Carrie Host: Between Me and the River

by Rachel Baker on November 8, 2009

Carrie Host did not write Between Me and the River for me.  I don’t have cancer, I don’t have children, and I’m really not sure I’ve ever even known someone personally who had cancer. I felt really distant from the subject matter.

Before I go any further, I read this book twice.  First I got almost all the way through it and put it down because I couldn’t relate and it was getting tiring.  The second time I read it, I read it differently.  I highlighted the many metaphors, I tried to understand where it was she was coming from, and most importantly, I tried to read the book with the question “who could benefit” in my head.

There’s a few things I want to say before reviewing the book.  Carrie Host’s journey was/is courageous – she decided early on she was going to beat her cancer and live as long or longer than the prognosis for carcinoid cancer. And she has! There are several times during this journey in which she could have just given up – but pulled on the love of her family to get her through.  Just as courageous is the journey her family and friends made with her.  This IS an inspirational book, no doubt in my mind. There are moments Carrie tells us about where a lesser person would have just given up and ended the pain of both she and her family. It is exactly at these moments when one family member or friend reached out and said, you know what, I love you and I’m here to remind you exactly why it was  you decided to fight this in the beginning.

Over the course of the last few days, I’ve read some reviews on the book, and the comments about the reviews.  More than I expected, I saw “I can’t read this book, the topic is too close.” In my humble opinion, this is exactly the person who may benefit from Between Me and the River – the person who is too close because they have been diagnosed or the person who is watching someone battle it; or has maybe lost someone to cancer.  Carrie lays out some things that may be extremely important for you to know based on her emotional experience with the cancer she had.

At the end of most chapters, Carrie did this interesting thing where she almost personified cancer. The first time I read the book, I really didn’t like this.  I felt like she was generalizing her experience to be everyone’s experience.  The second time I read the book, I realized this was actually genius.  I could completely understand by doing this, she was opening a thought-process for the reader they may have not considered previously – a path to healing the mind and heart during a time when the body may not be able to heal. According to Carrie,

Cancer is like that.  It can throw you overboard with one short definition, and then it can help you decide that you are strong enough to swim for a lifetime.  Only you can choose to read between the lines and find one small bit of information to hold on to.  Allow even the smallest bit of encouragement to be the thing that keeps you afloat.  Do not underestimate your own desire to live.  Hope is a powerful thing.

There are also places throughout most chapters that makes cancer into an actual living, breathing, thinking thing.  At the beginning of the chapter titled The Truth, she starts with:

Cancer will reveal many things to you.  One of those is that the old life that you keep wishing you could go back to simply doesn’t exist.  When that fact really hits home, you become intensely anxious, or you may begin to allow yourself to relax on some deeper level.  It is getting to be a lot of work to hurry up and get through all of this so that you can get back to all of that.

In some ways, Between Me and the River is like a self-help book for a very select few of people who are being eaten alive by this thing called cancer, because they have it or because they are trying desperately to help someone with it.

For me…well, I didn’t get it.  I felt I should have cried with Carrie; or rejoiced with her when she was doing great; or dreaded each and every doctors appointment and surgery.  But I didn’t.  And before you decide I’m heartless, I am moved to tears by a great many things that would otherwise not really warrant tears. The second reading of Between Me and the River enlightened me on why I this subject matter was too distant for me to get.

The reason had to do primarily with the River metaphor.  For Carrie, the metaphor for cancer was a river.  Carrie lives in Colorado, and the Colorado River has much more personality than the rivers I’ve known.  I live near the Indian River in Florida and to put it into perspective, the only time this river has any real personality as far as vengeance goes is during a hurricane – and no one could enjoy a day of white water rafting on the Indian River, people go kayaking instead. My second experience with a river was the Rio Grande in New Mexico, when I lived there.  In this area, the Rio Grande would have better been served if it had been named the Rio Pequeno.  It was more like a creek.  The arroyos had more violent action than the Rio Grande.  While I intellectually know in other parts of the country the Rio Grande can be an exciting white water rafting experience, where I lived it was more like a wading pool.

I struggled with this river = cancer metaphor; and all I kept getting is a picture of the Indian River – a picturesque river where people boat and fish and very rarely does anything horrible ever happen.  For me, the use of the River was something beautiful and completely killed my ability to empathize with “I’ve got cancer.  Its like being on a river, and its pulling me down under the water and I’m desperately in need of someone plunging their hand under the water from the boat to save me; and I can’t see the banks of the river to get to solid ground.”  This was the big huge “I can’t get past it” problem I had with connecting to Between Me and the River.

Over and over again, I said this book is too beautiful for the topic.  There are some books you read in which you have absolutely no experience with the subject matter introduced in the book, but you can absolutely feel exactly what the characters must be feeling.  There are sections of memoirs that will cause tears to stream down your face because of the horrific pain (or joy) the person must have felt.  I sort of feel cheated that I couldn’t cheer on Carrie Host; and that I couldn’t cry with her while reading her story.  I caught myself thinking, maybe I’d feel more if this was Amory’s story (her husband); or her mother’s story.

Carrie was a writer before she was a cancer survivor.  She wrote a beautiful book; a book too beautiful for someone who had never been exposed, and has no understanding about how important it is to hang on to the beauty of life while one is trying to figure out if its worth the battle to have a few more years or if its better to just give up. And the prose in this book is, in fact, incredibly beautiful. Too beautiful to feel the full rawness of Carrie’s experience.

I encourage those who look at this book and think “I’m too close to cancer to read this now,” to read Between Me and the River.  If the reason you think this is because you’ve just lost someone, it may give you some insight into what your person was feeling; and help you understand how much your support may have meant even if they never said it.  According to Carrie,

Cancer is like that. Sometimes we truly don’t see how we will muster up the courage to keep going.  When we can only see death staring us in the face, fear just knocks us flat out.  This is where the people we love the most can help us to lean on their courage and stand up again.

If you’ve experience with cancer – you’ve been diagnosed or you’ve helped someone through the process – I would like to recommend you tread carefully.  Read what you can, allow yourself to cry and feel the pain and the fear…and allow yourself to feel the raw emotion.  And realize that even though Carrie Host is a survivor, the book she’s written may be therapeutic to those who have not been so lucky on a host of levels.

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