At the top of our list of recent books to review is a short but effective work from two longstanding Phoenicia figures, Elizabeth Holland Kern and Patrick Kern. Uncharted Territory: Our Decade Living With Breast Cancer, self-published in a humble run of 250 copies, with help from Carol LaMonda and Lucy Swenson of Palenville’s Turning Mill, this heart-wrenching document is more a poem than a memoir.
Uncharted Territory starts off like a complex, well-edited and deeply thought-out version of one of those year-end summary letters one gets from good friends and close relatives, but builds a deeper sense of connection by maintaining a deeply personal sensibility throughout, complete with lots of homey images and a back-and-forth patter between the Kerns. Moreover, with its key subject being Elizabeth’s discovery of breast cancer, and increasingly challenging survival of a variety of attempted cures and her cancer’s growing metastasis, the book’s underlying thesis ends up being about the role that openness, a loving partnership and community, and the sharing of fears play in allowing us to live life with quality. As a result, the work — while not the sort of literary gem one scours the bestsellers lists and key book reviews for — provides a quiet sense of assurance beyond those seeking info on breast or some other form of cancer. It’s got the same effect as seeing community theater, or enjoying one’s local galleries or restaurants over the more famous examples of each available to one. Uncharted Territory is all about treasuring what is close at hand, no matter the circumstances.
We checked in with the Kerns this past week about their book and were informed by Patrick that the months since they sent their work to the printers have been arduous, a living hell, as he puts it. Just last Friday, Elizabeth went for a new cat scan and MRI, whose results the couple are expecting…although as Patrick puts it, “all indications are that she’s failing and we’re beginning to consider suspending treatment to call in Hospice.”
He said he’s starting to contemplate the writing of a final chapter to what he says will be “the second and final” edition of the couple’s book. He’s planning to name it “Journey’s End.”
Cognitively, Elizabeth has had a difficult time, her husband says. After brain radiation, radiation to her spine, and the discovery of cancer in her lungs and the fluids that flow through her brain, she’s had trouble keeping spirits up. Or functioning as she once did. One of her legs has stopped functioning. She was aware and appreciative of her book’s publication, as well as recent stories about it, and her journey, in local publications. But she’s been telling Patrick she’s not sure how much longer she can keep things up.
“A couple of times she’s just said, ‘I want to go home,’” Patrick Kern says. “This is breaking my heart.”
Over the years, as charted in Uncharted Territory, the Kerns came together, raised a family, traveled, and eventually became vitals parts of the Phoenicia community, for whom they created an ad hoc group called Friends of Phoenicia. Elizabeth, Patrick says, took it upon herself to take care of the community’s Simpson Park, by the Stony Clove Creek, as well as flower baskets up and down Main Street. She was also a frequent contributor to the letters columns of local papers.
“That’s been my Elizabeth,” Patrick said, noting how she kept writing up until a month ago. “She’s a very, very special person.”
As is he, creating this work as a testament to their love, and its challenges.
Uncharted Territory: Our Decade Living With Breast Cancer is available at Mama’s Boy and 60 Main in Phoenicia, as well as Mirabai and Golden Notebook in Woodstock. It can also be ordered by calling Patrick Kern directly at 688-7314 or firstname.lastname@example.org.++
Addendum: Just before we went to press, Patrick Kern sent a final note. “Wanted to let you know it was decided today to call in Hospice,” he wrote. “Looks like our journey is only a few weeks away.” Bon voyage, sweet Elizabeth…