Peyton Harvey, winner of the 2017 Gabriele Rico Challenge for Nonfiction, is a Native of Northern California and a spring 2018 graduate of Colorado College where she majored in history and political science and minored in English. Her winning essay, "A Waxing Crescent," seeks to transform personal pain into something meaningful and to explore the role of voice—even when literally unavailable—in expression.
You wrote me a letter. You signed it, with friendship and love.
I’ve been watching too many Nora Ephron films. I am not Sally Albright and you are not Harry Burns. First of all, you are not so morbidly pessimistic. And I possess insufficient confidence to fake an orgasm in a crowded deli. Their story is a curated happy ending. Midnight at New Year. Expressions of simmering and unbearable infatuation. Best friends in love.
Every movie I’ve seen with a girl who has cancer, she dies. So perhaps I should be grateful that fiction isn’t always reality.
You were getting to know her while I was in the hospital. One month before, while I was in school reading the poetry of Robert Frost, you had asked me if you should “go for it” and take a risk. I told you, “Of course you absolutely should,” advice that I would never heed. She was there. And she was lovely. Olive eyes and cinnamon skin. She was soon going to work on a farm in Colombia, caring for mentally disabled youth. She dropped out of school to be with you, and because she didn’t appreciate Ivy League opulence. I like her. I like that you are happy around her. She jokingly said she was jealous of me when she was away and I was with you. She has nothing to worry about. I lack the courage to seek love.
I won’t say anything.
It was fortunate that my stomach started hurting. That’s how they found it. After an esophageal endoscopy, we discovered cancerous lymph nodes crushing my pancreas. The next step was a PET scan, when I am filled with radioactive liquid that makes cancer glow like bioluminescent algae. My body was swimming with luminous algae. They swam in my legs, my chest, my arms. They had been swimming for a while.
They were swimming on the day of our high school graduation; when I was listening to a mixtape of your original tunes; on that Fourth of July, under the county fair fireworks, the night before I moved from my San Franciscan oceans to Jackson Hole rivers; when I was reading Bob Dylan’s Chronicles on the shore of Shoshone Lake; when I was admiring the psychedelic painting of a moose during my morning shift at the National Museum of Wildlife Art, and when I watched two moose in my backyard, munching our wildflowers; when I began my first year of college, studying Socrates, Rousseau, and Kant; when I drank my first rum and coke and vomited in my extra-long twin sheets at one in the morning; when I was brushing tangles out of my hair that hung at my waist.
The last time I had cancer I was in seventh grade. I had just dissected an earthworm. I examined its guts: crop, gizzard, pharynx, and intestines. If there were any mystery or dignity surviving inside that creature, we obliterated it by sticking the flattened corpse on the wall for the remainder of the year. I never killed another earthworm. My parents sat me down on our quiet, green sofa. The results of the biopsy came back positive. (Everything is upside down with cancer, so being positive is bad news.) My first question: “Will I lose my hair?” My only knowledge of cancer and chemotherapy came from images from movies and television: skinny, hairless people in hospital beds. After the second diagnosis, hair loss was not my foremost anxiety. When you have cancer twice, you know what lies ahead. It’s like getting your right ear pierced after you know the sting of the left one, but with more blood, vomit, longer needles, and unmitigated isolation from the outside world.