[Content note: cancer, illness, suicide]
In November, I had my last cancer-related surgery. My temporary tissue expanders were replaced with permanent breast implants, and I was instructed to give my body six weeks to recover, after which I could return to my usual activities.
After five weeks and 6 days, I gave in and started exercising. It was almost the New Year. It was deep winter, a time of planning and setting things in motion. I was finally done with treatment, and I was ready to live again.
So for the next six weeks, I lived. I worked out almost daily. I started my private practice. I made plans. I designed a backyard garden. I took classes, learned new things. I took on new roles at work. I returned to freelance writing.
For six weeks, I lived. I was determined to get back everything I’d lost to cancer, and then some. I enjoyed my time with family, unburdened at last by the demands of treatment or recovery. Having emerged unburnt from the fire, I felt that nothing could stand in my way.
For six weeks I lived like a person reborn. This lasted until February 13.
That day my mom told me she had cancer too. That day, my newfound momentum sent me clear off what I now realized was a cliff, and like the coyote in the cartoon, I looked down and found myself unmoored, unsafe, and spiraling down.
It was nothing like my own diagnosis, first of all. I never thought that “I’m thankful for the way I was diagnosed with cancer” would be a set of words my brain would assemble in that order. But I am. I got the call one day. I saw an oncologist the following day. Within a week, I had a clear diagnosis, a treatment plan, a second opinion confirming those things, and a team of medical professionals I trusted.
This was about as different from that as it could get. For starters, the initial “diagnosis”–the one my mom called me about on February 13–wasn’t even that. It was unfounded speculation from a rude, shaming primary care doctor. I let myself believe for a bit that it wasn’t true. But for the next six weeks, as my mom was bounced around between doctors, hospitals, and scan machines like a dented ping pong ball, the picture continually came into focus, then blurred again.
One day it was early-stage lymphoma. Another it was metastatic ovarian cancer. Some days, other diagnoses were thrown out like beanbags on a cornhole board–lung, stomach, liver, breast, uterine. Doctors would walk out of her exam room completely confident and optimistic, only to return subdued and humbled, their hypotheses disproven, without any others waiting in the wings to be tested.
Picture yourself surviving the worst thing you can imagine, and before your scars–literal ones, in my case–have even fully healed, that same thing happens to the person you love most. That was me.
My mom had always been the person I called when I was so desperately upset I couldn’t do anything else. Now I had lost even that. My parents, through no fault of their own, relied on me in completely unsustainable ways during that time. I found myself supporting both of them, trying to curb my spiraling panic whenever they talked about metastasis and preparing for the worst, comforting all three of my siblings (especially the two teenage ones), fielding calls from extended family and close family friends, driving an hour to question doctors at the hospital while sick with the flu, researching–always, always researching–calling and begging my oncologist to take on her case or make a referral, talking my mom down from panic attacks over the phone, using my own therapy appointments to try to figure out how to live if my mom dies.
I could’ve handled this for a week. Maybe two. The mind goes into crisis mode and you somehow push on.
But it lasted for six. By the third week, I was coming apart. I started to become paranoid almost to the point of delusion, refusing to believe anything any doctor said because so many of them had been wrong. When my mom finally had a vague diagnosis and some semblance of a treatment plan, my mind rebelled against it, refused to accept it, and I ranted like an unhinged person over the phone about how this was wrong, and they hadn’t done this or that test or ruled out this or that possibility, and they needed to find a “real” doctor and get another opinion.
To their credit, they did get more opinions. The opinions all converged on the fact that the particular way my mom’s cancer had played out was so statistically improbable that it had only been recorded 20 times in medical history.
By way of comparison, there have been 23.2 million cases of cancer recorded historically in the United States alone.
This broke my brain.
I walked through the world like a fading ghost. Everything was a reminder of the thing I couldn’t forget anyway. The lemon tree my parents gave me as an engagement gift right before my surgery had unceremoniously dropped its leaves over the winter–they do that–and I couldn’t shake the fear that I was killing the last tangible symbol of her love I would ever get. All of my clients suddenly turned out to have dead or dying mothers that they needed to talk about.
My work suffered–everybody noticed. My parents were often calling and texting me during the workday and I would grasp at whatever few minutes I had between appointments to talk to them, sob inconsolably on the floor of my office, or both. I no longer wanted to be alive whatsoever, but even stronger than that feeling was the belief that I absolutely could not die, accidentally or on purpose, without dooming my family for good. By then I was living only for other people–my family, my partners, my clients–and I was starting to fail every single one of them, noticeably and repeatedly. The more I failed, the more I hated myself, my life, and the world.
It was, in short, a complete fucking living nightmare.
You have to understand—I was never one of those people who wonder Why me? when they get sick. Totally reasonable reaction—just not mine. In some ways this is because I incorporate and adapt to new knowledge quickly, and I was immediately focused on survival.
But the other half of it has to do with the way in which having cancer stripped me bare. I discovered that all of that emotional baggage and maladaptation I thought I’d handled years ago were actually still there, dormant. As all of my learned coping skills and cognitive strategies were eroded away like layers of sediment, I found that there was no bedrock of self-love underneath, no protective sense of my own worth as a person.
And so I didn’t feel the need to wonder what I did to “deserve” getting cancer. I didn’t think I deserved it, but I also didn’t think I’d done anything to deserve a happy, healthy life, either. Honestly, getting cancer kind of made sense. On my worst days I really do hate myself enough to make renegade killer cells an apt (if heavy-handed) metaphor.
My mom’s illness was completely different. As the weeks leading up to the eventual beginning of her treatment wore on and on, I hated the world more and more, and wanted to live in it less and less. I wished an asteroid would hit and destroy it. I wanted nothing to do with a world in which something like that could happen to someone like her. I wanted nothing to do with a life without her in it.
As a patient, I had a dark source of comfort—this too shall pass. You either survive cancer or you die.
I survived. My illness taught me that I can overcome anything. My mom’s taught me that no matter what I overcome, the suffering it brings will never end.
And yet. With something approaching an actual working diagnosis, my mom started her treatment in late March. The treatment seemed to be effective. The tumors shrank. I found myself sometimes thinking about something other than her. Spring came, as it always does, and the seeds went into the ground, and my wondrous garden sprang up once again as if from nothing.
And, just like last year, the new life in my backyard brought life back into me, too.
I don’t know what will happen with her treatment, or the rest of her life. There are reasons for hope and there are reasons for despair. Which one will win out in my mind in any given moment is a coin flip. I still haven’t figured out why or how to live without her if she dies. When she dies, as that’s obviously going to happen eventually. That’s another one of those things I didn’t expect to be thinking about this much at my age.
I haven’t written about this for months, except for scribbled ranting in my journal, because I had nothing to say. I could find no meaning or narrative in it. With my own cancer I learned things, experienced things. I had things to say about fear and bodies and friendship and family and work and joy. It was awful but it was also in many ways profound.
This was nothing. I learned nothing, saw nothing. “What am I supposed to write about?” I remember asking my therapist. “There’s no ‘there’ there. I just don’t want my mom to die. I’m just miserable and terrified and grieving already about that. That’s literally it.”
“You should think about why this happened to you,” my mom’s first doctor said, after ordering CT scans. I have also thought about why this happened to me, to us, as has she. We got nothing.
When I lost the thread of my own story last year, even that became part of the story itself. It was a gap, but the gap spoke volumes. When my mom got sick, I wasn’t weaving the web anymore. I was a fly trapped in it.
So I made do with what I have, and made myself a little cocoon from the fibers.
Then, midway through her treatment, everything changed again. She finally got her genetic test results back. She has BRCA-1, the same genetic condition I have. Then I understood.
She was always going to get cancer. It has always been a near-certainty, since long before I was even born, since before she watched her own father survive cancer.
My dad called and told me, and asked me to be the one to tell her. I froze. Couldn’t do it. On the one hand, it was “good” news, of a sort–it was a medical explanation, and it increases her chances of survival because it makes certain additional treatments possible. On the other hand, I shuddered to think of anyone, let alone someone I love so much, going through the hell I went through. What do I say to someone about to go through what was my worst trauma?
I told my dad this. He said, “It won’t be anything like that. We have your experience to guide us.”
And that’s when everything clicked for me at last.
My mom, like me, was always going to end up in this situation. Statistically, it was much more likely that she would go through it first, and I would go second. But that’s not how it happened, thank god, because this way it was my body and sanity on the line, not hers. Because this way I was the one to be mistreated and traumatized like that, I was the one who learned what I learned, I was the one who had to figure out how to demand humane treatment and pain control, I was the one who realized that panic attacks interact uniquely with this particular kind of post-op pain, I was the one who lived to write about it, I was the one who made it my mission to learn how to talk so doctors will listen and to start to teach that to others.
Now none of that will happen to her, so help me god, because I will be for her what nobody was able to be for me.
And with that came the realization that if I had a choice—if I could’ve somehow chosen to be put through this first so that she may survive it with fewer psychological scars—I would’ve chosen this, because I would do absolutely anything to save her life and her happiness, even face down death myself.
Everyone hopes on some level to find some sort of ultimate meaning in the horrors they go through; my answer to that basically got handed to me. I went through it so she wouldn’t have to, so that I could one day walk right back through the fire I’d escaped, and lead her out with me.
Things became somehow easier after that. While there isn’t any sort of cosmic meaning or significance to all this, I don’t really need there to be. In the unanswerable question of her tragedy, I found an unquestionable answer I didn’t know I was looking for.
After that I did something I didn’t expect to do. It won’t seem like a big deal to anyone but me, but I know what it means.
What I did was I bought trees. Berry trees. Black currant, gooseberry, cornelian-cherry dogwood, lingonberry, hawthorn, fig, mulberry, and, of course, rosa rugosa, which produces those rosehips my mom so prizes.
For the first time I was willing to plant things that wouldn’t give fruit for at least a year if not more, and to trust that on the day they repay all of my digging, watering, fertilizing, pruning, and protecting for the first time, I will still be around, and I will still care. That one beautiful fall day, maybe one of the last, my mom will visit me, and she will steal rosehips from my bushes, telling me that I wouldn’t use them anyway, and her laughter will be strong enough to send the birds from the feeders and bushes, flocking up, up into the dying light.
So that’s where I was, last weekend, digging holes in the yard as the rising summer sun woke up and thawed me.
On the patio behind me, where I’d set it out after the last frost, my parents’ lemon tree was waking too, sending bursts of new smooth green leaves from its buds like offerings to the sun god it worships.
I finished my work, picked fresh herbs from the garden for my mom, threw my stuff in the car, and drove west to Dayton, where my family was waiting for me.
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