Saturday, March 12, 2011

Too Big, Too Small

I was all set to write about Hana's Suitcase, another fine example of the power of story and symbol, but then the earthquake, tsunami, and subsequent radiation stories have diverted my attention from whatever meaningful thing I wanted to say about luggage.

However, one thread ties two events: sometimes a story is too big, too abstract to tell without making it concrete and personal--but then again, sometimes the size is the story.

Hana's Suitcase as a story is an effective way to help everyone understand the horror and human loss of the Holocaust. Hana is today's Anne Frank--a real person whose real life was silenced, leaving us all poorer. Without Anne and Hana, and without some sense of the fundamental humanity of the victims, events of the Holocaust could become less real, less immediate, and thus less horrific as time passes. The personal is vital to preserving the essential meaning of the story.

Right now, this disaster in Japan, which has both natural and human-made elements, is too big to tell coherently. We know 8.9 is a big number for an earthquake; aftershocks measuring more than 6.0 also sound big--but what does that feel like? What does a wall of water look like? Fortunately, pictures and maps (including these fabulous ones at the BBC) give context--but shots of boats and cars and vans and houses and skyscrapers don't convey what the people are going through.

News writers are looking for human angles into the story in an effort to help people around the world connect personally with the unimaginable destruction. As time passes, we will likely hear more stories about individuals.

Yet the scale is an essential part of the story. The magnitude of the earthquake is part of its horror and meaning, as are the aftershocks, the tsunamis and reflected waves. That would be a frightening-enough story. Add in concerns about radioactive leaks and exposure risks, and the validity of the information released about them to the public, and what you have is even more frightening and more sweeping in scope.

Similarly, the stories of Anne and Hana, though touching, are only two stories. Six million people were systematically killed in the Holocaust. Six million other individual stories could be told. The current population of New York City is around 8 million. The greater Toronto area has something more than 5.6 million people. Big cities; lots of people.

And, those 6 million people killed in the Holocaust represent only deaths, not those incarcerated (and not the full death toll of WWII). Add in the fact that that the deaths were caused by the actions of other people, and the horror grows. Both the scope and the systematic nature of the Holocaust are inextricable parts of the story's devastation, its impact.

I've had two recent experiences with this "too big, too small" phenomenon, come to think of it, and one in each direction. "All I Can Say," the essay that was shortlisted for the CBC literary awards last year, is only part of bazillions of words I wrote about my mother's Alzheimer's disease in the space of three or four years. I was driven to write about the disease because it was happening to her, to my father, to me, to my family. I needed to make the story concrete, to show the world (or at least myself) the human cost of a nebulous disease.

Yet I suspect that the real story now is one of scope. In the decade-plus since her death and the fourteen years since her diagnosis and illness, care for Alzheimer's patients has improved. Patients have more medications to delay the disease's onset and progression; caregivers have more community support to call on. However, the real story is ahead: as the population ages, delaying the onset of the disease won't be enough to prevent dementia disorders from straining the healthcare systems in Canada and the U.S.

And then there's cancer. About 12 million people in the U.S. have cancer (or have ever been diagnosed with cancer), says the American Cancer Society. In Canada, almost 700,000 of those Canadians who were alive on January 1, 2005, had been diagnosed with cancer in the previous ten years. Cancer has always had a personal element for me--my sister had cancer when I was still in elementary school. She has been cancer-free since I was at university, and cancer thus became comfortably abstract again for years. Then my brother was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) four years ago.

The "zooming in" process from "too big" to immediate and personal accelerated in December, when my brother's oncologist found that his CLL had not responded to traditional chemotherapy. "Donating" in relation to the human body went from abstract to concrete in the seconds it took me to read his email asking if we siblings could help. Quickly, I learned about many other abstract concepts: peripheral blood stem cell transplants, bone marrow transplants, human leukocyte antigen matching, the stages of remission. I learned the hard way that "a one in four chance of a match in siblings" doesn't mean "you have four siblings, so one will surely match you."

Be the Match and OneMatch.ca became links on my blog and on this page.

However, thanks to the 16.5 million donors registered worldwide, my brother has a donor, ready if and when his transplant time comes. Someone else has also made the journey from the abstract "what can I do to make a difference in this world" thought to a concrete "here's what I can do" action. I'm already grateful.

Events in the disasters in Japan are still unfolding. Similarly, I don't yet know the turns my brother's story will take, except that his is not a story only of disease--he's a new grandfather! My mother's story is at times as immediate to me as when she died; and at other times, it seems to have happened in a different universe. If Hana's Suitcase is any indication, perhaps these stories will continue in both "big" and "small" dimensions as long as we continue to write them.