When We Remain - Cal Black

28 Apr 2023

Nearly twenty years ago, in June, I was recovering from a major surgery. What the doctors had thought was just a cyst, wasn’t. I was so lucky, in so many ways. The tumour was caught before it had spread, but the expected one-hour surgery turned into over four as the surgeons removed a few spare parts and checked for any sign that the malignant cells had spread. They hadn’t, which was a small miracle given the size of the tumour and the fact I’d finished my regular school soccer season just a month before.

The surgery was significant, and I struggled with the painkillers that I needed because they made me nauseous and itchy. I wasn’t allowed to go home until I was eating, but I couldn’t eat because of the painkillers. My parents were there every day, and it was a few days in when I was becoming a bit more lucid that they told me they’d run into friends of the family at the cafeteria. Their son was also in the hospital, going through chemo treatment for leukemia.

His name was Adam, and he was a brilliant musician. He could play everything he picked up. Drums, guitar, bass, flute… the list goes on. He was studying music at university, had a supportive girlfriend, and had always been kind to me despite me being a few years younger than him. I have a vivid memory of playing in his backyard with his sister, and trying chocolate ice cream for the first time. (I’d always liked vanilla too much to bother with anything else). 

Adam was doing really well, my Mom said. Someone had brought plastic fence pieces with colourful tulips on them to put up around his room, and Mom joked that he was doing better than I was. In my defense, I had thirteen staples holding me together and it’s hard to be perky when you feel like Frankenstein.

Finally, I was doing better enough to eat plain rice and was released. Home was easier, with less disruption at night, and I was on T3s (codeine-tylenol for Americans) instead of the stronger stuff. I lost a lot of weight since I’d had very little body fat to begin with and my body burned all my muscle for nutrition when I wasn’t eating.  From Frankenstein to a skeleton… but I started getting better. I would walk laps around the block, then when I got the OK from doctors, I started jogging. I rejoined my summer soccer league a few months later, thrilled to be reclaiming my life. I started my final year of high school and planned to graduate on time. 

Then I heard Adam died.

It didn’t feel right. He’d been fine? In remission, and he’d been doing better than I had, back when we were in the hospital. But… I was the one who got better and he didn’t. No one talked about PTSD or survivor’s guilt back then. The first wave of the Afghanistan deployment hadn’t returned yet, bringing with them a better understanding of how important mental health was. To everyone, I was doing great considering what I’d been through.

But Adam had died, leaving behind his family and girlfriend and promising music career, and there I was, just some teen with no idea what she wanted to do in life, no boyfriend or girlfriend, and limited friendships. That didn’t feel right. I graduated, but for years I felt like I was failing Adam by not being the kind of cancer survivor that goes on to climb Mount Everest. I didn’t change the world, I wasn’t even happy with the degree I was pursuing. 

I thought that with time, I’d slowly come to accept that most people just go on to live a life. That I had healed from that feeling of deep inadequacy…

Then in Fall 2021, we discovered by chance that I had a problem with my aorta. It was too large for someone my age, and as I learned more about the situation I realized that this could be really serious. (Go figure, I always thought the cancer would come back and that’d be what killed me.) We had to wait for 6 months to know if it was still growing. I didn’t know if it would burst in the meantime. It was… hard… but it also lit a fire under my ass to finally fix up my book about stupid cowboy elves.

I don’t have many regrets, but after putting writing on the back burner to focus on my thankless day job for ten years, dying without publishing a book would be awful. So I rewrote the damn book in a month, and rushed to publish it. There were too many typos, and the cover wasn’t great, but it was done and out in the world.

In May 2022, we got word that my aorta was stable. It was still way too large, but it was stable. I felt like I could breathe again, and that’s about when I started fixing up the book to be something I could be proud of.

If this timeline sounds familiar to you, you’ve probably heard about the author of Fire for our Forebears, L.A. Buck. I learned about her parallel situation through Bookborn’s video review while I was drafting No Port in a Storm, and the news broke me a bit. She was younger than I am, she discovered cancer around the time I learned about my aorta, and I knew how she must have felt as she pushed to get her book out. Like mine, it was optimistically labeled as a series, and like mine, it was entered into a contest she wasn’t sure she’d live to see the end of.
Only, in May, I heard that I wasn’t about to die without warning, and she passed.

I immediately thought of Adam, and realised that while I’d accepted the survivor’s guilt from twenty years ago, I hadn’t healed from it. It was just a scar that I was so used to, that I’d forgotten it was there. The news about Buck tore it open again and I cried off and on for days. Here was this brilliant young woman who had such a promising life ahead of her, and yet I was the one who was still around. Me, with my myriad health issues, a job I hated, no partner, and no support network other than my parents, my cat, and my therapist.

This time, though, I wasn’t seventeen. I had multiple talks with my therapist about how I wanted to face this guilt head-on, because letting it eat away at me is no way to honour the memories of the people who didn’t make it.

No Port in a Storm was always going to include Millie facing the grief of losing her first found family, but as I was re-experiencing survivor’s guilt myself, the story suddenly was very personal. I know what it’s like to be awake late at night, wondering why I’m the one who survived all these situations when people who were better than me didn’t. 

There is no plan, some things just happen, and they happen to good people. There’s no triumphant moment where us, survivors, are given meaning for why we’re still here. We have to find that ourselves, in the quiet moments of our lives. I have a wonderfully supportive family, and have made some incredible friends through publishing No Land for Heroes. I hope, by sharing my experience through Millie, that I can help others living with guilt to see that they’re not alone. That if Millie and I can make it through our metaphorical swamp, they can too.

Sometimes there’s no other way to heal but to keep pressing on, facing what hurts and finding our own path. We can only ever be ourselves, however flawed and scarred we may be. But that’s enough.

You can get copies of Cal Black's books using the following links:
-No Land For Heroes: https://books2read.com/NoLandForHeroes
-No Port In A Storm: https://books2read.com/NoPortinaStorm

About Cal Black


Cal has always been telling stories, and has a short story published in AnotherDimension Anthology, was a Semi-Finalist in Writers of the Future, and won a Watty award for an early draft of No Land for Heroes.