Imagine an immigrant living on a country road near Durham, North Carolina with her husband, also an immigrant, and four children aged 8 to 13, managing her household on a tight budget. It is 1970. She has a high school education, no other nearby relatives, and no longstanding friendships in the neighborhood. And she is reading Cancer Ward, by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who won the Nobel Prize that year. That was my mother and I am trying to imagine whether this very serious book is how she entertained herself when her kids were at school and the housework was done (was it ever done?) or if it was something she plowed through to talk about with my father, who was fascinated by Russia.
I finally finished Cancer Ward after owning it for roughly 15 years. As I was reading it, the character of Vadim, who has a fatal melanoma, reminded me of my mother’s long ago foray with Solzhenitsyn. When I was in 8th grade, she became so concerned that the large thick mole on my lower back could be cancerous that she took me to a dermatologist to have it removed. I remember two trips to the doctor; the first when she told him that we were there because she read Cancer Ward which alerted her to the potential danger of large moles. The second trip was for the removal. I have a clear memory of lying on my stomach and the pinpricks of the local anesthesia on my back and then later seeing the mole (not malignant) floating in liquid in a jar.
I believe I remember this so clearly because, like all children, I wanted attention and this event was one of the rare instances when I received special attention. (Such events were so memorable that I could do another blog post about the one other time that I remember receiving special attention.)
Cancer Ward’s story of cancer patients and their caretakers in the Soviet Union of the 1960s are dark and moving and I loved the recognizable influence of Tolstoy, who will keep his several inches on my bookshelves because I am likely to re-read War and Peace, Anna Karenina and some of his shorter novels. However, since I don’t think I will want to re-read Cancer Ward, I am giving it to a friend. Even though it brought back such a powerful memory of my mother, I have many strong memories and many irreplaceable physical souvenirs of her — china, linen, silver, pictures, handiwork. What I would love and cannot have is to ask her what else she got out of Cancer Ward beyond confirming that a mole would not kill her eldest child