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?
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