I’ve never met Mark McKinnon, the Austin political media guru. But I’ve always heard he’s a good guy — even if he did help to bring us eight years of George W. Bush.
Today, though, McKinnon moves from the political to the highly personal as he writes about the “gift” of his wife’s cancer in the Daily Beast. (I hope to God he didn’t write that headline himself.) In some ways, it’s a warm, touching story about a lucky guy who grows up and realizes the important things in life — you know, love and family — when his wife is diagnosed with a deadly form of cancer.
In too many other ways, though, it’s self-congratulatory bullshit and it made me want to scream.
The essay starts out with gratuitous references to McKinnon’s many successes, replete with famous names. Then, after you wade through a trove of the prominent and well-known and reviled, it moves on to the heart of the matter. McKinnon’s wife is diagnosed with a highly aggressive form of cancer with only a 15 percent survival rate. Being a fighter, though, a “Lance Armstrong in skirts,” she raises her chin and says she feels sorry for the other 85 percent. Because, you see, she has a great attitude and she’s going to live.
I’ve heard that McKinnon’s wife, too, is a lovely person. I’m happy that she survived a deadly form of cancer — for her sake, her husband’s, their two children’s.
But doesn’t her husband understand what he’s saying when he writes about her miraculous survival the way he does? Maybe he thinks he’s writing only about his wife, but he’s not. He’s also implicitly referring to the other, pitiable 85 percent who didn’t make it. And it seems to be their fault, since they weren’t as wonderful, as determined, as combative as his wife. They didn’t have her attitude, they weren’t like Lance Armstrong in drag, they ended up dead, tough luck.
I’m one of the lucky myself — even if my odds were closer to fifty-fifty — so I take this very personally. It’s personal because I lived and so many of my friends did not.
Let me tell you about them: All in all, they were better people than I am. They went through repeated biopsies, surgeries, chemotherapies, radiations with incredible, valiant resolve. They didn’t feel sorry for themselves. They just kept pushing and doing anything they could to survive.
Some went through excruciating rounds of experimental therapies that made them violently ill. You hear about some of the “miracles” that occasionally result from these therapies; what you usually don’t hear is that the vast majority of them don’t work.
But their attitudes — God, they were incredible, indomitable! They were some of the flintiest, most resilient people I’ve ever known in my life. They “deserved” to live, but it didn’t matter. They died, anyway — my friends Martha and Katherine and Clare and Roxy and so many others. And Donna, who moved heaven and earth to live to see her three children grow up; her oldest child came to see her in the hospital, dressed up in his high-school graduation cap and gown, a few days before she died.
But McKinnon doesn’t seem understand it’s possible to write about his wife’s survival, to celebrate it and her and her tremendous spirit without impugning others who weren’t so fortunate. Cancer is complicated, wily, unpredictable. It helps to have good health insurance, supportive family and friends. But attitude isn’t the panacea McKinnon seems to think it is. He says he’s a lucky person, but it’s clear to me he has no idea what a great role luck, sheer luck, played in his wife’s survival.
It’s a wonderful thing to be lucky. But it’s tragic and short-sighted and insulting to others who weren’t so fortunate to take credit for luck and call it attitude. Life and cancer aren’t fair and they aren’t barometers of character. Maybe someday, McKinnon will mature enough to realize that.
(Copyright 2010 by Ruth Pennebaker)
See another of my favorite posts about survival of the fittest doesn’t always apply