These Things You Cannot Take

My wife Diana was recently diagnosed with a brain tumor, the second brain tumor to hit our family in fifteen months. They are unconnected events – lightning striking twice unimaginably.  For the first one, still very much a part of our young daughter’s life, we shared a great deal here.  We may do the same for this latest challenge, or we may not.  It’s a bridge we have not yet crossed.  But on World Cancer Day, here are a few words.

I’ve had a recurrent dream since last Friday.  I am afloat on an equatorial sea, a sweep of beach to my back.  Before me, lines of aquamarine rise from the depths in metronomic intervals as though the sea itself is but the rippling skin of some unseen leviathan.

The waves begin to build, each one just a touch higher than the last, and in the crystalline walls appear the faces of those I love.  Five decades shuffled in varied combinations beneath gently foaming crests, friends and family alike displacing the occasional school of fish, coming towards me, around me, beneath me. It is beyond odd, and yet it is strangely calming.

And then, and then, and then.  The sky begins to darken, the waves’ translucence begins to fade.  The faces are still there, but with each passing they become more obscured by metastatic colonies of red and yellow and gunmetal gray.   I paddle furiously to get over the advancing walls as one by one the faces are overcome and sink slowly from sight before I am finally and inevitably hurled down into a lymphatic bedlam from which I never emerge but to which I cannot also succumb.

And then I wake, sweating, shaking and utterly adrift.

At some point when you are young, if you have so far escaped cancer’s direct clutches, you still become aware of its foreboding presence.  A little girl on the street, no hair on her head, a certain look in her eye.  The passing of a classmate’s uncle.  Maybe a hushed adult conversation on which you intrude, eyes tellingly moist as they assure you everything is fine.  Still, if you keep cancer outside your own meaningful circumferences it remains another formless threat – perhaps there, occasionally frightening, yet no more concrete than the mythical monsters beneath your childhood bed.

But unless you are very lucky indeed, someday it will come.


First you came for my grandmother, a woman of extraordinary spirit.   You were partially forgiven because by then she had lived a life in full, doing so even as she faced you down.

Then you came for my mother and father.   A Christmas drive from Colorado to Montana, the windswept Wyoming plains never seeming longer or more lonely as terms like biopsy and lymph node rattled ominously around my head.  My parents somber and struggling in previously unseen ways.  Years later, the same trip in a stifling August heat to a valley now obscured in the smoke of a dozen forest fires, the hospital furiously filtering the bad air, my father gowned and awaiting anesthesia.  But they each fought you off.

Then you came for our favorite dog, taking her before her time, taking her away from a toddling young girl whose love for that dog and its return were unreserved.  There were tears and anger and the dent you made was real and lasting but did not ultimately redirect the trajectory of our lives.

Then you came for the girl herself.  That’s when the shit got real.  She too has pushed you back because she is above all infused with a substance I have seen only once before. In her mother.

So of course, you have now come for her too.

You cannot have her.

You may beg to differ, countering with the daunting facts of a glioblastoma, one of your more insidious and awful manifestations.  But you would be wrong.  Because here is what you cannot take.

You cannot take that only hours after your diagnosis she came home and danced to the Rebirth Brass Band with her daughter, a brain tumor ballet of sorts, laughing right in your face.

You cannot take that the next morning, she went right back to discussing the joys of scientific discovery, before then cracking up the world’s most accomplished neurosurgeon with jokes about Bayesian statistics and an unsuppressed excitement that she gets to be awake when he removes all of you that he can.

You cannot take that what hurts her most in all of this is what it means not for her, but for everyone else.

You cannot take the magic she has brought to the lives of countless people all over the globe.  You cannot take the way she has transformed so many of those people into better souls, people who see the best in others, who reach out, who connect, who love and support and laugh and create a bit more every day because they saw her do the same from the very essence of her core.   Newtonian law says that for every action there must be an equal and opposite reaction, but Newton neglected to describe the instance in which that response is slowly built over a lifetime of daily action, such that the reaction manifests in a sudden and amplified tidal wave of support that threatens to drown you right the hell out.

You cannot take the fact that only five days since you announced yourself with this latest horror, our dread and fear is already being displaced by love and peace and resilience and hope.


Last night, the dream came on again.  Only this time, the advancing walls remained translucent, the faces intact.  This time I slide willingly from the board and join them.  I am enveloped, I am carried, I am gently deposited in the shallows while the disembodied faces become corporeal and sit around me.  Last to emerge from the shimmering sea are the two you have most recently sought to take, but here they are, closest to my side, whole and smiling and incandescent.

(February 11 Quick Update: Diana is home and recovering well from the surgery, which was performed by Dr. Allan Friedman at Duke, and as ever for him, was done exceptionally well. For now she just needs to rest and heal, before beginning the next phases of her treatment – those will start in a couple of weeks.  We are getting wonderful care from the Tisch Brain Tumor Center at Duke, as have so many other patients over the years. Unlike with Neva, we are not likely to chronicle every step of the way here for a number of reasons, but we will still share some more general thoughts now and then.  We have learned that sharing those thoughts can provide comfort to others, and that in turn provides comfort to us as well.  Our deepest gratitude to so very many of you our there for your support – it has been extraordinary.)


23 thoughts on “These Things You Cannot Take

  1. Terry McGlynn

    Alan, my gosh, I am struck wordless but I wanted to at least communicate positive thoughts, concern for your family and you, and an incredible admiration for your approach to adversity.

  2. matthewwallenstein

    I’ll be thinking of your family as you go through this. I can certainly relate- one of my dad’s cousins had an amazing cancer journey that was captured in a book written by her sister (Lily Kaplan) called Two Rare Birds: A Legacy of Love.

    1. Lily Myers Kaplan

      Yes, Matt … And Alan … I relate so much to these words in What you cannot take. The spirit shines forth even in the most terrible of times if we have the courage to look death -or brain cancer – right in the eye. It is then that we might find the grit and grist of which we are most truly made…a bit of stardust, after all. Thank you Gabrielle, for sharing this with me, and to Diana for her beauty, resilience, courage and love. My prayers and positive thoughts for healing are with you …

  3. Jenny Fellows

    This is astoundingly beautiful and painful Alan. Your friends are here for you all. No, you cannot take her. And I’m confident you won’t. Diana is clearly too strong, you are all too wonderful. We’re praying for you, and send support. Jenny Farnsworth Fellows Amherst 1990

  4. Pingback: Devastating | The Spandrel Shop

  5. laurent philippot

    I sent an email to Diana and Emily this morning, I didn’t know…I’m so sorry, my thoughts are with your family

  6. schadtc

    I’m still, like many I’m sure, in utter shock about this. I’ve cried, cheered and prayed (yes even prayed!) over the last few days. Ill do my best to keep at my praying and but will definitely be sending as much love as I can tomorrow.
    Stay strong and kick some cancer ass!
    Love you guys!

  7. Sharon Collinge

    Diana, Alan, and Neva — thinking of you all tonight and knowing that you have such strength in your love for each other and in the love all of your friends and family are expressing to you so clearly. You’ll be in my thoughts tomorrow!

  8. jpschimel

    And there is one more action/reaction–the beauty and emotional power of the pieces you have written in response to first Neva, and now, Diana’s trials, are words to uplift and support all of us who read them. They are a reminder of the power, not just of humans, but of humanity. Thank you.

  9. jpschimel

    Reblogged this on Writing Science and commented:
    This isn’t about “Writing Science,” rather it is the ultimate of personal writing by someone who I respect deeply for his science but equally for his humanity and eloquence in the face of deep adversity. I repost it because they are people who are close to me, a message that is equally so, and it shows a power of language. Alan, Diana, and Neva, the thoughts and wishes of all your friends are with you.

  10. powers2013

    Dear Alan, I am at a loss for words… please know that you and your family are in my thoughts, and I am wishing you all the strength to get through this..


  11. Randy J. Cox

    Our hearts and our thoughts, wishes, devotions – all are with you and your family. That you can write like this under these circumstances is astonishing. I have never known such brutally beautiful writing. We await word in this new struggle and wish strength for your entire family.

    Randy and Theresa Cox
    Missoula, Montana

  12. Kathy Meyer

    Alan, I clearly hear in your words your pain, anger and feel the amazing love that has you holding your precious family close! Such eloquent words! Diana is truly a beautiful human being in so many ways and we feel so privileged to know her. We are holding you 3 very close and sending you loving thoughts for healing and strength.
    Kathy and Al

  13. Annie Falk

    Dear Alan – Sending positive thoughts and prayers to you, Diana and Neva. The words and thoughts you share are so uplifting to everyone reading them, and especially to those who have shared your journey.
    Annie Falk & Family

  14. Susan Hurley Nemergut

    I don’t know how many times I’ve read this. Each time, dear Alan, I find your words more moving and more powerful, with truth, beauty and, finally, serenity shining through. When we learned about Neva, you told me that we would tackle her illness day by day, holding on to one another and moving together as a family. I repeated those words to Diana when we first spoke of her cancer. As a family, we will hold on tight to one another, no matter where we are, and move ahead. Our love and faith will carry us through and beyond this! I have been almost overwhelmed by the kindness and support expressed by friends and extended family members, relatives we are just getting to know as we work on a reunion.
    You and Diana have obviously touched so many people in so many ways! I cannot express the pride I feel as I read the responses to your blog. I know her recovery will be difficult but we do not give up! We may slip and fall, we may even vomit in the lake, but we go on! Diana’s strength and optimism, combined with the deep love you have for my daughter will crush this ugly invader.


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