Author’s Note: Let me preface this entire post with the knowledge that my mom is alive and well and cancer free. (I hate it when awful stories get told only to find out after all the worrying for the characters that there is a happy ending after all. I don’t mind those sorts of stories as long as I know they end happily, thus I’m sharing this ending.) This blog post is a story I wrote my senior year of high school. It is the only story I’ve ever written where I allowed myself to discuss my family’s battle with cancer.
When I was about 2 my mom, 29 years old, was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer in one of her breasts and the lymph nodes under her arm. The doctors told her to make peace with the world and that she would not live to see me graduate college, get married, or even start Kindergarten. My mom is a fighter and she fought her way into the case studies for Tamoxifen (now a standard part of breast cancer treatment) and had chemotherapy, radiation, surgeries, and a mastectomy. She had check ups twice a year for the next five years. After five years she was pronounced cured. She continued annual check ups at the cancer center. After ten years she was pronounced really cured and at some point along the way her cancer was downgraded to a stage 3 (because she survived). She continued yearly checkups because she had been in the case study. At year eleven she was pronounced still cured. Between year eleven and year twelve she didn’t notice but a lump the size of a pea grew under her armpit in one of her lymph nodes.
At her yearly check up 12 years after she had first battled cancer, the cancer returned. She was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer. Once again the doctors told her to make peace with the world and that she would still not see me graduate high school, go off to college, or any of the things we had finally allowed ourselves to look forward to sharing together. They said this cancer was tricky because it had been dormant for 12 years and then become very aggressive to have grown a lump so large in so short a time. Again, my mom fought with all her strength. She did more chemo and had more surgeries but this time there was no radiation because she had had the largest amount a person can have. My freshman year of high school was her diagnosis. My sophomore year of high school was her surgery. My junior year of high school was her chemo. My senior year of high school was the waiting and I graduated a semester early and went to community college- just in case.
The doctors were wrong: she saw me off to formal dances, my first date, graduation, college, moving into a dorm, studying abroad, and recently getting married. She is one of the success stories and I love sharing the hope that her double cure inspires. But I don’t like talking about it, or thinking about it. I still practice magical thinking… if I don’t talk about cancer or think about it then it won’t come back again…. Regardless of what will happen, right now she is happily living her life cancer free and my dad always tells her how she’s more lucky than cats who get nine lives and even more lucky than frogs who croak every night. We all do the best we can to live life to the fullest because we know how short and precious it is. Enough commentary. The story:
After the Before
My skin is very white. When I get cold, my skin gets even whiter, except for the scars. The scars are vivid, dark, and obvious. They show up, slashing across my hand and wrist and itching in the cold. They were not always there. Before she got sick again, my hands were clean. Now, they’re stained with my anger. When we got back to our house, the sickness hovering over each of us, I went into my room, in the closet, and punched my hand through the wall. Four times. The plaster exploded around me and chunks of it stuck to the hair on my arm. I broke two fingers and dislocated another. I’m still not sure what exactly cut me, but something did. I had three jagged tears above my wrist and my hand looked like I had lost a fight with a garbage disposal, or put it through a wall a couple of times, which I had. My parents had to take me to the hospital. Back to a hospital for more waiting. The last place any of us wanted to go. It is always cold in the waiting rooms of hospitals.
It is always cold in the waiting rooms of hospitals. We are waiting. The walls are waiting, the uncomfortable chairs are waiting; the puzzle is waiting. It has been the same puzzle for years. We are all waiting. The recycled air drifts around the families and patients too slowly to create a breeze. The shifting of pain stiffened bodies; turning of outdated magazine pages, and the constant wheeze and coughs of people breathing the stale air are the sounds that fill the space between the floor and ceiling. I think it is a requirement of working here to have noisy shoes. Most of the men have tennis shoes that squeak at either the left or right toe. The women have high heels that meticulously click-click-click their way into your brain behind your eyes. The clicking is driving me mad.
I tap my foot in impatience. I restlessly flip through an old cooking magazine without seeing the pictures, let alone the words. My butt hurts from sitting for too long. I wish my mom would be out soon so I could move around a little. She doesn’t usually take so long. I look at my dad to see if he’s as uncomfortable as I am. He’s calmly flipping through a Time magazine from September (it’s December now) and has a scientific looking National Geographic waiting on the seat next to him. I sigh as a squeaky-shoed-college-aged guy dressed in green scrubs hurries past. He glances at me, keeps walking. I throw my magazine on the table and stand up. I restlessly move to the low rounded table with the magazines and grab some that look less painful then some others.
I hear the clicking of the woman who escorts patients to see the doctors. She walks up, reads a name incorrectly off a metallic stern looking clipboard, walks a few clicks away and says the name again in the same nasal voice. Some ancient looking, pain ridden patient is helped to their feet by a concerned family member. They follow the clicking woman down the white hallways past cheerful portraits of wildflowers as the woman makes an effort to create conversation. Not everything about this place is hopeless; don’t get me wrong. Laughter sparks from hushed conversations among different people.
As a little child, I used to wander among the people waiting, offering to share my toys and asking if the patient had hair. I would proudly tell them about my mom, who’s real hair is waiting until she gets better to come back, who has a very pretty collection of hats and a fake head to hold her pretend hair while she’s not wearing it. I would tell them about how if I was good, I would get to borrow some hats. I would smile and tell them about the secret stash of hot chocolate I could get from the nurses and offer to get them some. Sometimes, I would bring water to my parents, and read a magazine with my dad while my mom was seeing the doctor.
There is hope to be found, if you look for it. I didn’t notice as much while I grew up, as I do now. Now, it seems much more important, not only to me, but to my family and to the families of other patients as well. Without hope, there would be only sickness, and that is no way to live.
Besides hope, there is also tired and old and the waiting. That was mostly what I noticed then. Everyone who’s here, except for the workers, seems old. I, at 17, am old. I have been old since I started coming here with my family at 6 years of age. The waiting has that effect on people. As the minutes march into hours and the hours multiply, I begin to get nervous. No, not nervous. Anxious.
Anxiety. It feels like it blasts from nowhere. It tackles you. Slam! You’re floored. There is a four hundred pound sumo wrestler sitting on your chest. He’s sweating on you. You can’t breathe. You can’t move. You’re stuck. Your vision clouds with a black smoke of panic. Your heart tries to beat its way out of your ribs. Your hands tingle. You’ve lost control. Slam!
If that analogy does not work for you, imagine this one. Picture a wicked May pole- something that can stand straight up with the support of tautly pulled strings. Now, replace the May pole with a knife, a very sharp, very pointed knife with a very shiny, very black handle. Attached to the handle are strings of barbed wire. The knife is slammed into your breastbone hilt deep. The barbed wire is injected into various places across your chest. Now, as you become more anxious, the knife is twisted and pushed deeper into your chest. The barbed wire is pulling parts of your chest towards your heart, while the knife is brutally twisted, making a tight circle in the bone and muscle. Your world narrows to this pain. There is no literal knife, so you can’t bleed. Instead you sweat. It’s as if you just washed your hands, but didn’t dry them and instead of water and soap, it’s salty sweat. Your brain focuses only on the pain; it can’t control your vision, which quickly fades to black. Rapidly you lose control of your hands. They become a tingling sensation too far away to control. This is anxiety. This is what I feel.
This is what I feel now. Now is Friday afternoon at 4:00 on December 16th. I am down in the city with my parents sitting in a section of the hospital. The cancer ward. I’m not sure that “ward” is the correct word, but it fits. I watch my mother’s doctor stride by followed by a flurry of college students who wish they were her and had her job and are as good as she is. It is almost funny to watch because they almost always tower over her. She is tiny.
Everything about her is tiny; she is, after all, only five feet one inch tall. She clicks her pen in time with her heels as she enters the room. Her starched white doctor’s jacket hangs precisely to mid-thigh. The long sleeves are rolled to create cuffs revealing a very expensive looking shiny gold watch on her left wrist. The color nicely matches the gold of her wedding band as it reflects light off the diamond of her engagement ring. Her pressed khaki pants have matching creases running up the sides of her legs.
Her hair is short; it balances upon the tops of her ears and carefully lay over the top of her forehead and plays with the collar of the jacket at the base of her neck. Each piece seems to be hair sprayed in place to create the least possible disturbance to the patient while still managing to look styled. Her thin steel framed glasses perch on the bridge of her tiny pointed nose. Behind them, her eyes are tough and by looking into them you can tell she’s spent many years watching patients die. Despite the hardness in them, there is also kindness. She isn’t a touchy feely doctor who will hold hands in a circle with her patients and sing Kuhm By Ya. She is a good doctor though. The best. That is one of the things I like about her.
Maybe I also like her because when I was a child I could look her in the eye. She seemed to be on my level despite her constant shuffling through color coded pages on her clipboard to check and cross reference her ideas and comments, even though she was right. She was always right. Even with all her knowledge, she always had time for a child and that made her special. I respect her more then any other doctor I’ve met, believe me, I’ve met a few.
Somewhere in Between
I knew something was wrong as my dad and I walked into the confines of the stark white walled room. Even before Is aw my mom, I could tell she’d been crying. The doctor’s face was grim. I didn’t know what grim meant before I’d seen that face. Grim. The eyes were forcibly opened by sheer will, they were gleaming with unshed tears; the lips were pressed firmly together, perhaps to keep from speaking the truth and making it real. The color was gone from her face and her hands were shaking. I had never seen her like that. She had always been cheerful and relaxed during the family information time of the checkups; then again, my mom had been healthy for the last twelve years. I had seen at once that everything was wrong. My anxiety tackled me again but this time I had to keep it in check because to be anxious was to admit something was wrong. I had kept trying to tell myself everything was fine, even though I knew it wasn’t. My whole world was collapsing.
Looking back I don’t remember the words. The doctor drew an elaborate complicated drawing on the sanitary paper covering the examining table that we took home and explained to the relatives and friends while they tried not to sob. I remember I knew everything was wrong. The doctor’s eyes were crying, but she was not allowed to cry. My dad became stoic and I could tell he was broken, but for my mom and me, and for himself, he had to remain strong. I felt like my entire life had been in a shoebox and suddenly, for no reason I can understand, someone had taken the box, violently shaken it, and had tossed the contents out into a stream of whirling chaos.
The ceiling vaulted away from me, the walls leaned in to take its place. Everything shrunk and expanded. Reality was far away. It was outside of us, outside the room, outside of the cancer ward, outside of the hospital. Chaos remained. Chaos with the name of cancer.
As we were leaving, the doctor walked us out. My mom went to wait outside while my dad got the parking slip endorsed. The doctor was talking with him. As my dad started to leave I couldn’t move. I had to hear it from her. I had to understand. I needed her to tell me it wasn’t real.
“So… so does this mean my mom’s cancer is back,” I asked. I tried to look her in the eye but I couldn’t see through tears I refused to shed.
“Yes, I’m sorry. It does.”