troubled marriages, or money problems. But here’s where disclosure gets sticky: talking about illness turns out not to be like talking about those issues at all. Talk about a bad boss or a bad partner and that’s venting. It operates on the assumption that these are experiences that most people hold in common; it acts as a mirror that nearly everyone can see themselves reflected in.
But when you talk about a bad body, that’s complaining. That’s asking others to relate to something they don’t want any part of. That’s to become a grim image in a mirror held up to mortality. Keeping quiet, then, can be just as much about others’ comfort as the performance art of fun-run inspiration.
And something I don’t imagine that all those people praising Bowie’s silence-as-heroism realize is this: long illness comes with its own terrible sort of privacy, and it’s neither freely chosen nor ennobling.
In my case, I’ve developed a ferocious brand of interiority born of the hours, weeks, even months I’ve spent largely alone. As my muscles grew weaker and I lost the ability to use them normally, I had to cut back further and further on the number of hours I spent teaching until eventually that number hit zero. Soon I couldn’t breathe or speak well enough to chat with friends on the phone, much less meet for a social gathering. As my world grew smaller and my close friends fewer, I aimed my loneliness at books—both the reading and writing of them. But when my eyes couldn’t track words well enough to read a page, and when my muscles were too wobbly to allow me to write for more than a few moments at a time, I retreated even further into the solitude of my own mind.
That privacy was perhaps the greatest loneliness of my life.
I was grateful to shed that solitude for a couple of years when the trend of my health moved in a positive direction. Thanks to some frightening yet effective treatments, I regained enough strength to work again, to write, to spend time with others without rationing strength to pay for every word or breath. I almost forgot what it felt like to be that alone. But when this past December I began to get that familiar feeling of bonelessness in my legs, and when even my eyelids began to drag down as if under extra force of gravity, I felt that my allotted time in the wider world was slipping into the past. And I could feel my life folding in on itself, like a slip of creased paper, sliding slowly back into envelope after envelope after envelope.
When I think about David Bowie and the cancer that so many praised for “privacy,” I say a kind of retroactive prayer that he didn’t experience the loneliness, the quiet and long and inexorable drawing into the self. I hope the end of his life wasn’t private at all.
Kelly Davio is the Poetry Editor of Tahoma Literary Review. Her debut poetry collection, Burn This House, was published by Red Hen Press in 2013. Her work has appeared in venues including Best New Poets, The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, and The Toast. A long-time Seattleite, she now lives in London, England.
Read More Work by this Author:
- James Brown and I Go to the Lab
- Kylie Jenner and Her Golden Wheels
- I Was Once the Writer Kelly Davio