Late this spring, my foster dog Sally unexpectedly died. I should’ve known she had cancer, but I not a veterinarian, and I didn’t think to apply Occam’s razor to the growing list of her ailments. She came to me rotund with extra weight, and over the course of eight months, lost so much that her beautiful tawny fur hung off her in ripples. She started to stumble into walls, and the short trip to the front yard left her breathless. One Sunday in May, she had a seizure, and I knew something was terribly wrong. All the way to the emergency room, her heart beat steadily under my palm, but within the hour, the critical care vet had diagnosed anemia, severe muscle wasting, and metastatic cancer. I was bereft. I let her go.

I’ve had chronic fatigue syndrome for over fifteen years, and for my comprehensive exams in English literature, I put together a list of twentieth-century illness literature. It’s not a death list, but narratives in the cancer section often end with that unauthorized coda. I had assumed that W;t, Margaret Edson’s 1993 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, was autobiographical and thus a story of survival, but it is completely fictional, a composite of the playwright’s work in the cancer and AIDS unit of a research hospital while she was in college. The action follows Donne scholar and university professor Vivian Bearing as she enrolls in experimental chemotherapy for stage IV ovarian cancer. From her sick bed in the hospital, Vivian leads us through an analysis of Donne’s Holy Sonnets until she can take us no farther, and then the research intern and head nurse take over to close out the play.

Since Sally passed, the netherworld of death has hovered very close, a ghostly afterimage blurring my otherwise vivid existence. I can’t decide which plane of reality is more real: that of life or of death. Not unlike Donne and Vivian, I can’t reckon with the dull, mad fact of absolute oblivion; really I can only handle the relative truth that for now, I must live without my dog. In its split-stage conclusion, W;t poignantly captures this paradox of the human condition. On the spiritual plane, as Vivian’s life slips away, she steps out of bed, disrobing from her hospital gown and bracelet, to reach for the light shining above her; on the physical plane, the research intern confronts his unexpected grief at her loss when he forgets her do-not-resuscitate order and calls in the code team to revive her. The team scoffs at his amateur error and leaves; meanwhile, Vivian has transcended to Donne’s afterlife, wherever it is. I admire this scene for its brilliant use of the dramatic format and Edson’s graceful display of how life goes on even as it ends.

– Genevieve Guzmán (Ph.D. Student)