'Real Life' Meets True Love-And Care-In Janet & Me

Article excerpt

In a culture obsessed with sex, even the maturity-market publications wrap their ads-Cialis, Viagra-in advice columns about spicing up bedtime after age 50 or 60 or 70. Yet, the aging of the boomer generation is quietly drawing attention to another side of intimacy, the part of the vows that pledges "in sickness," not only in health. In Janet & Me: An Illustrated Story of Love and Loss, Stan Mack, the documentary cartoonist whose "Real Life" strips have appeared in The Village Voice, New York Times Magazine and other major media, brings a poignant, often surgically fresh perspective to the subject of true love.

His new book, being published by Simon and Schuster in October, tells the love story of Mack and his partner, Janet Bode, from their first meeting to her diagnosis with breast cancer, to her final hours in hospice care one day before the dawn of the new millennium.

'YOU CAN TOUCH ME'

Books on caregiving, many of them fine additions to the literature of aging, will continue to pile onto reviewers' shelves, but few will bring this bitter-sweet experience to such close quarters as JANET & ME. And there is a great deal of sweetness and humor in the book's 157 pages. Stan learns to caress "Janny" anew after her mastectomy: "You can touch me there, it doesn't hurt," she says in a drawing by Mack of his hand reaching past a candle.

Elsewhere, the couple discovers the frustration of old friends being frightened off by the word cancer, and the excitement of new ones entering their lives through the aegis of coping, caregiving and mutual support networks.

Much of the power of Janet & Me rises from the engaging and forthright personality of Bode, who was a leading author of nonfiction books about youth. In the midst of chemotherapy, she kept a date to speak to teenagers at the New York Public Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. The book quotes Agnes, a librarian there, who recalls that many of the audience members had read Bode's book, Beating the Odds: Stories of Unexpected Achievers (New York City: Scholastic, 1991), which was available in Braille and on cassette. Despite having been fitted for a wig, Bode left it behind to present her own "fashion statement" to the group. "I've gone way beyond a bad hair day," she tells them in a drawing.

Mack effectively uses a combination of text and drawings, some with word balloons, to pace the story along. At the library, Agnes is presented in direct quotation, as if in a documentary film, explaining, "She opened up to them, told them about her cancer, let them feel her head, told them they were not alone. Her face and body were so alive."

Along the way, the couple lives their life together, experiencing the full range of coping, hoping, caregiving, grieving-and travel. …