Sunday, February 21, 2010

Fuck cancer. That is all.

Alice’s mom died in November, a week before Thanksgiving and two weeks after undergoing surgery to remove a cancerous tumor from her liver. Though I was 1,500 miles away, I knew about this because she sent me updates every few days. She was upbeat, Alice, my dear friend of twenty-two years. Her emails were positive and filled with hope, though of course I could read fear between the lines. I knew her hope and I knew her fear because I’d ridden that very ride. We’ve been around the block a few times before, cancer and I.

Two months later I wrote her to tell her I was coming for a visit. I had wanted to come out for the funeral, but couldn't swing it. I thought it better to wait anyway, because when all the well-wishers and there-therers are gone, the pain hasn't left. If anything, it's only grown keener because the shock has worn off and cold reality settled in. This was on the same day I watched Pat Robertson declare Haitians deserving of the disaster that destroyed their island. He sat there moralizing in his 87-year-old perfect health and I was struck by the injustice of this. Cancer is indiscriminate like that. Taking from us our mothers and best friends, rolling through our lives like some cooly objective wheel-of-fortune, picking off its marks without attention to cause nor merit. Impartial to the end.

When I was ten my dad was diagnosed with a cancer that originated in his lower abdomen and metastasized throughout his body, growing on the outside of his organs. He was given chemotherapy more as an experimental treatment than anything else and was not expected to survive, though to everyone’s surprise, it responded and went into remission. Though he didn’t live long enough to see my children, it granted him many more good years. When I was a freshman in college my mom was diagnosed with liver cancer. By the time it was discovered, her tumor was so large it was inoperable. She died five months later.

It’s come for me twice, cancer. Once when Daniel was a newborn and again two years later, and I kicked it to the ground.

We tend to do cancer young in our family. Face it when we’re in our prime. Conquer it or not. Other, more distant relatives have succumbed to it as well. Breast, brain, throat.

My mom would have loved my children. She had a child's heart and sense of curiosity. When we were young she would take us to the beach and we would melt wax in coffee cans, dig holes in the sand and pour it in to make sand candles. She would lie stretched out on the sand with us, chins cupped in fascination as the wax hardened into awkward shapes. When we got home she would light them at the dinner table like they were something special.

When I was 21 I fell in love with an older man and he moved in with me. We got engaged. I brought him home to meet my mom. She was cooly gracious. Later, when I was visiting alone, I asked what she thought of him. She was slicing vegetables. He's not good enough for you, she said. And of course she was right.

I'm told my two cancers, the first a rare soft tissue sarcoma and the second papillary thyroid, were unrelated. A coincidence. Whether they were related to my mom's I don't know. I don't know where her's originated and I haven't been able to get access to her medical records. HIPPA has thwarted me at every turn, protecting her cold, dead privacy from the people she loved most in the world and who are her genetic benefactors. I haven't given up.

I don’t much go in for cancer awareness campaigns or fundraisers. I don’t buy pink or wear ribbons. I don’t hate cancer enough to rail at it and I can’t muster the enthusiasm to put together a team to walk for the cure. If you want me to sponsor you maybe I will. Mostly I’m just weary of it. When I catch its scent I don't run or even bristle, I just turn and look it square in the face and tell it go fuck itself.

It's whittled my family down to a nub. It's robbed my children of knowing their grandmother and my mother of knowing her daughter as a grown woman. It's sent me under anesthesia on three separate occasions and taken tissues and organs from my body. It's broken the hearts of people I love and sent them to bed at night in a deep pool of sorrow. And me too.

When I was out in California last April I saw Alice's mom. She was sick then, had been sick for a long time. We sat in the living room and talked while Alice sorted out something about a broken toilet handle with her father. She wanted to show me her garden, she was very proud of her garden. We got up and walked through the kitchen towards the back yard and she stopped to point out pictures of her daughters and grandchildren, and one had just had a birthday. She walked slowly and held onto counters and the backs of chairs. When we got to the yard she pointed out each tree and flowering bush and named it and I nodded and told her they were beautiful, because they were, and she told me they weren't really, because she couldn't take care of them properly anymore, this one really needed to be cut back, look at how it was growing up and over the fence, but what could you do?

What indeed.

The other day I came across an essay from one of my writing classes at KU, written in the wake of my mother's death. It was about her death, yes, but mostly it was about her life and reading it made me smile. Maybe I'll share it here later. My mom had been so full to the brim of life, so brilliantly energetic and alive and impossibly youthful that her illness and death came as a shock to all of us. Cancer didn't happen to people like her, we told ourselves. But it does, and it did. I realized too as I was reading the essay that it was February 6. How serendipitous. Seventeen years to the day that she died.

This morning I awoke and my daughter was curled up on the floor beside my bed. She does this sometimes when she has a bad dream or when she wakes before everyone else or sometimes just because. I opened a sliver of an eye and saw her ducked down, watching me from where she imagined she was safely hidden from my range of vision. Children are terrible judges of their parents' range of vision. I smiled and she crawled up beside me and twined a hand in mine. I had a bad dream, she said. I pulled her closer. Does your head hurt, she asked? A little, I said, and swept a stray hair from her eyes. She handed me a chocolate.

Nancy Brumm Fite 1940 - 1993


I don't remember when

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  1. Thank you for sahring this. My little sister has cancer. I am sick of it. Not as sick of it as she is though, I am sure. Enough already.

  2. This is a beautiful reflection. For some reason I find the third pic quite moving. I am presuming that is your mother in the yellow sweater, with your brother and is that your head in the white pom-pom beanie? Three heads together, all looking at the same thing. I can see she would have been a wonderful grandmother. I am so sorry for your loss.

  3. Yes, my mother and older brother and myself. I think that was Merritt Lake in Oakland, or perhaps Golden Gate park in San Francisco. Thank you.

  4. I'm moved - keep fighting :-|

  5. I second Veronica's comment.

    Keep on fighting, K. You are one brave woman. That is all.xoxo

  6. very moving, cancer killed my grand mother and grand father, my mother has had it 4 times and it now dying of it. we have no relationship to speak of I have grieved her for years. still I can't watch the American cancer society commercials, ~the official sponsor of birthdays, with out balling like a baby.

  7. Beautiful. Sounds like your new head and old brain are all working together. The migraines need to free you up to write at 100% - we need your voice loud and clear.

  8. oh the tears, cancer is all around us, I too am sick of it, and I do tell it to f*** off where-ever I turn - because it is there, wherever I turn - the ribbons, the fundraisers, the walks - all to "end" cancer - yah right.

    and now you.

    thanks for sharing K -


  9. Kristen...Thank you. I have three sisters all of them diagnosed with liver, one breast and one thyroid...people ask me about my family in relation to the cancer they have not the name of the surviver (to this point, all of them). My mom passed last year....I know the heart break of not knowing a yes, fuck cancer indeed....but let us also remember all of those that have survived and thrived...

  10. Lesley, wow, incredible. All of us have a story to tell, I fear. So glad that your sisters are doing well. Thanks for the visit.

  11. Ahh, this is beautiful. My mum died last November from cancer. Blew me away how fast it all happened. I think you're right, dealing with it doesn't happen straight away. I'm still waiting I think. So glad I know about your blog. It's awesome.

  12. Thanks Bern, I'm so sorry to hear about your Mom. That's so very recent, I know for me the grieving took ages, but after about six months it felt like I came out of the fog. It never really goes away of course, but it eases. I imagine it's different for everyone. Might check out Veronica Foale or Frog Ponds Rock on my blogroll, they've blogged about that too (and are just wonderful writers/people). Glad you found me on twitter.

  13. I always enjoy learning more about my grandparents. I wish I could have had more time with my grandmother. From what I've heard, she sounded like an amazing person. I would really like to see that paper you wrote about her.

  14. I am extremely lucky to have only known one person (personally and with whom I was close) with cancer. She died but up until her very last days she was so full of life that we would forget she had cancer. I still can't decide if that's a good thing or not, it was such a shock when she died.

  15. I've been thinking about cancer today.
    My husband went down to the "big smoke" (2 1/2 hours away)this morning to visit the cancer hospital.
    I hate the cancer hospital.
    I also love the cancer hospital.

    He's kicked cancer up the quoit a couple of times, too.

    I dunno what I think about cancer.
    Mainly, I try not to think about it.

    Today, he has a routine poke and check-up.

    Reading your post made me feel like I was collapsing in on myself. Most writing doesn't really move me, even when it's about crappy stuff - but this piece really makes me feel stripped away. Seems weird - but I feel grateful for that (why? I have no idea).

  16. Veronica said it best! Thank you for this post.

  17. My heart is where yours is. I lost my beautiful mum 4 years ago to a brain tumour. She became my baby where she was bed ridden and couldn't do a thing for herself the last 2 months of her life. I miss her terribly, she outlived her prognosis, the Docs gave her 6 months, she did 2 years. That is no comfort though. Why does anyone get cancer or another disease or die in an accident? Only God knows, keep strong thank you for sharing and allowing others to open their heart too x

  18. Thank you everyone for your heartfelt comments. xoxo

  19. You know- I have been pretty lucky in my life. Very few people have died and my great grandparents lived to be very old.

    But the few times I have dealt with death- it has been cancer. And all I can ever say about cancer is EXACTLY what you said.

    Fuck cancer.

    I too agree that it is so horribly disgusting because it thrives on being the russian roulette of deadly diseases. It does not care who it hits.

    Cancer took a friend of mine in one week. one lousy week. not even a full week. one business week- she went in feeling dizzy on a Sunday night and died that Friday morning. None of us got to say goodbye because we never imagined in a million years that anything could take a young, wonderful person in a week.

    Cancer took my junior prom date right after he graduated from college.

    Cancer took my sisters best friend and she was in the hospital room where he was supposed to be receiving a bone marrow transplant- but about 12 hours before he would have received it. He went into a coma and died. She had to sit there and see her friend dying.

    I am so sorry for all it has taken from you. I hope that it stays away forever and again...

    fuck cancer.

  20. I'm lucky that cancer has not been a big factor in our family or friends' live. But everything you say, is spot on. Amen.

  21. Hi, I'm new to your blog, and I'm so glad to have found it. Thank you for sharing this.

    Cancer took my mother when I was 19, she was only 44 herself, she fought it for four long years.

    I had been feeling guilty for not participating in walks etc., but now after from reading your beautiful piece, I realized that that is ok.

    I too say fuck cancer! Thank you!


  22. Kelly, I'm sorry for your loss. As I'm only now the age your mother was when she died I can say that seems very young to me. Please don't feel guilty, at all, and thanks for the visit.

  23. Indeed! Thanks for the honesty and insight of dealing with cancer. I have a sister who is a breast cancer survivor. Cancer touches everyone, in some way, eventually. Hope you kick it in the pants and send it packing for good!

  24. K-Your mother looks and sounds like a beautiful person.


  25. I read it, and it didn't make me sad, because as usual your writing is beautiful, and full of tenderness.



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