Once upon a time

Many times, I’ve described my relationship with Edwina and other cancer survivors who walk the streets of Birmingham as something almost fantastical.   How else can I account for the unusual characters who have entered my life and the unpredictable twists and turns of our shared paths?

Last night, I had the pleasure of attending an exhibit with my Writing and Medicine class put together by a former student of mine, Valerie Gribben, who is now in her fourth year of medical school. The Charm was Broken: Illness and Injury in the Fairy Tales of Mary De Morgan is a compilation of stories and images from a relatively unknown writer (in the US, at least) from Victorian England whose tales of princes and princesses offer a lens into medicine from the era: http://www.uab.edu/news/latest/item/2164-happily-ever-after-the-lessons-of-medicine-and-fairy-tales

The exhibit isn’t the first time Valerie has pondered the parallels between fairy tales and thoughts on the body and medicine. She penned an op-ed for the New York Times in 2011 that explored the overlaps between the two worlds: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/01/opinion/01gribben.html?_r=1 Valerie’s essay confesses something at once unspeakable, but true: no matter how insightful the study of medicine or how sophisticated the technologies for peering into the physical body, many mysteries of the human condition go unexplained. For Valerie, first as an English major and then as a blossoming physician, fairy tales hold at least some of the secrets.

As Valerie talked about wicked stepmothers–a staple of many fairytales from the time, explained in part by the riskiness of childbearing that left many children without their biological mothers–and giants–larger-than-life members of a community that we now know were afflicted with one or another genetic disorders–I couldn’t help thinking about some of the experiences Edwina has shared with me about her life growing up and the trials she faced walking the streets before and after cancer.

Edwina’s life stories are filled with dangers that exist outside of my realm: ruthless villians, wicked sisters, tempting apples that lifted Edwina up momentarily before bringing her down.

Like the characters in Mary De Morgan’s tales or those revealed in the stories of Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty, or Red Riding Hood. Edwina’s tale is simultaneously realistically honest and mysteriously complex. It is beyond this world, at least my world, in innumerable ways.

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