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June 15, 2011

Our family arrived back from a long vacation two days ago. I’ve been climbing out from beneath a mountain of laundry, but it is good to be home.

We kicked off our vacation close to home with some good friends who happen to have horses: she is a horse whisperer, and, while we go see our friends for our friends’ sake and not just to sponge horse time, their horses are part of the family, like our dog, but less stupid, and bigger. A day’s drive took us to the Amish settlement of Arthur, Illinois, where we saw plenty of  horses and buggies, the hallmark of Amish country, and my children learned a little about the Amish, their faith, and their traditions. Another day’s drive took us to Mackinac Island, where “horseless carriages” were outlawed immediately after they made their appearance. Mackinac Island, a wonderful place in many ways beyond its quintessential quaintness, derives much of its charm from the horse and carriage teams that the people who work and live on Mackinac Island rely upon to get stuff done. No matter how far you to into the tiny interior of tiny Mackinac Island, you can still hear it: the clippity cloppity of horses.

It’s a relic of another time.

A simpler time. A better time. A time when people had values and neighborliness, and crime was low, and families were happy and divorce was rare. A time when, instead of being the second leading cause of death in the United States as it is today, cancer didn’t even rank in the top ten. Today, we’ve polluted our environment with industrial waste and deforestation. Our food is full of additives and preservatives, and our cosmetics are full of hormones, all causes for the exponential increase in deaths from cancer. Right?

Well, no. Not remotely.

According to the splendid book, The Emperor of All Maladies, A Biography of Cancer by Columbia School of Medicine professor Siddhartha Mukherjee, a book that just won the 2011 Nonfiction Pulitzer, cancer rates have increased because we have aged into them. Cancer is overwhelmingly a disease of the old: the longer you live, the greater your chances of having the bizarre mutation that causes this disorder. As a society, we’re riddled with cancer because we in our technologified, sanitized, commercialized, informationalized society have largely solved the medical maladies that used to kill people off so effectively: infectious disease, food poisoning, and other ills that have mostly been relegated to the Third World, the risk of antibiotic-resistant epidemic notwithstanding. Cancer is the Grim Reaper’s last, best weapon. To die at an old age from cancer is to have lived a long time.

I’m not nostalgic. Not remotely.

I like horses, riding them, and riding behind them, but also liked driving from Texas to Northern Michigan in three days. I liked driving past the endless fields of cows and barns of pigs, showing my children how food happens, today, letting them see whence comes their beef and bacon, from grass-fed cattle and feedlot swine. I liked driving past the hundreds of acres of wind farms, seeing them replacing the heavily subsidized net-oil-loss fields of industrial corn and soy.

I like that things get better. I believe that they do get better, and that people working together to make our society better in new ways have a good chance of doing just that, which is why I consider myself a liberal, as opposed to conservative, opposed to change, liking things the way they were and are.

It all came into sharp focus yesterday morning when I met up with a friend I haven’t seen a while, someone I like a lot, but because I am a terrible friend, I haven’t followed up with her as much as I should have, in a way that reflects the high esteem in which I hold my friend.

“How are you,” I asked her. “How is your older daughter, the one who was in class with Georgia a few years ago? How do you like your new school? How is your husband? How are your pets? How is your baby?”

“I’m good, my daughter is good, my husband is good, my dog and cat are good, and my baby, well.

“The baby.

“I don’t know if you’ve heard.

“He’s not doing well.”

I look at my friend and don’t say anything, but I remember to make eye contact, and to listen.

“We’ve been round and round with doctors and neurologists and, well . . . ”

My friend was silent for a measure.

“It looks like he may have Autism.”

My friend, the epitome of a caring, loving, detail-oriented mother who spares no effort to make sure that her children have the best childhood possible, the kind of mother I aspired to be before I got cancer, before the kind of mother I aspired to be was the one who isn’t dead, has spent the last six months dealing with the possible diagnosis of autism in her infant. She’s been to specialists and to support groups and she’s made miraculous progress: her son is once again smiling, and he’s begun to walk and talk, and, while I can’t begin to know what she’s been through, I know what it feels like to have the rug pulled out from under you when all you want in the world is to be a good mother, and my heart breaks for my friend.

I listened to my friend tell her story, listened to her describe the sudden changes in her beautiful, ebullient baby, and I remembered the Changeling myth, and I thought about how some people with Autism embrace this ancient story, and some people find it repugnant, and all I could think about was that it wasn’t going to be the end of my friends story, because she has unearthed resources and support and expertise, and now her son is smiling and laughing and walking, because we have science, and we have information, and we have a community and a culture and a society that isn’t satisfied with the status quo.

100 years ago my friend’s beautiful baby would have been institutionalized.

40 years ago my friend, my wonderful-mother friend, would have been blamed for her son’s condition.

Five years ago I would be dead and my children would grow up motherless.

It’s good to love history. Mackinac Island is one of the loveliest places I have ever visited, and I’ve been to some beautiful places in this world. We loved our week there, our week back in time. We have a lot to learn from visiting the Amish community and seeing how lives so different from ours can be equally fulfilling. On the way home, we stopped at the Laura Ingalls Wilder home and museum in Mansfield, Missouri, and I don’t know of a better celebration of the American spirit than that brilliant writer’s simple home.

It’s good to look back at how things were, but it’s even better to look forward and see how they’re getting batter.

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