An illustration of a bird perched on some Mountain Laurel
The Only Fact We Have
A professor confronts the uncertainty of life

I pull out of the garage, past the baby lettuce growing in the planter, the swiss chard and arugula. Their bright green arrests me, glowing against the drab morning of early spring. Also, the native grasses in my yard—sea oats, gamagrass, cedar sedge. It isn’t just the green, though, that makes me stop, set the brake. The lesser goldfinches at the feeder, crisp black against yellow. The wren darting to the mountain laurel, its blossoms about to unfurl. Another week and the air will be heavy with the smell of grape Kool-Aid and the buzz of bees
ecstatic in purple worlds.

What if this is my last spring?

A week of adrenaline and fear. But also, things like this pause in the driveway.

A hundred times a day, something like Life calls out to me, Will you just look at that!?

My six-year-old’s soft cheek. My students bouncing into office hours. Dr. Dupertuis standing on the stairs of Dicke Hall, the warmth of his smile. A perfect sentence from Urrea, Didion, Kingston.

What if this is my last spring?

If it is, I will soak it all up. I will not miss a single blessed thing.

I release the brake.

The ultrasound technician and radiologist let me watch the biopsy needle enter my breast on the screen.

“I’m a writer,” I say. “I ask a lot of questions.”

They answer them, the gauge of the needle, the names of tools, their education, how it is to be a woman in their field.

I try to teach my creative writing students to observe details and to be curious and to ask questions. Today, those very habits help me find joy in a needle biopsy; in the weeks to come, surgery, radiation. I don’t yet know it, but cancer will show me that I’ve been teaching my students how to survive as well as how to write.

The night of my cancer diagnosis, I shiver uncontrollably, no matter how many layers I put on, no matter how closely I wrap myself around my husband’s sleeping form. Have you ever been in fear for your life? No, like, for reals. It sucks.

As my husband and I sit in the surgeon’s waiting room, I crack joke after bad joke. I keep him in stitches while we wait to find out if I am going to die sooner or later. I will be proud of this for weeks.

“The words I want you to take away from today’s consultation are very treatable,” my surgeon says. Easy cancer; I’ll probably be fine. But death feels closer than it ever has.

The day before surgery, I teach Baldwin: “Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death—ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life.”

For me, perhaps, perhaps not, that last sunset will come sooner than I reckoned. But let us not sacrifice all the beauty of our lives; let us still observe, note it. For me, at this moment: My brilliant students gathered around a seminar table, grappling with these hard, gorgeous words. 

The image was created using artificial intelligence and was edited by Laura Rodriguez.

Kelly Grey Carlisle, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the English Department. She is an award-winning essayist and the author of the memoir We Are All Shipwrecks, for which her travels took her to the Dr. Oz Show and the Nebraska state prison.

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