Seeing the Thestrals


Thestral (Photo credit: Jon_Tucker)

In a conversation not long ago, a friend who has been reading this blog periodically observed that, this far out from my treatment for cancer, I “wouldn’t have so much to write about anymore.” The comment was intended to be reassuring, but it stuck with me in the way such comments do for people whose perspective has been changed by a life-threatening event.

I would love to be the first to affirm my friend’s observation. Would that it were true. But the impact of such an event never disappears, though it may fade a bit into the distance.  Cancer is too big a part of the overall picture of health care, not just in this country but around the world. There will always be more to be said because, once it invades your life, you can never be entirely free of its shadow.

And that shadow takes the shape of a thestral.

Fans of the Harry Potter books will quickly recall that, in the fifth book, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry for the first time is able to see the thestrals, the invisible creatures that have been pulling the carriages from the train station at Hogsmeade up to Hogwarts castle when students arrive for the new school year. It takes awhile for him to find out why he can now see the thestrals, with their dark, skeletal, horse-like bodies and leathery wings. It’s his friend and teacher Hagrid who tells him that thestrals can be seen only by those who have seen death. Harry inadvertently earned the ability to see them by witnessing the death of a classmate at the hands of the evil Voldemort at the end of the fourth book. Once Harry sees the thestrals, he can’t pretend they don’t exist.

Things once seen cannot be unseen. We can only pretend not to see them.

Unlike Harry Potter, I haven’t quite “earned” the ability to see thestrals (were they to exist) because I have not yet witnessed death directly, only after it has occurred. But having had a serious go-round with cancer, I can see the faint, ghostly outlines of the creatures in the far-off distance at the edge of the woods.

To descend into symbolism (forgive my English major’s approach), we can talk about what the thestrals represent.  Are they death itself, or only reminders of it? In the book, the thestrals turn out to be helpful when they transport Harry and his friends to London in the misguided attempt to save Sirius, Harry’s godfather, from the hands of Voldemort. So they do not represent death, taking part as they do in an effort to prevent one. They are simply reminders that, after catching sight of our mortality, whether through serious illness or accident, we can expect to see the world differently — notice things that we did not notice before, and look at the world with new awareness.

This is the best explanation I’ve found for how the world looks to me now, several years after the encounter with cancer. The thestrals are dark, disturbing creatures, not ones we like to look at as we would, say, giraffes. But they serve to remind us that recognizing our mortality changes our view, and they can perhaps do for us what they do for Harry and his friends – move us to take actions that we might not have managed otherwise. They remind me, specifically, to keep my attention on what really matters:

  • The shower water in the hotel room isn’t as hot as I’d like?  So what.
  • My son wants a green streak painted in his hair?  No big deal.
  • Two friends disagree on what is the “correct” interpretation of Biblical scripture?  Not worth the argument.

The thestrals remind me to see only what really matters, and use that sight when I might actually be able to change things:

  • Make sure a friend’s voice is heard when the crowd isn’t listening? Indeed.
  • Call out a student who has been cheating her way through classes? You bet.
  • Write about my experience with a life-threatening illness, for those facing the same situation? Absolutely.

The thestrals are there for all of us. You don’t have to see them to know they exist. But if (when) you acknowledge their presence, you have to change the way you see the world.


5 Responses to “Seeing the Thestrals”

  1. Sue Rickels Says:

    Lovely post here, Julie. And, you run out of things to write about and with insights for us all–never!

  2. Kim Says:

    Love this, Julie!! So true – loved the example of your son with a green streak in his hair. Don’t know if that is real or poetic license, but I too have really learned what is and isn’t worth spending time on.

  3. Ellen Says:

    Very moving. Thanks

  4. Roxanne Says:

    Julie, great analogy. Yes, there are things unknown that I now know. And will never forget. Thanks for addressing this subject.

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