Robin Yassin-Kassab

Thank You for the Cancer

with 5 comments

20170510_184516Writerly wisdom states that the best possible outcome of a writing course is to find a person who will become a critical reader of your work in its early stages, someone on your wavelength. I found that person in Adrian Barnes, while we were doing an online MA in Creative Writing. He lived in British Columbia, I was living in the Sultanate of Oman, but we became closer than the screen.

Adrian had already written several self-published novels and a volume of poetry. His “Satan a la Mode” – a Carrollian book of word-play, farce and philosophy – was completed and would later (in 2012) be published with illustrations by Yuliya Kashapova. While our course lasted he was working on a wonderful (sadly still-unpublished) novel called “Neverhasbeen.” He also parented his sons, taught college students, started several local newspapers, wrote songs, and sang and played the guitar.

In 2012 he published “Nod”, which is literary science fiction, an intellectual treatment of a sleepless apocalypse. Readers recognised its strength, and the book took off. There’s even talk of a TV version. Adrian’s writing career seemed truly underway.

Then one day he was driving to visit a friend in the US, listening to James Brown on the stereo, and realised he could only hear the great man’s voice, not the backing music. He went for tests, and was told he had a brain tumour, or more precisely, a Glioblastoma Multiforme, with a kill rate of over 99%.

He underwent an operation to cut the thing out. He woke up in pain and confusion to be told the operation had been unsuccessful. Thereafter he was unable to read and found writing almost impossible. Time bewildered him.

I’m having trouble with words and numbers – and getting more and more heavy. But, weird though this may sound, I am beginning to wonder if it’s actually a good thing.

I can’t believe in words and numbers. Instead I am in the midst of reality, and what I see is love. Now that sounds kind of hippie-like, but it’s true (the hippies got a lot right, though we love to mock them). I see love and joy, and things I want to do – or not do – and they don’t have a lot to do with words and numbers.


Adrian and Liam

The only exception is money. I’m still stuck with it. But in a better world, I could be like our local guy who’s lived in the woods for 40 years. People in the town give him food and shelter him when it’s too cold. He has no possessions, but he does have visions. I’m not there quite yet. I have enough money so I have no need to worry, but I worry about money itself, the inequality of its distribution. I’ve always seen money as evil. We can choose either beauty or money. Fat people, and men in fat cars,consume in order to hide from the beauty. They are scared, so they buffer and shield themselves.

I have a hard time now when I try to react to morning and night. There are so many words you can use. Early, late, sun up, sun down – I don’t even know what these mean. I take my drugs two times a day and I’m still working on what words I should use. At present I’m using a picture of eggs for morning and a picture of potatoes for evening.

Concerning Adrian’s condition, ironies abound – and not only the obvious, bitter one of a writer having his linguistic capacities tumbled. In “Nod”, everyone (except one in a thousand) suddenly stops sleeping, and sanity soon slips. Since Adrian wrote the book, science has discovered that sleep deprivation boosts the activity of glial cells, which eat away synapses. These are the cells mushrooming in Adrian’s brain.

Alongside such topics as zero-dimensionality and hypothetical love, “Satan a la Mode” is greatly concerned with metaphor. The Goldfish Madonna – a character inspired by Adrian’s ex-wife Charlene – tells the eponymous hero that “metaphors are how God fills in infinity”, and that they can be composed of any two things. “How about this one?” squeals Satan, defiantly. “‘Love is Cancer’. Try that one on for size!” Of course the Goldfish Madonna fits the challenge perfectly: “Acts of love,” she says, “are alien invaders that come from somewhere outside of us. Unbidden, they enter the deepest recesses of our hearts then proceed to destroy all our plans for the future as they conquer us, cell by cell.”

Here’s Adrian’s recent note on the cancer metaphor:

Cancer turned out to be a metaphor for the pain in my life. So I had to examine my life, not least the difficult aspects of my childhood. My mental and emotional pain became physical and could not be ignored. My current brain and my past had to be dealt with at once.

Lately I’ve had a lot of pain, and the way it happens is, it comes from the cold and the sun and from other parts of my body. It all bumps into my skull and hurts.

I make a joke that this is the last thing God can do to me, because he’s already drugged me, broken my brain and taken everything from me – from my heart, essentially.

I also make a joke about the Biblical  story of Job. Here God and the devil sit down and discuss the end of the world. The devil brags, “I can destroy all your human beings,” and God says, “Nah – I don’t think so.” The devil replies, “Just give me one man, and I will destroy him, and you will see.”  And so God searches until he finds Job, and He says, “Okay, that’s the one I choose, the most trusting and religious man in the world.” God gives the devil permission to do whatever he wants.

It’s an amazing story. It’s the only time in the Bible that you see these two figures in one place. God, who is everything, and the devil, who’s a part of it. Where does the devil get his power? From God, because  God, as we define Him, is the source of all power in the universe.

I wonder what it all means. Christians have been thinking about this problem for hundreds of years. All religions love the universe, but the universe contains evil.

I’ve lost my brain, relationships, my careers. I’ve lost everything I’ve ever done, and now my body is being taken, and I’m in pain all the time.

So I’m not really joking when I say, this is it. This is the last thing the devil, or God, can do to me, because everything else is gone and wrecked. And I say to the devil: “Too bad for you, buddy.” Then I wink at God, and God gives me the thumbs up: “It’s alright Dude – it’s all cool.”

And I actually believe that’s true, because I’ve gone through the worst. And I can now truly love and admire every human being I see. Even animals too. I look in their eyes and see they too suffer a lot of pain. We are the same.

I feel like I’m near the end of it, and I’m happy. I have peace and love in my life, which is all I could ever hope for.

This is indeed the effect that illness and impending mortality has had on Adrian. He seems, to some extent at least, to have overcome his ego, which is now threatened anyway with annihilation. This in turn expands his capacity for empathy. In his wanderings he befriends all kinds of lonely people, and has developed something of an obsession with eyes and human (and animal) connection.

He started a new drugs regime, meanwhile, adding meds prescribed by a British doctor to those advised in Canada. And two years after its first appearance, the tumour shrank by 90%. Three months later it was the same subdued size. That meant he was able to visit me in Scotland. We walked in the Highlands, and talked.

Then he received a new diagnosis. The tumour was growing again, and he had three months to live. That was a little over three months ago.

I booked a flight to British Columbia, remembering Nod’s opening sentence: “It’s getting harder and harder to tell the living from the dead.” I half expected a death bed scene. Instead, in the week I was there, we climbed hills, played disc golf in snow, rain and sun, sang karaoke, went to the cinema, went on a road trip, took a ferry, drank whisky, and again talked at great length. And I watched him and his friend recording a song (he composed, sang and played; Tim mixed it). He was living furiously, making the most of each moment. Since I left, he started running every day.

His sons’ names elude him, so he speaks of “my boy” and “my other boy”. He calls disc golf “the Game”. (Not having experienced this Canadian craze before, for a while that’s what I thought disc golf was called, definitively, as if it were the only game in the world.) Once he referred to the Lord of the Rings, but couldn’t find the name. “It’s about little hippies following a big hippy,” he explained. He calls Vancouver “the big machine”.

His mental maps have disintegrated. Spatially speaking, only spots of light remain. Seeking to guide Liam (his second son, our driver) through Vancouver, where he’d lived, studied and written, this confused and frustrated him.

My visit allowed me to discover actual Rossland, Adrian’s chosen hometown, as opposed to Rosedale, or Nosedale, as his novels transfigure it. For me, the fiction came before the reality. For him, our roadtrip was a journey of memory. We drove from Rossland via gold mines and mountain ranges to the “gargantuan fragility” (Nod) of Vancouver’s glass towers. We found the grassy patch overlooked by totems outside the Museum of Anthropology where Adrian used to write. And the spot at the University of British Coumbia where, in a dream he once dreamt then wrote down in “Nod”, a clock tower, and time itself, exploded.

I was talking to this great young guy who took me out to ski. He was worried about me. He didn’t think I was exercising enough. But I said, “You know, that is you wanting me to be stronger, but I know exactly where I’m at, and I have nowhere to go.”  I used to do that to myself. I would tell myself I should exercise, write, and so on. We all do it when we’re young and we have the impulse to live.  It’s fine, but it doesn’t last for ever. And now people want to do it for me. My brother-in-law wants me to drink. Others want me to smoke pot. They want to prove that I’m living – even if just a tiny bit.

It’s difficult for everybody when I say, “I’m sorry, this is as far as I can go.” It makes me seem a scary guy.  But I’m not scary at all.

I’m getting a better understanding of it. All of our lives are little stories. You know: “I’m cool, my friends are cool”, or: “I’m smart and my friends are smart.”  These are fictions, and they don’t really matter. We just exist, and we have to accept that. That’s what I do now. I accept – I feel whole. I’m freaking people out as a result.

20170508_020341Back to the fat people and their fat cars – metaphors for all of us wrapping ourselves inside stories. Cushioning ourselves.

Adrian still does it too. He often speaks of writing more books, experiencing more relationships, travelling further, as if he’ll live for a thousand years. Then he confesses his own denial. We are programmed for survival, designed to fight our way out of holes, and fear strikes him at moments. He wrote “Nod”, as he later recounted in the Daily Beast, because “I wanted to explore what happens when the world ends, while some of us watch it with our eyes painfully open.”

His eyes are wider than they were. He weeps freely, and thanks friends and family for their love. He practises meditation.

Mortality adds poignancy to the passing instants, and clarity to experience. While I was with him, it infected me too. Each perception is tinged by sadness and fear, but also by a brightly-burning wonder.

All of our moments are limited. The difference is Adrian knows it.

We all wonder what’s going to happen next. We try to see over the fence. I feel the cancer has made me a little taller. So I turn it around: I’m lucky to have cancer.

We can’t choose a future and we can’t choose the past. We just have to live. That’s all there is to it. If we know and believe these things, we can just sit in the moment.

It’s a beautiful morning and so quiet that maybe I can hear my head vibrating. But when you let fear go, suddenly, what do you hear? Silence. Letting go of it all is what matters, and I feel grateful that I’m coming to that.

I always want to say, “Thank you God,” but I don’t think thanks are necessary. Thanks is another projection.


Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

December 20, 2017 at 6:19 pm

Posted in Meditation

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5 Responses

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  1. Thank you for sharing this… I already love Adrian


    December 20, 2017 at 6:50 pm

    • What a wonderful guy. I shall try to learn from him.


      December 20, 2017 at 7:43 pm

  2. Thank you, Robin. I figure the hippies got most things right, but they picked and chose them from the same tortured history we’re still living in today. Big, big thanks to Adrian for the vision of a hippy Job.

    Fred Mecklenburg

    December 21, 2017 at 2:48 am

  3. Tears welling up, but thanks to both of you. Beautifully told.


    December 21, 2017 at 9:50 am

  4. Beautiful words. You were both blessed to have such a unique friendship, and also to share that special time together. Thank you for sharing these words with us.


    January 6, 2018 at 5:02 pm

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