Unquarantined Grief

If a novelist were to have his protagonist reading Camus’ The Plague mere hours before learning that his wife has cancer, the irony would be cheap, a postmodernist Henny Youngman joke. Yet I was indeed reading The Plague on the day I learned that Margaret, my wife, had two brain tumors.

It was not entirely by coincidence that I was rereading a novel I’d first read at eighteen, when my father was dying from cancer, and read again when I was thirty and my donation of a kidney failed to save my sister’s life. It sounds morbid to sum up events this way, but it hadn’t felt like that. After the deadly contagion in fictional Oran fades, and the quarantine is lifted, the doctor-narrator of The Plague marvels at how quickly survivors resume their old outlook; in my case, my sister had been dead only a few weeks when I slipped back into the comfortable shoes of my old life, and Death once again became a character in stories about other families. I didn’t reopen The Plague until Margaret became ill.

Assessing symptoms that included fatigue, headaches, and failing memory, her doctor gradually ruled out this or that possible cause and tentatively concluded that she had chronic fatigue syndrome. Margaret no longer possessed the energy—or the eyesight—for reading, and it was an optometrist who finally convinced the doctor to order the scan that revealed the...

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About the Author

Mark Phillips’s writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Salon, Saturday Review, and many other journals.