The past year has been one of the most difficult and memorable years of our lifetime. Even those of us who haven’t suffered direct losses as a result of covid-19 have lost out in so many other ways – whether it is a loss of human connections, experiences, events, or opportunities. So when I heard that journalist Suleika Jaouad had written a memoir documenting her fight against cancer, I did not know if I was in the right headspace to handle such a heavy topic. Having spent the last twelve months in varying degrees of anxiety, uncertainty, and fear, reading about a woman ravaged by a rare form of leukemia at the tender age of 22 was not high on my list of priorities. But Jaouad’s book Between Two Kingdoms proved to be everything that I needed: a balm to my soul, an affirmation of love and friendship, a renewal of hope, and a testament to the value of life well-lived, however difficult or short it may be.
The title of Jaouad’s memoir refers to the writings of Susan Sontag in Illness as Metaphor: “Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.”
Part one of Between Two Kingdoms focuses on Suleika Jaouad’s unwilling, too-long sojourn into the kingdom of the sick. Jaouad had just graduated with the highest honors from Princeton University and was living and working in Paris while in the throes of a new relationship. It should have been the most exciting time of her life, but she was plagued by inexplicable physical symptoms – relentless itchiness, bone-deep exhaustion – which had started her final year of college and which she could not seem to shake. Numerous visits to doctors resulted in a variety of general diagnoses – anemia, “burnout syndrome” – but no amount of medication or rest made her feel better. Jaouad began to wonder if maybe everything was in her head or if she just couldn’t hack it in real life. When she was finally diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, it almost came as a relief.
Part two of Jaouad’s memoir focuses on the after: after chemotherapy, after a bone marrow transplant, after an experimental clinical trial, after more chemotherapy, and after countless setbacks, illnesses, and subsequent visits to the hospital. The cancer was no longer present in Jaouad’s blood, but to say she was back in the kingdom of the well would have been a misnomer; she was somewhere in between. In the hopes of finding how to live with this new version of herself, Jaouad and her dog Oscar embarked on a cross-country road trip to visit some of the people who had written her letters in response to her “Life, Interrupted” blog posts and Emmy-winning video series for the New York Times which documented her cancer battle as she was living it. One of her visits was to a woman named Katherine, a two-time cancer survivor who lost her son to suicide: a survivor living through something she never imagined she could survive. At each of her stops, Jaouad met others who learned to live again after having come back from the kingdom of the sick, even if their prognoses looked dire, and she felt her soul begin to heal.
Beautifully written, fierce, introspective, and gut-wrenchingly honest, Between Two Kingdoms is one of the most moving memoirs I have ever read. This book shattered me, inspired me, and spoke recognizable truths about life and love. I lost count of how many times I cried and mourned alongside Suleika as she lost another member of her cancer family, but I was also inspired by her decision to keep feeling both joys and hurt, to keep living, to keep fighting; her indomitable spirit shines through every page of this book. Instead of guarding herself against a future of what-ifs or looking back on all that she had lost, Suleika Jaouad chooses to open herself up to new experiences and to make the most of the love, relationships, opportunities, and even the pain of today. I can’t help but feel that this same resolve and resilience can act as a roadmap to navigate through the age of covid; that, despite the difficult circumstances, the choice to move forward in appreciation of today – to accept the love that we have, to connect with and sustain one another – is what will ultimately help us heal.