Let’s Build A Wall

What if we built a wall? Make no mistake. I’m do not mean 45’s wall, but before I go there, let me back up.

Like all of us, I’m saddened at the passing of Scorchy Barrington (The Sarcastic Boob), who died November 15. Beth Caldwell (Cult of Perfect Motherhood) died November 2. These are just November’s breast cancer deaths from those I know, but this list goes on and on.

I’m reminded of a statement made by a friend after I finished treatment. I had gotten in touch with my mortality, something cancer tends to bring home. As mine was a particularly aggressive cancer that had become acquainted with my lymph nodes, I expressed gratitude for being alive. My friend replied:

Eileen, don’t be so dramatic. No one dies from breast cancer anymore.

–Someone Who Drank Pink Kool-Aid

I wish he were right. Scorchy and Beth’s breast cancer certainly wasn’t aware of this. I just Googled: How many people die from breast cancer? Cancer.net had this to say:

It is estimated that 41,070 people (40,610 women and 460 men) will die from breast cancer this year.

Which brings me to the wall.

When I was a child and teenager, the USA was involved in the Vietnam War. The war ended when I was in the 11th grade, much to my relief. We had sent so many boys to Vietnam who came back in caskets, and many more came home wounded and without limbs. It had also become personal, as it had for so many. I’ll never forget the day I walked into my house after school to the sound of the radio blaring. The Selective Service announced the next crop of lottery numbers by which they randomly drafted more boys to go overseas. My brother’s birth date came in at #2. Mom sat on the couch, sobbing and inconsolable.

I remember my friend’s mother telling me about her son who was killed in Vietnam.

In later years as a young adult, I visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. Pictures do not do justice to the emotional impact of being there. It seemed we walked and walked and the wall was never-ending, filled with names of young boys who were killed in a war that most agree was senseless. By the time we reached the end, I broke down in tears. Grief consumed me for this tragedy, and not just to the United States obviously. The wall turned numbers into names — name after name after name.

vietnam-memorial-wall

From birth, people are destined to die, but when they’re taken from us untimely, it seems so senseless and grievous.  There’s no peace in it. Acceptance eludes us. Even when people die at an “acceptable age,” that has no bearing on the grief of those who are left. Just like the mothers and wives, fathers and brothers, who lost someone in Vietnam, I think of the widows and widowers, the motherless and fatherless children, the parents who bury their sons and daughters from cancer. Senseless and tragic.

In Auschwitz, the Nazis tattooed numbers on their prisoners. These numbers became their identities as opposed to their names. Numbers obfuscate the humanity behind the digits.

I imagine a wall taking dry cancer statistics and translating them into names. Every single name. One after another. I understand this would not be practicable because that wall would go on for miles and miles and miles, but I can imagine. When people visit that wall, they don’t see pink ribbons, dogs wearing bras, and other marketing gimmicks. Just a wall. A wall with name after name after name. Names of people who are loved and grieved by people who go on living with a large gaping hole where the person who died used to be. And visitors would understand that despite mammograms and ultrasounds, breast exams and annual checkups, real people still die from breast cancer after all.

Comments

  1. Thanks for another sensitive and prolific piece, Eileen! You keep telling stories that need to be told-you’re not “dramatic” at all …you are smart, wise and have a gift of empathy! What a silly, thoughtless presumptive bupkis statement your friend made. feh…how wonderful that you stored that ignorant and insensitive remark away until you could write this thoughtful piece 😉

  2. Brilliant post, Eileen. I find that one of the most heart-rending things about losing another friend is that I have a hard time now keeping the names of all the friends I’ve lost to this disease in my head. <3

  3. Eileen, your post almost had me in tears. So touching. I’ve never visited this site, but would like to someday. I have thought of this idea of keeping a memorial site for all BC victims, but sadly, we would run out of space. Too many losses. Too much pain. It has been a difficult couple of months with all the recent deaths (some very young victims, leaving their young children). It doesn’t get any easier. It is personal. And each time someone leaves us, is a reminder of how fragile we all are. I hope you stay well for a very long time, my friend. I wish this for all of us. xoxo

  4. Wow what a moving post. Too too many lost to breast cancer still. I love your words. xx

  5. Hi Eileen, you articulate so well the feelings of loss surrounding all those who have died needlessly, thank you, Catherine

  6. When the Wall opened in 1982, I signed up as a volunteer for the opening event. My job was to circulate through the crowd holding a copy of the Wall Directory. Visitors–mostly veterans that day–could look up the names of buddies they had lost in Vietnam to find out which panel of the wall they were on. To say it was an incredibly emotional day is an understatement. When it comes to deaths from breast cancer, a number such as the 40,000+ that we often cite–as huge as it is–doesn’t begin to convey the real loss. I think your analogy is an excellent one and just envisioning a wall like, as for the soldiers lost in Vietnam, helps to convey a bit the sense of the enormity of the loss.

    • Lisa, thanks for sharing your Vietnam Wall story. That must have been an incredible experience for you. And, yes, imagining a similar wall for breast cancer really does convey the sense of enormity and that we’re far from having overcome it.

  7. Brilliant and touching as always. Xo

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