R.I.P.: Facts


Three facts:

Recurrence rates for testicular cancer beyond two years seem to be less than 5% and may be in the 2-3% range.

I don’t believe in god or fate but I do believe in self-fulfilling prophecies.

Everything gray, nothing black and white.

Personal facts:

I have never been in a death-defying car crash or slipped on a hiking path and nearly fallen off of a ravine. No one close to me has died as a result of a sudden, tragic event. The only death I’ve directly experienced is my grandfather’s, who passed at the sensible age of ninety-one. I have been lucky.

New facts:

A month ago, someone young, relatively speaking, not even forty, someone I was falling in love with, told me his blood tests had come back “problematic,” ambiguous in their meaning, murky, like the swamp in which he was born and fled. He had been sick three times before, before I knew him, in his early twenties. One of those times he was supposed to die, but by some miracle of eastern medicine—shark enemas and vegan fare and daily miles sweated out in the Mexican desert—or, more likely, through sheer luck, he survived. The blood tests said it might have returned.

Upon hearing this news I could point to certain facts and say, yes, of course, that’s how life works.


Death is indiscriminate.


Death is inevitable.


Beyond two years, there is less than a 5% but more like a 2-3% chance that this is going to wreck everything.

Can facts die like people, like hope or wind, under the right circumstances? And die in the sense that they become irrelevant, inappropriate, inept?

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the psychologist who first proposed the concept of “the five stages of grief,” writes in her book On Death and Dying that perhaps we can never accept this idea of the fatal illness, in ourselves or in others:

in our unconscious, death is never possible in regards to ourselves. It is inconceivable for our unconscious to imagine an actual ending of our own life here on earth, and if this life of ours has to end, the ending is always attributed to a malicious intervention from the outside by someone else. In simple terms, in our unconscious mind we can only be killed; it is inconceivable to die of a natural cause or of old age.


It was inconceivable for both of us. He denied my commitment to support him through the process, expressing instead his commitment to isolation; he raged when I suggested he move up his doctor’s appointments, so we could know something sooner, and then fell into tears, both of us dabbing at our mottled faces in his apartment’s dark kitchen. One night, he said he would go to the grocery store and didn’t come back until the next morning; he said he had driven an hour and a half to his parent’s house, falling asleep in his childhood bedroom. I prostrated myself at the universe’s feet, one to which, in the logic of my day-to-day existence, I didn’t ascribe any reason or purpose, asking the laundry list of ‘why’s”: why, why now, why to this person, why to me, etc.

Then I asked this: did my desire to explore how people process death, as well as my hope to attain personal nirvana with this idea of an End from a safe theoretical distance, in this column, commute into an immediate, visceral confrontation with life/death?

I wanted to write about death to get closer to it, to face it clear-eyed. Now I had the opportunity.

If facts can die, do other, more vigorous facts take their place?


That he was sick did not make forgiveness easier. In those two weeks when we assumed the worst, I discovered other facts, and things I hoped were not facts, and can never know the extent of their truth.

Facts I could not readily accept:

Certainly, there were other women. Certainly, there were half-truths and obfuscations.

Some undeniable facts:

Cancer is a provider of lessons. One of them: emotional hurt by the loved one is not necessarily diminished by the prospect of death in the loved one; a cheating man with a fatal illness inflicts the same pain as the robust betrayer. A lesson unrelated to cancer: people try on personalities and forget to take them off until there’s pain, like contact lenses slept in for too many nights straight. We must accept that sometimes there is no act or promise or trauma that can keep two people together.

A type of deniable fact:

Building on Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous “known knowns” (a term first coined by NASA administrator William Graham), psychoanalytic philosopher Slavoj Žižek proposed the idea of the “unknown knowns,” those facts that we intentionally refuse to acknowledge that we know, i.e. what we do not like to know.

Unknown known:

This man, whose job it is to make women look beautiful, who works and lives in two separate cities, who has two separate cell phones, who has pictures of these beautiful women on these phones, is not who he makes himself out to be, that is, not the duplicitous man his exterior suggests, but rather, solidly, a person of goodness.

The final fact:

The results of the CT scan.

It is all fine and it isn’t fine. I can go back to thinking of death as theoretical. Now, just as before, every time someone complains about having a shitty day, I won’t feel anger and resentment welling up. How could you possibly be having a shitty day? You’re not dying, for Christ’s sake! Death is again something for the imagination, something morbid and extreme and fantastical, something to write about and post on the Internet on a website, from the safety of a desk with that same familiar pain, that clichéd sorrow, made new again.


Rumpus original art by Kara Y. Frame.


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Lee Matalone writes a monthly column for The Rumpus on death, loss, and mourning. Her writing has appeared in Joyland, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, VICE, and elsewhere. She lives in New Orleans. More from this author →