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Priscila Uppal on the friends who helped her face cancer

In her true story of belonging inspired by the 2014 Massey Lectures, acclaimed poet and author Priscila Uppal shares the illuminating way her friends rallied around her on the cusp of an intensive cancer treatment.

Circle of Light 
By Priscila Uppal

I arrive, as instructed, empty-handed. Which feels strange, but everything feels strange lately, ever since I was diagnosed with synovial sarcoma—a rare cancer that strikes young and healthy people who are not at risk for other cancers. 

Not Priscila! my women writers group exclaimed. At 39, I am regarded as the baby of the lot. The youngest, childless and motherless, who has already lived through her share of darkness. Which is why the ladies have decided to organize this get-together “to wrap Priscila in light” before the three-surgeon, six-hour operation that will, we all hope, result in a complete cure. Kaz is hosting and Sonnet, Diana, Camilla, Ann and Marg arrive bearing tomatoes and scones and books and Russian Caravan tea and that other “tea,” wine. 

Kaz pulls out The Book of Light: a wooden sculpture that is actually a lamp—when opened, the pages emit a fan of white light. Each woman is to tell a story with some connection to light—literal or metaphorical—and then open the book. The room goes silent as we set aside Kaz’s grandmother’s hand-painted teacups. 

One night in Lesbos, Kaz begins. I’d planned to visit her this summer, but was diagnosed the day before my scheduled flight. On an absolutely still night where time itself disappears, this huge gust of wind swept my fire up and into the tree where I saw the face of a woman. I knew it was Sappho. I was visited by Sappho. She opens the book and we sigh in awe.

Well, who can beat Sappho? Camilla gibes.

Sonnet grabs the book. She’s spent the past two years in Kelowna where it can be completely sunny during an utter downpour. She has just recovered from a major surgery, and the day it was clear she needed this surgery, she found herself in a rainstorm. Although I was going to experience loss, I was sure there would be light afterwards.

Next is Marg. Before the Boston Marathon, I was injured. I could no longer aim for a personal best. I needed a new goal. So I decided I would talk to every single person I met along the way. Everyone had an incredible story to share about why they were there. 

Camilla talks about a miserable night alone in London, longing for a baby that, at her age, seemed ridiculous. The moon was gigantic in the sky. And I saw my friend, who died too young, in the face of the moon. I heard her say, Everything’s going to be okay. Today Camilla has a beautiful little girl, Olivia.

Ann conjures her grandmother, a woman of infinite talents forced into unsatisfying work. I would have been a great doctor, she claimed. You are someone who has authored her own life, Ann declares. We are so lucky to author our own lives.

Diana settles on a light-hearted tale. Hiking in Alberta, told that singing is the best way to ward off unwanted bears, Diana belts out a ditty her father taught her as a child:

My girl’s a corker, She’s a New Yorker
I buy her everything
to keep her in style…

I don’t know the song, but others do and join in. 

The circle ends with me. I invoke my dear friend Richard, whose wise words follow me everywhere. Richard always says, Priscila, no matter what horrible things happen to you or around you—and there have been plenty—your instinct is always to move towards the light. Richard said if he were in my shoes, he’d be burning churches, yelling there is no God, no justice. But I told him the only thing worse than having cancer is to have cancer and be angry all the time. That doesn’t sound like fun to me. 

The ladies laugh. I will do my best, no matter how heavy I feel, to move towards the light. I open the book. The light takes a moment to hold us.

While I want to be a cancer survivor, I don’t want to belong to a group defined by illness. But I don’t mind belonging to a group defined by healing. Even as the book is closed, we scatter back out onto the city streets, still blindingly, amazingly, beautifully, a circle of light.

Photos courtesy of the author.

Priscila Uppal was a finalist for the 2013 Governor General's Award in the Nonfiction category for her memoir Projection: Encounters with My Runaway Mother. Priscila is an internationally acclaimed Toronto poet, fiction writer and York University professor. Among her publications are eight collections of poetry, including Ontological Necessities (shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize); and the novels The Divine Economy of Salvation and To Whom It May Concern. In addition to the GG list, Projection: Encounters with My Runaway Mother was also a finalist for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction—Priscila is also a judge for the 2014 prize.


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