Allison Gruber
14 min readOct 23, 2020


Looking like the reaper; mending; worrying

A few thoughts thirteen days before the presidential election
and thirteen days before I find out if the breast cancer has spread to my lungs


The pandemic started with punk rock, and morphed to 90s Manchester and today I moved into Patsy Cline. I started, of course, with Crazy. Her voice is like wine. So sincere. Women singing about pain. The story of time. Women singing about pain, codifying the agony in what little language we ever had to name the pain of our own existence.


Maybe you can be nowhere now, but maybe you never wanted

to be everywhere; maybe you never wanted Paris or London
maybe you always only loved Kenosha and Chicago and yeah,

Flagstaff a little now, too.

Or maybe someday, you will be in Tokyo for some unknown reason. In a blocky, neon, sterile room where they are stunning cancer cells out of you and pouring a magic milk on your guts — one that smells like roses and tastes like Strawberry Nesquik and, yes, you mean the bad, powdery stuff from the eighties. (Or did it turn out that wasn’t so bad?)

You are convalescing. This is a motif in Western literature: women who convalesce. Almost like it’s their hobby to be sick. Convalesce is what they do for a living. You struggle to think of a canonical work that features men convalescing.

When you were super young, you heard a song called “Convalescing in Spain” by this group called the JudyBats, and you’re fairly sure they were an obscure band because you and your friends would have sooner died than listened to anything even approaching top forty. You were just snobs in Docs and ripped tights who accidentally got strung out on small bands and the most banal of adult bad habits: cigarettes and coffee.

Anyway, you’re convalescing and thinking of that Judybats song, queue it up on Spotify. It’s okay. The guy’s voice is sort of irritating in that “cutesy-90s-hipster-dork” way . . .

You’re convalescing in America.

You’re convalescing in Arizona.

You have stage iv cancer in Arizona.

This is the dumbest story you’ve ever told.

My proverbial “gut” is shockingly on point. 90% of the time it’s right 100% of the time. (The American education system has enabled me to become the kind of person who can quote both Anchorman and The Wasteland flawlessly.)

Seriously though, my friends still ask me, as they have been for years “what does your gut say? What is your gut read? What is your gut feeling?”

Is my gut just my soul? Just this ulcerated bag hanging above my genitals? Is that it? Makes some weird kind of sense that it should be.

I first heard my gut when I was twenty-one.

It told me a baby was going to die.

I tried to shake the thought because it felt like an evil thought.

And then the baby died.


BeCaUSe I wAs hURt

yOu must hurt, too.

That’s what you sound like, Amerikkka.

You sound fucking feral but not in a cute way.

Feral like strands of DNA and culture and courtesies and forgiveness and basic fucking human decency ripping apart at the seams, gored and disembowled in some giant fucking mess of blood slick guts and foamy bile (and yes look at you go girl alluding to Aligheri because you know things that are largely useless now or maybe actually super helpful who fucking knows!)

You sound belligerent, America. You need to go the fuck home now. Wherever that is. Maybe we have to split the house and the kids. I don’t fucking know.

And here’s some Ginsberg because you also think even if it’s all changed even if its all over Ginsberg still counts. You think maybe Aligheri will count, too, a little, when this is all over.

America, to tell you the truth, I’m really fucking scared. I’m really pissed, but I want your arms around me, too.

We’re in a real dysfunctional relationship, America. Have been for a long time. Couples counseling?

You’re a straight up Americasexual and there are no conversion camps for you yet.

I was a colicky baby. They are difficult babies. They cry all the time because they hurt. The mothers understand this. They feel so, so sorry for baby, but colicky babies cry more than other babies and sometimes you’re a woman and maybe you’re too young or maybe you just had this baby because that’s what you were “supposed” to do and maybe sometimes when I was crying, she was crying, quietly, outside in the dark hallway, hesitating to come to me because she was so, so very exhausted and had no idea how much more of this she could take before her mind snapped into uneven halves like a pencil.

I was born with a bellyache.

Ah, quit bellyachin’, my grandfather used to tell us kids when we complained. I haven’t heard that phrase in forever. Maybe I haven’t heard it since he died of cancer in his seventies.

I’m in bed. I am forty-four. It’s four o’clock, the ugliest hour, the most purposeless hour of the day though two and three are also quite noxious. Autumn of a solar day lacks the charm its planet’s organic life possesses. I’m on my fourth Patsy Cline song — as intoxicating as a fourth drink. I have stage 4 cancer.

I’m not in bed because I have cancer — well sort of, but not really. You see, I’m having this really severe Crohn’s flare (no — you’re confusing it with Addisons; Addisons is the eyeballs one; Crohn’s is the bloodshitting one.)

I noticed infomercials made this kinda shy comeback about three months into quarantine. Guess they figured people were watching as much t.v. as they were checking their phones, so why they hell not. Anyway, I’m a sucker for an Infomercial, just marvel at the way they can make minor life inconveniences seem like entire Grecian tragedies that unfold in milliseconds. Seriously. Don’t talk to me about art.

That’s fucking “art.”

So I want a Spurtle.

I’ve seen the infomercial so many times during the pandemic I just want one.

Spurtles are just spatulas of varying sizes.

The inventor’s name is Lucinda, and I really think she thinks she invented spatulas; that in the real dimension, the truer dimension, spatulas were invented by Lucinda who called them Spurtles so you can say whatever the fuck you want about Lucinda and her Spurtles but they just may be a materialization of Plato’s Universal Perfect Form and you’re too shallow to see that because it’s coming at you from an Infomercial.

Or probably it was like that time I thought I invented quesadillas.

But no one told the Spurtle lady the truth.

When she was excitedly describing her domestic carving, to her friend Megan, just like I excitedly detailed the beans and cheese and tortillas that night before the 21st century on a phone attached to a wall to my friend Megan, My Megan said, “Yeah, dumbass. That’s called a quesadilla.”

While Lucinda’s Megan said nothing.

This is why you will often find Luncinda, but never me
selling quesadillas, or spatulas for that matter
on television as a little slice of bologna between
the mealy horrorbread of death, isolation, a country
in the same state as my physical body — hovering somewhere between
mending self and actively dying self. Between literal excruciating pain and literal
blood shitting and figurative blood shitting and figurative excruciating pain. Between those places, but not even entirely — usually got one foot in one, one fist in another. (Attribution: Ricky Rachman because he was fucking art, too.)

My body and the country are one.

I just want the truth.


Last night, I was in the Emergency Room. There all day, actually. Got in around noon, released a bit after 8 p.m. (Going to the hospital feels a little like going to jail now. You have to say goodbye to everyone.) Didn’t even have to wait. In the middle of this fucking pandemic, I was sick enough to get seen to right away.

Pandemic or not, in my defense, I was really fucking sick and I think the young couple smoking on the benches outside, the limping teen, and the lady scrolling her phone pulled through the night.

My heart rate set off alarms. Had to have an EKG. I used to think the only people who got EKGs were chunky, sunburnt, hirsute grandpas.

They gave me a room right away. Hooked me up to shit. All my fucking life “hooked up to shit.” From cradle to grave. Hooked up to one bag or another.

I laid down. Tried to catch my breath

— not because I also had COVID, but because my heart rate was 162 bpm which is why the EKG —

and watched the waves of my vital signs bob in neon green, pink, blue on a monitor to the left. To the right: the drips. Saline. Magnesium.

Nurse took some blood, made me shit into a pan so they could run labs on that, too. I’m used to it, but it’s the one that hurts the most: humiliation. Being a patient, which I’ve been for much of my life, is in part, being chronically humiliated. They try to mitigate it. I know. I understand. I just hate that part maybe the most because my pride is my cleanest, most unsick thing.

It can’t be helped. Being a patient is being humiliated.

Perpetual middle-schooler-with-a-boner-at-the-chalkboard.

Perpetual George-Bush-barfing-on-live-television.

Perpetual John-Travolta-trying-to-introduce-Idina-Menzel.

Thirteen days, the dumbest number of days, to go.

The man on the news says brief exposures, and you hear grief exposures.

We are all fucking burned by grief now. Even of us who remembered to apply high SPF griefscreen at least an hour everyday before actually waking up. Shit, if this ever ends, we all need to get these sadness spots checked the fuck out.

Glad to hear you are feet better, someone comments on a FB status. You know it’s an autocorrect, but also want it to be intentional, too. Feet better is apt. You don’t really feel better unless this is the new “feel better” and — if so, like if this is how you’re going to feel until you shuffle off this mortal coil then you also know there’s a Grand Canyon about fifteen miles away with your “accident-on-purpose” slippage to the bottom.

Now you’re pretty sure the bottoms of your feet — which are big for a woman and which you were often groomed to feel ashamed of/self conscious about, but just never did because what? they’re my fucking feet? — you think the bottoms of your big fucking feet are the last thing to not yet be scorched by grief.


My nurse was a stocky, bearded dude. Classic Flagstaff. Lights on or off?

Uh, off, I said. I don’t know why I chose off. Decisions were hard yesterday. There were cobwebs in my brain which was very spooky and festive because we are, afterall, in the Halloween season, and the only way we can really celebrate things anymore is by hallucinating about what it might be like if we took a time machine to last year.

In any pain? The nurse asked me.

I shook my head, “no.”

Did I want painkillers?


But “no” was the truth about whether or not I was actually feeling physical pain. Wasn’t that what Nancy Reagan told us Gen X-ers? “Just say ‘no’ to drugs, unless you’re in actual physical pain, then all bets are off.”?

We need to love the truth now. We need to play the truth card any time we can.

Could I get a pillow?

We don’t have pillows, he said sheepishly. I can get you a blanket?

Sure, sure. I said. Blanket will do it.

Labs came back fast: severely anemic and potassium deficient.

I regretted not having eaten more bananas. Love to blame myself for all the things. Lifelong bad habit that, blaming myself always — unlike cigarettes and booze, could never manage to kick blaming myself.

What causes low potassium? I asked the nurse.

Chronic vomiting, diarrhea. He told me I was getting four liters of potassium. Four hours of potassium.

I nodded, then started sobbing.

Hey, hey, the nurse came to the bed. You’re safe, dude. You’re safe. His register got a little higher and softer on the last safe and I knew he must be someone’s dad. Possibly the dad to a son having called me “dude” or possibly just a Classic Flagstaffian. (Way too young to be my father, mind you — this was not a “father figure” moment, just a thing I’ve learned about men from having an abundance of dad friends.)

Can I give you something . . .?


How about some morphine? He asked.

Oh, I don’t know . . .

I said this like some poor straight woman on a first date trying to pretend she’s not starving while giving her order to the waiter. I’ll just have a slice of iceberg lettuce and lukewarm tap water. Thanks.

Just a little? I asked. Not enough to make me super out of it?

The morphine was, as always, a magic man.

Like I would seriously sing that Heart song to a bag of morphine.

If you ever find yourself in a hospital setting and in pain, I do recommend that dish.


You’re awake in bed listening to The Supremes.

“Reflections,” of course.

Like you’re the dying woman in a woman’s movie from the 1980s.

One of those McClaine/Nicholsen/perky brunette movies.

One of those movies where the guy gets a Golden Globe for the soundtrack and he’s a little embarrassed because he’s a serious musician but couldn’t refuse the money when Sony Pictures approached him to write “Goodbye to Karen” for Goodbye, Karen: The Story of A Mother Helplessly Watching Her Child’s Brave, Albeit Futile, Struggle with Muscular Dystrophy and Leukemia. He took the gig. Got the Globe. Felt a little weird about it. Went back to making experimental music, which makes him happiest, and doesn’t bring up “Goodbye to Karen” very often unless he’s offered a paid speaking engagement where the audience is specifically interested in hearing about that composition.

You’re listening to “Reflections” because you really feel like you got less sand in the hour glass. You’re sad about it, yeah, because you’re a life junkie. But we’re all fooling ourselves about time anyway.

I might just know something you don’t.

Or I might think I know something I don’t.

Both statements are true simultaneously.

Buddhists say, correctly, we are dying from the moment we’re born.

Think you’d be good at it after four decades practice.

Well, I guess the first decade doesn’t count.

You don’t start getting good at the existential stuff until you’ve at least grasped long division.

And then truth is no one ever gets really good at death or revision.

You are composing an epistle to false bravery. The kind of bravery you fake to protect others from being scared like you are scared.

You’re thinking of the drums that open “Goody Two Shoes.” Megan’s bachelorette party. Fiona painted her own face like Adam Ant and sang Billy Idol.

Megan had a theory about cute guys who survive car and motorcycle wrecks, said they always just fuck up their faces. Her only evidence was Billy Idol and Monty Clift.

You never thought this was enough evidence.

You are writing to exhaustion. Writing to lakes without shores. Writing to fear that you fear yourself, alone because no one else can feel this fear with you.

Approximately, but not precisely.

This is a fear that’s all about an acutely blurry precision.

To quote my wife, I’m sick of living in historical times.

You are writing an epistle to history.

History, could you please come back to me in a time machine when I’m younger and have more energy or when I’m healthier or when I’m dead, please? Can you let me have the last little bit of my life? Like where were you in 1997, historical times? I was fucking waiting for you. I felt fucking great. I was waiting to fight you, history. I went to marches and made posters and checked out theory so obscure and niche it made librarians look at me funny.

History, you’re a fucking coward. Beautiful, but shallow. All your bones and textile scraps and glass chips. What about the artifacts that cannot be displayed in a case?

6. Oh my god. The pain in my gut stops. Fall Day. Blue sky.

So this potato factory laborer takes a skateboard to work while listening to Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” and sipping OceanSpray and he starts lip synching Stevie Nicks while crossing the highway and gesturing out to all the emptiness and posts the video on TikTok and it goes viral and I love it. Watch it twenty times at least. Sometimes smile, sometimes cry. It’s so pure. It’s the only fruit of joy on the tree. I’ve been in bed for days. It’s getting “Yellow Wallpapery” in our blue bedroom. Things are starting to grow eyes. Light and dark became harder to interpret through the drapes.

The dude on the skateboard has a feather tattoo on the back of his head and lip syncs the line where Stevie Nicks’ voice gets really sweet and high: It’s only right that you should play it the way you feel it . . .

It means nothing. It makes me so happy. How could nothing make me cry tears of joy?

I’ve stopped thinking in hours. I think in shades of light.

The day is broken into chunks of lumen and cobalt. Almost always dipped in some shade of music.

The problem, really, with you is that you always want one more taste.

The problem is that the Buddhists are right.

You thought today about how you wanted to go back to Sanibel before you died.

Just one more time. Not Paris, not London, not Rome: Sanibel, Florida.

Because the problem with you is that you think the memory is still there: Pink lightning, sandy Bomb pops, and whispering white waves.

You want one more hit of that moment.

That’s the problem with you

Just one more toke.

And the problem with everybody
is that the memory is only the aftertaste

of the taste and
not the taste itself.

You only get one taste
and the memory of the taste, that shabby comparison, remains
to cool you off a little when, invariably, you find yourself burning fast
toward the end of your hours.

You spat toothpaste. Told yourself, of Sanibel, That was your taste. It was delicious. It’s over. That’s okay.


You feel good in the morning. Make a cup of Earl Grey (can’t have coffee because the Crohn’s is so bad these days) and sit on the stoop. Colors are changing on the trees. You put your puppy, Abe, on his lead and let him snuffle about in dried leaves while you pick them up from the concrete, rub them to crumbs between your thumb and forefinger.

The dog barks at a teenage couple walking past the fence.

What’d I do? The boy says to your dog in mock surprise. His hair is curly, shaggy. T-shirt probably needs to be washed, but he’s a cute kid. You can see and hear his goodness: big nose he hasn’t quite grown into, but that will one day make him handsome. Sloppy, uneven laugh. The smell of his cigarette lingers.

You don’t care that he’s smoking. Wish you could smoke. You could smoke. You could score meth. You could do whatever. You got some choices, but . . . you have responsibilities, too. A responsibility to try for those who need you. A responsibility to not fall apart. Not just yet.

Also, you’re addicted to life. Everything from the puppy’s soft ears to the leaves crumbling in your fingers. From the sky to the bass on the car idling at the red light adjacent from the liquor store that at night is lit up like a vending machine.

My gut seizes a little, thinking about the kid passing by the house, because I’m having one of those aching presentiments that the kid is going to have a hard life.

Lots of third degree burns.

Maybe worse than grief.

What’s worse than grief?

I’ve had a lot of Patsy Cline. Definitely drunk on it.

I’m remembering that scene in the Patsy Cline movie where they show her plane zooming into the Rockies and thinking about how badly the 80s lacked nuance and for that, at least aesthetically, I love the decade.

Most scary movies in the 80s were about one of three things:

1) Nuclear fallout

2) Children dying of rare diseases or being kidnapped by pedophiles

3) White women dying truly depraved deaths at the hands of their rich, white husbands

So the Patsy Cline thing freaked me out.

I don’t think it caused my fear of flying, but it definitely didn’t help.

I used to have a fear of flying. Can you believe that shit?

Like when I was able to fly, I used to fear it. I used to fear flying. I used to go places on airplanes.

And I feared it.

I feared flying.

What the fuck was wrong with me?



Allison Gruber

Educator, essayist, feminist, human.