Down to the Bone: A Leukemia Story by Catherine Pioli
In France, there is a long tradition of telling some harsh truths under beautifully rendered images. We’ve talked about infertility (In Vitro) and, in passing, I mentioned Cancer Vyxen by Marisa Acocella Marchetto. Now I am here to reflect upon this story.
First appearing in France in 2018, this graphic novel has a very soft and delicate way of telling you a harsh and complicated truth: sometimes deadly diagnoses have a point of no return.
It is a truth that no one wants to hear: not the patient, not the parents, not the lovers. Catherine is diagnosed with acute leukemia, and since she is an incredible professional illustrator, she decides to document her journey in detail. The stem cells that cannot recognize their role in her immune system are so perfectly drawn, a deadly form of cancer depicted as green, babyish, and dumb.
Honestly, I think I started crying at about halfway through because I have been there with my kiddo (mercifully without chemo), and a friend of mine has just recovered from chemo (and covid) after two grueling years. This is an incredible testimony of the sheer number of things doctors will not tell you:
It will hurt
Chemo leaves you weak and the more you do it, the less strength you will find within yourself to plod through
If it’s fatal, people avoid the issue of telling you, and very probably, you will not want to hear about it, either
It will take all the money you can scrounge, and more, unless you have insurance, which Miss Pioli mercifully had
When we were at the hospital, and afterward, at home, there was something very soothing about human contact and the simple presence of loved ones. When the pandemic hit, many patients lost that privilege, because of the risk of infection, but, you know what? Maybe just being there is what matters the most.
If you have a sick relative, just go, do not be afraid if you see them bald or skinny or tired—that is just their body fighting the disease and the meds. The consciousness, and the spirit, are there too, and they truly rejoice in your presence.
It makes it all better, somehow. JUST BE THERE.
I did not get religion, over the loss of my kid, but I did get a growing sense of acceptance and wonder out of life. I have now talked to a number of friends who have rallied through chemo, and I have to tell you, there is a secret within—to accept whatever outcome and be at peace with it. Because you cannot control life, life has a habit of getting out of your hands and engulfing you whole, as Miss Pioli carefully depicts in a part of her novel.
There are a number of resources I found profoundly useful after my son’s demise. Anita Moorjani, oh, you have to go and listen to her wonderful story. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross and the letters from her young patients. Chimamanda Adichie. This was my mourning group.
However, loss takes on a different hue for everybody, and we don’t get to talk about death often enough. If we did, perhaps we could make different decisions about treatment and whether to stay at the hospital or just be at home.
My favorite part of Catherine’s story had to do with her loved ones. Her pregnant twin sister, her boyfriend, her parents, and her friends, all of them in the same boat, being sincere, humorous, lucid, and fearful—crying in bathrooms and saying that they are not crying, saying it with sincerity when they cannot have enough strength to watch her body fail her, donating bone marrow and doing what is right for her in any way they can.
When a person gets sick, the entire family suffers, but, as our doctor said each time she entered the room in the hospital, you could feel the love in there, and love is what lingers the most.
Publisher: Graphic Mundi – Psu Press
Publish Date: December 13, 2022
BISAC Categories: Medical (Incl. Patients) Nonfiction – Biography & Memoir
Diseases – Cancer Death, Grief, Bereavement
Featured image by Catherine Pioli, all images belong to Dark Horse Comics