November 18, 2013

When I get Cancer.


When I get cancer, I don’t think I’ll do very well with looking into mirrors. You seemed to have no problem with this—the glance of yours that follows the top button and precedes the brush of bangs and maybe a shift of the collar. You went through the routine as if no news was given and this day was the same as the previous. “Are you the son?” they asked. “She says she needs to see the son.”


When I rushed back through the security points to the pre-op room of curtain walls that they left you in, I found you laid back in a papery smock. The needles in your veins were ready to put you to sleep—this way you wouldn’t remember the incisions or excavation that was scheduled to happen in your lungs momentarily. And you were smiling—laughing, actually. It was the same laugh I’ve witnessed shape the lines around your eyes and cheeks. “I didn’t mean to scare you by calling you back.” You looked at me with all of your teeth as the neighboring creases aligned to their favorite positions. “It’s really not a big deal, I just wanted a moment—alone, with just you—before I go in.”


Your expression drifted toward the reality of our moment, your wrinkles relaxing from the evidence of laughter into that dim place that makes memories feel distant. “I wanted to say a few things to you,” you said as you gestured to sit on the bed. “If anything happens during surgery, and for whatever reason I don’t make it, I left a folder on the desktop of my computer labeled Matt & Jeff. Everything you need to know will be in there. I don’t want to scare you by saying that, I just needed you to know. Okay, bud?” You gently squeezed the bones in my hand to end the chapter of that moment and your wrinkles returned to their preferred condition. “Okay, so the other thing is not so serious,” you laughed, “it’s just that I forgot to change the voicemail on my work phone. Just make a new one for me—tell everyone that I can’t return any calls today, but they can leave a message or call my assistant. Okay? Now, give me a hug.” You pressed into my hand as another chapter broke. I did my best with navigating my arms around you, avoiding the tubes and wires until my knuckles stubbed into the mechanical bed. We embraced for a second, I stood up, and another pinch of my hand led us to saying “Okay, bye.” synchronously.


You began crying at your words and the unusual weight that they carried that morning. You waved me on as my throat and chest closed. When I reached the end of the hall, I waved back to your feet peeking below the lavender curtain and, at this point, I was lost. I asked a nurse for directions with a tone of desperation, “Excuse me, please. How do I get back to the family waiting room?” Of course, I wanted to complete your voicemail assignment in a timely manner, but I power walked my stiff legs down the linoleum hallways at a pace that would make any hospital bystander express concern. “What’s wrong, is she okay?” your sister anxiously requested with wide eyes. “Yeah, yeah, we just need to change her voicemail for work,” I breathed at her. “Oh for heaven’s sake!” she exhaled into the slouch of her chair, “Okay, I’ll do that right now for her. Geez, your mom scared the living crap out of me!”


The day of waiting carried on with an inability to look at its events in any kind of normal way—some consideration for temporality and worth was applied to all encounters. Most took place in the hospital cafe: my transactions for coffee, cashier eye-contact please and thank you, and change-remainder tips were more heartfelt than they’ve ever been. The other moments took place in your hospital room, I took frequent turns looking at you and looking at the city out the window, trying to bridge how the two could possibly be happening simultaneously. The doctor’s arrival disrupted the concerned attention we were all giving to your post-surgery nausea. We all stared at him blankly when he announced that he had cut a tumor out of your lungs. It was as though none of us had experienced good news before that moment, so we needed to defend what we knew. While I stared, you and your sister took turns with interrogation:

    “So, do we do another scan now to check how much cancer is left?”
    “Do we make plans for chemo then?”
    “Do I get some kind of radiation treatment just in case?”


The doctor slowed his words down like he was reading to children, “No, ma’am, we cut the cancer out of your body. It is no longer there. Your body no longer has cancer in it.”


We spent the rest of the day watching you breathe into a blue and clear plastic tube that would toss a little white ball inside, the height of the jump represented the current strength of your breath; passing this lung capacity test would win you a ticket out of the hospital. It was Wednesday, you went home Thursday afternoon and rested through the weekend. I met you for dinner on Sunday and you seemed unfazed by the surgery, as though it never happened. You said your only worry was the blood you coughed up over the weekend, but your doctor reassured you that it was normal. “Ma’am, we did, after all, cut your lung in several places. That blood should go away soon enough.” You returned to work that Monday and life carried on as it was before. All of this news came and went so quickly that I don’t think I ever fully processed it that week, maybe I still haven’t. It’s been six weeks since your surgery and this past one we spent almost entirely together. I convinced you one month ago to come to Ireland with me to visit Jeff, and you did.


This week helped me get to know that glance of yours, the one after the top button and before the brush of bangs and maybe a shift of the collar. It helped me get to know the time of day that you like to drink cappuccinos and what weather warrants your light jacket instead of your heavy coat. I grew familiar with the distance in which your reading requires glasses. I learned that I can still make you proud in ways like good grades and free-throws did. I replaced the headlight on our European rent-a-car; you made me feel heroic.


When we went hiking together this week, I learned this lesson best. I tread those rocks with a special awareness of my youth and your recovering lungs. Any time I felt the lack of my years being demonstrated by my step, I would turn around and lend my hand to help you forward. You would often not need the help. When you would slip, you would laugh. When I get cancer, it’s going to be difficult for me to laugh. Writing these words right now, considering my journey taken to arrive at them, makes my heart beat speed up in the way a threat does. It’s a sensation that floats solemnly between fear and anger: the result of reflection on a life that has taken me 27 years to understand how to love, and now I find myself possessive and selfish about it—in a “don’t anyone take this from me” kind of way.


When I get cancer, I think mirrors will become my greatest contenders: the windows that I’ve depended on for an impossible number of difficult lessons, showing a relentless display of the image I’ve exhausted myself trying to love. I attempt to make these moments respectful through the glances that have seen the full spectrum of esteem—the ones after the top button and before the brush of bangs, and sometimes a shift of the collar. When I get cancer, the mirror will exist selflessly in a way that I can’t. As stoic and persistent as it has always been, the mirror will quietly provide a new confrontation that I had not yet considered. For my entire life, these glances have existed as “until next time” or “I’ll see you later.” When I get cancer, my goodbyes will become suddenly convincing; I will say them with certainty because, to me, they will be true. I say this now because, when I get cancer, I don’t want you to believe my goodbyes.


In all fairness, Mom, I never believed yours.


When I get Cancer is included in the publications I'M HERE: a two-part tribute to my mother as well as The Shape of Spilled Milk.