This essay by Andaiye, a Guyanese social, political, and gender rights activist, lovingly documents the shared experience of cancer with the Black poet Audre Lorde, and is extracted from The Point is to Change the World: Selected Writings of Andaiye. A cancer survivor for 30 years, she was a founder of the Guyana Cancer Society and Cancer Survivors Action Group, and her political work included the position of Executive of the Working People’s Alliance (WPA) in Guyana, alongside Walter Rodney.
October is simultaneously Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and Black History Month in the UK, and the Black experience with cancer is a topic little addressed, but important. Black people are more likely to die from cancer, yet another result of systematic racial inequality and violence. Charities such as Black Women Rising are working to highlight this injustice.
I met Audre Lorde toward the end of 1988 at the Caribbean Association for Feminist Research and Action (CAFRA) meeting. I was chairing (they call it facilitating) a session. CAFRA members were being—as usual—disorderly; and why not? I was in my best head teacher mode. Audre came in late. I recognized her face from the back of books but I had to make a point; she was late. I asked her to identify herself. She said, looking a little surprised (she was not humble), “Audre Lorde.” I led the acknowledgement by thumping the table. She acknowledged the recognition with a slight raising of the eyebrow, a ducking of the head.
A short time after I was asked if I could be interviewed with Audre. I agreed. It took some time to get the interview together. When I was free, I heard she was tired. When she wasn’t, I was busy. I wasn’t trying to be difficult. I hadn’t read the cancer books. I didn’t know about her struggle with cancer. Eventually we did the interview at a table (I think; my memory is bad) in a room full of people and smoke. I think, too, I was smoking myself. As I said, I didn’t know she had cancer. And I didn’t know I had cancer.
Somewhere in the next six months I learned she had cancer. Somewhere in the next six months—on International Women’s Day, 1989—I learned that I, too, had cancer. I remember only fragments of what happened over the next few days. I remember being at my father’s house and people coming in, the women breaking the silence of awkwardness by asking me what I needed washed or ironed or bought for the hospital; the men, not socialized into housework, having nothing to break the silence. I remember my friend, Jocelyn Dow, taking me to see a play that was on in celebration of IWD: For Colored Girls who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf. I remember going to the home of another friend, Alice Thomas, where I cried and Alice said, “Done, done, never mind, the diagnosis probably wrong.” Mother words. I remember yet another friend, Nesha Haniff, saying angrily that we all know Guyana’s medical services had fallen apart so why were we so stupid as to believe they could read any slides? I remember my father sitting with Jocelyn making arrangements for me to go to Canada for the diagnosis to be checked even as he denied the possibility it might be right. I remember him calling my mother, who was in England, and who did what she did best —pretended she was coping well; how was her daughter? I remember my brother, Abbyssinian, calling to say that he would leave his job in New York (as he did) and come wherever I would be, to be my nurse (as he was). I know I spoke during those few days, too, to other women who became major supports; the thing I call not yet a women’s movement called in.
I do not remember when I wrote Audre, but I did, and I remember that she answered immediately and sent me a copy of A Burst of Light with the inscription, “Sister Survivor—May these words be a bridge over that place where there are no words—or where they are so difficult as to sound like a scream!”
And so began my friendship with Audre Lorde, around the sharing of the fear of living with, perhaps dying from, cancer. She wrote often, mostly on cards. She’d said, “I need your words too.” I couldn’t write too many. So I called, often. And she called too.
West Indians are a people who, for good or evil, express the serious as joke. So across all my weekly and monthly phone calls with Audre in four years, here’s what I remember most sharply.
I was well into my treatment and had developed a reputation as a person who was dealing well with cancer and chemotherapy. And I was brave. I knew from reading that the drugs I was using would cause me to lose my hair. I arranged to shave it all off when it began to fall. I was determined that I would be in control. Every time I went for chemo I vomited my guts out, then, vomiting over, called for soup with pigtail which my Aunt Elsene or mother made. I watched people watching me with pity — hair gone, cheeks deformed by steroids — and managed to laugh. My friend Karen de Souza, a photographer, would come from Guyana to visit me and climb up high to take pictures of the sun shining on my head and my cheeks, so she said, I could see later where I had been and acknowledge the journey. I genuinely found that funny. At least she assumed there would be a later.
I was brave until the day I was told I had to lose several teeth which, given the teeth I had been losing since childhood, meant that I had to get a plate.
A plate, teeth in a cup, at night; worse than cancer, a metaphor for old age. I went back to the home where I was staying with my friend Elsie Yong, entered my bedroom, closed the door, climbed into my bed, went into the foetal position and lay.
Somewhere within this — the same day, next day? — Audre called. “Hi girlfriend,” she said. “Hi,” I muttered, the first time I had ever felt or sounded not glad to hear her voice. She chatted and then eventually asked what was wrong. I said, “I have to take out teeth and get a plate and soak it in the night like old people.” One breath, whining.
I heard a noise like a person who hadn’t managed to get her hand over the phone before she giggled. Then Audre said, “I lost my two front teeth. Which teeth are you losing?”
“The remaining ones on the right side,” I answered.
“Oh, that’s bad,” she said. “But not as bad as front teeth.” I sucked the teeth I had left. “Listen,” she said. “You know I’m supposed to be so brave? Well, when I lost my two front teeth I felt worse than when I lost my breast. I mean, you don’t have to show your breast or use it every minute, but your teeth!”
I giggled, then said, “But this is it. This is the end. This is teeth in a cup, in the night. The end of …”
“No,” she interrupted. “Here’s what I do. In the night, I go into the bathroom and close the door, firmly. I take out my two front teeth. I brush the teeth in my mouth, then the teeth in my hand. Then I put the teeth in my hand in my mouth. I go to bed. Now, if you have expectations (and girlfriend, you and I might seem to have different expectations but they’re really the same expectations), you wait till the expectations are met or if none are forthcoming you raise some …”
“Stop interrupting,” she went on. “After your expectations are met (she/he approaching, you approaching), you wait for the right moment (she/he asleep) and you take out your teeth (if you think you must) and place them strategically under your pillow.”
I giggled. “Girlfriend, you put them so you can get at them quickly if any further expectations come up. And if they don’t, in the morning you get up, take them quickly from under the pillow, go to the bathroom, close the door firmly, brush the teeth in your mouth then the teeth in your hand, put the teeth in your hand in your mouth and you’re ready to meet any further expectations …”
“OK, OK, OK,” I giggled. “OK.”
It occurred to me then, it occurs to me now, that the story had been made up out of whole cloth. But what does that matter?
A few times Audre called me because she needed to find company in the place she was in. When the alternative therapy that had helped her stay alive for so long wasn’t shrinking her liver tumor anymore or even keeping it the same size; and the question was whether to finally take chemotherapy, even though she was tired of carrying her life every day in her hands.
“Girlfriend,” she inquired, “Tell me about methotrexate.” I answered; she hummed. She asked, “You think I should take that, you who’ve felt it?” I tried a balancing act. I wanted her to take anything that might keep her alive. I wanted to support her in her determination not to switch gears from a form of therapy that was about strengthening the immune system to one that could destroy it. I wanted her to take poison if poison would keep her alive. We spoke when, after she had taken the chemo, her locks had fallen out and she asked, “Do you understand thin with bloat?” — because she had lost weight while parts of her body had grown fat. She called when, for love of those for whose love of her, she was considering more chemo although her heart and her body and her mind said no. And all she asked of me, at those moments, was that, as a person in a place similar to hers (although never the same), I would listen to her weigh options I had weighed, and tell her the truth of what I had discovered so she could use that in her weighing of the options.
A person in a similar place. For we were never, Audre and I, “sister survivors,” surviving in the same place. No one else I came to know who had cancer had travelled such a road, from breast cancer to liver cancer to ovarian cancer. From mastectomy to hysterectomy. From a person who started like the rest of us with little knowledge of cancer and its treatment to a person fully informed about the disease and the options for treatment; from a person just living to a person having to make decisions every day about what to do or not to do just to live, who found the courage to choose a road with no one ahead to guide her — no person who had chosen that road and walked it for so long through such pitfalls and reached the places she wanted to be.
Audre told me, as she told countless others, that I should write — a diary entry each day, poems. I didn’t. When Gloria (Joseph) said she had died I thought (I didn’t know what else to think) I would write her a poem. I couldn’t. I wrote, “I want you in this world.” Nothing else. What I meant was that although I believe she will always be in this world in her children, her partner, her blood and non-blood sisters, all her life’s work, I wanted her in this world — at the other end of a phone or postcard, talking about the loss of teeth and hair, about bloating bellies and cheeks and Bush and the Gulf War; about where she was going/had been to see an eclipse of the sun; about why something I had written was OK but not good enough because I had chickened out on homophobia; about why she would forgive me that (for a while) in the face of CNN images of Rodney King, Ethiopia, Brazilian street children, the thing they call “black on black violence” with its origins in white on black violence, in New York, DC, the townships of South Africa. About living with and dying from cancer. About her loving me and I, her.
For I loved her, this woman who came so late to my life but whose death leaves a void in the center of my life.
Audre, there’s rosemary. That’s for remembrance.
Andaiye (1942 -2019) was a Guyanese social, political, and gender rights activist, who has been described as a transformative figure in the region’s political struggle. She was an early member of the executive of the Working People’s Alliance (WPA) in Guyana, alongside Walter Rodney. A founding member of the women’s development organisation Red Thread in Guyana in 1986, Andaiye was also an executive member of the Caribbean Association for Feminist Research and Action (CAFRA). Her collected writings can be found in The Point is to Change the World: Selected Writings of Andaiye, edited by Alissa Trotz.