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While reading Mary Cappello’s Called Back: My Reply to Cancer, My Return to Life, I was reminded of a lovely phrase that has endured in Japanese culture and literature for more than a thousand years: Mono no aware—the sadness of things. The fleetingness of things.
And the translation I love best: The ahh-ness of things.
I understand it to refer to the poignant beauty of a passing season, the span of a life, ache of the ephemeral, images replacing images, each one precious in its impermanence—the ahh-ness of things.
Ephemeral is a beautiful word. This is all ye know and all ye need to know. Across the table of a simple lunch, it makes me want to find Jean’s lips with my lips and kiss them. (Cappello, p. 33)
My interpretation of the Japanese aesthetic has my own spin to it, of course, but I would say that my spin is simply a part of this moment’s ephemera, just as Mary Cappello’s numerous spins in Called Back are essential and compelling; each one presenting the reader with a gallery of images, the collage of a life, a feast that stretches the entire length of a Great Hall.
Cappello’s spin-offs comprise much of the stuff of this richly meditative memoir. Her wonder-filled riffs are wholly human: profane and always sacred.
The age-old idea of a “laying on of hands” cannot be underestimated because in the interstitial space of cloud remnants parted by mountain peaks, in this space above ground where the air is thin and yet where I also sensed knolls, clay pots, and trees, I experienced a visitation from a group of deceased relatives…They looked at me with faces of concern but also of confidence and ok-ness as they performed a ritual they appeared to know by heart: together they were massaging my feet and my legs. (p. 57)
There are riffs on hiking boots, riffs on Proust, Dickinson, black mold, the academy, on hair, on Italy, and riffs on listing—Oh, the lists!
Here’s Cappello at the beginning of a delightful list of observations involving the number three, which she spins over several pages: A needle in a port can’t be removed on the count of two because it takes at least two beats for the person being acted upon to learn the length of the interval that will precede the final act: “Three!” (p. 109)
Then (these are just a sampling):
A duet is beautiful but a romantic triangle is more interesting… (p. 109)
It’s obvious that Three Stooges are better than two… (p. 110)
On the count of three, tell me: am I going into or coming out of a trance? (p. 114)
Called Back is a book to savor and reflect upon—to read again, to keep close.
It was my first Mary Cappello book and I felt a small shock of sadness as I realized how much of her work I’ve missed over the past few years; then I felt one of equal pleasure when I realized there’s more waiting for me, both in the past and to come.
There is something amazing about meeting a woman right after she’s come out of the ring alive.
I’m pretty sure the last thing Cappello feels like or wants to be is anyone’s hero, but she’s one of mine, hands down. What she’s given us in this terrifyingly conscious narrative of a woman replying to cancer, returning from the grip of it, is nothing less than a hyperawareness of aliveness—hers first, welcome back!—but through the power of her reflections and the force of her dogged, fierce survival, ours as well.
My Reply to Cancer, My Return to Life
by Mary Cappello
Paperback, 207 pages, $15.95