By Lisa Reisman
Reviewed by Melanie J. Cordova
In Lisa Reisman’s 5 Months, 10 Years, 2 Hours, time is of the essence. This trim memoir follows our narrator Lisa as she goes from life as a New York City lawyer to a woman battling grade-four glioblastoma after being found unconscious in her apartment by her step-mother. Reisman structures the book to follow the five initial months spent treating this cancer, the ten years since its diagnosis, and the two hours spent competing in a grueling triathlon. Training and competing in a triathlon mirrors the narrator’s determination to push herself beyond her cancer and to live her life with passion. There is certainly no lack of memoirs focused on illness, but Reisman’s rich, illustrative details and impressive characterization makes 5 Months memorable and vibrant.
In this memoir, the narrator’s self-characterization is both subtle and distressing. She clues us in early on to what’s emerged as a dominant trait: a sense of performance that is tragic given the circumstances. Our narrator Lisa is always attempting to be a model student for those around her, even as she is suffering from aggressive cancer. It comes across as a holdover from a pre-cancer attitude: “It was just what I told myself each time I strode into a meeting or conference or hearing. If I exuded self-assurance, I would be possessed by confidence. If I seemed fine, surely the rest would follow.” 5 Months, however, isn’t all such patent reflection. Reisman artfully depicts this characterization in scene as well, most memorably in the cancer ward when Lisa is about to undergo a round of radiation. Reisman’s rich details bring her to life for us as she creates a character who attempts to brave her fate without flinching: “When a bald sallow-skinned woman—somewhere between thirty and sixty—limped into the radiation clinic waiting room with a cane, her clothes hanging over her emaciated frame like drapes, and nodded at me as she subsided into her chair, I didn’t look away for fear that her image would awaken me late at night or during my weakest moments. I composed myself, looked her square in the eye, and smiled. And when my name was called, I strode briskly into the radiation room, my demonstration—why and to whom I didn’t know—that I was vigorous and strong.” These great illustrative details are present on every page of a book that can hammer home the fear and determination of its narrator simply by including haunting, descriptive sensory details.
This memoir doesn’t focus solely on the trauma of a struggle through cancer, however. Reisman allows the book lovely moments that brighten cancer’s terrifying landscape. One instance is when Lisa gives in to her impulse to please the little neighbor girls who live next to her mother by playing piano for them:
“And with my fingers tripping along the keys to the tune of Maple Leaf Rag, I choked back a surge of joy when I saw them, all scraped knees and socks around their ankles, bobbing up and down, and my mother with a small smile on her face, and I was reminded—how could I have forgotten?—how much I loved performing, how I savored being recognized and appreciated.
That was one of the moments when I thanked my illness, when I loved my sickness. For simplifying my life to the essentials. For reminding me what made me feel alive.”
Moments of such joy so wonderfully depicted in 5 Months are a release for both the narrator and the reader. This passage also points to a tenderness between her and her mother that shows how this is truly a story about relationships, that cancer is not the full-time focus, which makes Reisman’s memoir that much more memorable. Her complicated relationship with her sister Luke is also highlighted. After brief, fleeting episodes of loving sisterhood as children, the narrator seems to finally come to terms with how she feels about her sister during this ordeal: “The headlights from a long line of cars beamed in our direction and for a moment, I imagined my own funeral procession, then felt safe beside my sister, felt a pang that she and Cary were leaving the next morning.” Reisman manages to complicate even the most ancillary character in 5 Months, from a nurse to the neighbor girls to one of her many doctors. Her charming storytelling sweeps readers along for this swift, stirring ride.
5 Months also universalizes Lisa’s experience with fresh candor. We see in Lisa’s situation how a patient might not always know what’s going on, a terrifying prospect in any circumstance. How many people struggle through illness with limited information? Reisman writes: “I had been too preoccupied with holding myself together. What I knew about the tumor had reached me incidentally and in fragments and was confusing if not contradictory.” Reisman universalizes Lisa’s fight without forcing it through clumsy prose, and even the narrator’s intense desire to please her doctors seems easily applicable to many patients’ experiences. In meeting with a new doctor, Reisman explains how she wanted so badly to impress Dr. North, and eventually overthinks the interaction: “It didn’t occur to me that I might be presenting myself to Dr. North in another desperate way—that is to say, hell-bent on getting her to see me as an exceptional patient—and that in itself might have been more tiresome than anything.” Her strong storytelling skills weave through this book in a way that readers with or without contact with cancer will recognize and appreciate.
Reisman’s 5 Months, 10 Years, 2 Hours moves beyond a cancer narrative and showcases relationships and complex characterization in vibrant prose. The dread and fear of a life wasted bursts off the page: “I wanted to try ice fishing. I wanted to worry about the stock market. I wanted to wonder whether I should feel guilty about the things I had. I wanted the time to do all that. I wanted more time.” This book is like a ticking clock. It is an excellent memoir that uses the narrator’s battle with cancer, even in its trim form, as a springboard into so much more.
Melanie J. Cordova is the Editor-in-Chief of Harpur Palate. You can find her at @mjcwrites.