Lopsided — How Breast Cancer Can Be Really Distracting by Meredith Norton.

About a week ago I wrote about a memoir I had recently read, and why it was a failure.  Today I’m writing about one that is a success.

That memoir is Meredith Norton‘s Lopsided, which has the subtitle of How Breast Cancer Can Be Really Distracting, and is probably the funniest book I’ve read in a while.  Yes, I know it’s about cancer, but that doesn’t change the fact that it turned me into The Crazy Girl on the subway — you know, the one who was pitched over laughing and with whom the other commuters tried to avoid accidental eye contact.  That was me with the cut-off gloves, wiping away tears and sliding helplessly out of her seat.

From all appearances, Ms. Norton was living an enviable life; after all, she had just moved into a Parisian apartment with her French husband and their young child.  She spent her time exploring the city, learning the language, cooking European-friendly food (I thought she would make hamburgers, her husband’s client says) and being mistaken for a prostitute.  When a series of French doctors dismiss Ms. Norton’s medical concerns (which range from a whistling nose to a tightness in her chest), she takes advantage of a scheduled trip home to visit an American physician — who promptly tells Ms. Norton that she has inflammatory breast cancer and a forty percent chance of surviving the next five years.

Most people* would take this news and promptly freak the hell out, but Ms. Norton reacts differently.  She freaks out all right, but somehow she finds time between breakdowns to also find little bits of levity here and there.  She writes, “…at the supermarket with my friend Rebecca, I reached to scratch over my ear and all the hair peeled off — like a piece of Velcro. We stood holding the patches and laughed until our cheeks ached.”

Ms. Norton also gleefully details her peeling feet, an after-effect of chemotherapy, and looking forward to seeing her post-mastectomy sutures; she had been, she says, the kind of kid who delightedly removed her spayed cat’s stitches.  I can definitely see how these graphic chronicles could easily gross a certain kind of reader out — for example, how many people could possibly take pleasure in reading about the excitement Ms. Norton felt when fitted with an indwelling catheter?  Turns out I do, and not just because it’s hard to offend or horrify me (unless you’re brushing your teeth in my presence).  It’s because Ms. Norton writes with clarity and humor about these so-called disgusting things.  Let’s use the catheter as an example.  Ms. Norton, who had previously used a catheter after her pregnancy, writes:

“It seems odd to adore a tube hanging from your crotch, attached to a plastic bag filled with warm urine, but I did.  I’d spent the previous nine months running to the toilet every twenty minutes, day and night. The last two months I ran to the toilet and still peed on myself when I stood up afterward. It drove me crazy.  Urinating effortlessly and at my leisure into a bag was downright luxurious.”

Though I’ve neither been pregnant nor used a catheter, when it’s described like that I can clearly understand Ms. Norton’s joy in it, just as I can plainly imagine the empty loss portrayed in these two sentences regarding her mastectomy: “There were no black stitches, no gruesome scar. It was just gone.”

What’s tricky about reading a memoir is that there’s not often the convenient sense of closure as in a work of fiction.  This is particularly true about those writers whose works capture a specific time in their lives, or times, as the case may be for M.F.K. Fisher, Ruth Reichl, Augusten Burroughs and other prolific memoirists.  It’s also true for Ms. Norton, but in her defense, who in “real life” can say he or she got that aforementioned closure following every obstacle encountered?  Even Ms. Norton understands this; after she has endured almost twenty weeks of intense chemotherapy and its side-effects, a mastectomy, countless prescriptions and more than fifty radiation treatments, she too looks for finality.  “There [I was],” she muses, “with the same annoying habits and bad manners, ungrateful, pessimistic, undisciplined, and bored. [I was] just as mediocre as when this whole drama began.”

It’s key that readers of Lopsided can look past that, the lack of conclusion, and focus instead on Ms. Norton’s ability to not only convey her humor, but also her matter-of-factness.  This is neither a heroic nor feel-bad-for-me cancer book, and Ms. Norton is adamant that readers do not feel that way.  Instead, Lopsided is a but a piece of a life.  “Nothing else has happened, but it will. As my father says: ‘None of us gets out of here alive,'” she writes.  “But life really is too short to worry. Against all the odds, I am here to celebrate [my son’s] fourth birthday on the third anniversary of my cancer diagnosis. For now, that’s enough.”

And for me, regarding this book, it is.

* Me.

In Case Anyone Was Wondering…

Here’s a small list of items I wouldn’t mind unwrapping on December 25, in alphabetical order.

  1. Best Food Writing 2008 edited by Holly Hughes
  2. Commercial-grade cookie sheets x 2
  3. Influence by Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen
  4. iPod nano, in either orange or purple
  5. Mad Men, seasons one and two
  6. On the Line by Eric Ripert and Christine Muhlke
  7. Salt and pepper piglets from Nigella Lawson
  8. Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky
  9. Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh
  10. With Bold Knife and Fork by M. F. K. Fisher

I also wouldn’t say no to a pair of puppies, a bunny or purple slipper socks.