Both of My Parents Have Cancer
There are like 44 individual sounds in the English alphabet and another tens of blends. Millions of combinations, few sensible, often misunderstood and mispronounced by myriad humans trying to speak English or make sense of American ways. We’ve somehow rallied to convince a big and diverse beautiful planet, teeming with life and language and history and resolution, that this hodgepodge of Germanic tribute and romantic resolve is worthy of being taught in every nook and cranny of a wide world and so, even in remote villages in Sri Lanka; when I traveled there last year, students in American brand t-shirts would clamor to me and use English to ask for candy or cash, their curiosity running alongside the road and up against their needs.
This has nothing to do with what I’m writing about but it’s sorta interesting, on its own, I suppose, and even more if you’re better traveled, more diversified, intellectually acclimated to worldly ideas and sprawl and rage. Or maybe if you’ve ever climbed the Sisyphian slope of acquiring English as a second or third or ninth language and the sounds and symbols still stutter or get stuck on your well spoken tongue you can at least recognize and probably relate to the gross improbability that anyone should master this ridiculous, my mother, tongue. And yet we do.
American babies aren’t born into knowing their language is out to get them. Adaptation and evolution, though I’m no qualified scientist, insist that language occurs through the happenstancial overhearing an infant does as it matures. Raised in a vacuum, no noise resembling words being heard, a child would never know to move their mouth outside of sucking or chewing, to make sounds have meaning outside of anguish and pain.
From early on we begin to hold meaning in sounds and silences. The stretching symbolism of an lover’s quiet becomes the cord, unplugged, slowly draining connection from what was once electric. The battle cry, raised fist and steely gaze, makes sense in light of broken treaties, the covenants we write and speak, sign and surrender, break and burn. I guess what I’m saying is that words, alongside action, create lives. Verbs, I suppose, are the blocks I’ve built everything upon and so it is in these words that everything hinges, falls and fails — adjectives chinking the in-betweens.
It’s a cold Saturday at the ski resort when I find out that both my parents have cancer. Lymphoma, specifically, I’d say, because I like the way it rolls off my tongue. First we name the beast, I discovered, then we tame it and make it beautiful. I am good at step one, only. I have never progressed into moving my right foot to follow my left. My mother is terminal, and in remission, confusingly both, two years in, $360,000 of immunotherapy dripped slowly into South Dakota veins in a Texas hospital where a Chinese doctor practiced world renowned medicine but awaits the words for the definition of a cure. My father’s beast spreads chest and armpit, newly, three years post-stroke and through chronic back pains — we’ve imagined him the healthy one. A pesky lump raised eyebrows but not overwhelming alarm until the doctors confirm it and we await treatment plans and staging, pacing the first few days of a cold January hoping the climate and the elevation make for a slow grow.
It’s a cold Saturday here, roughly 19 driving hours north of mom’s specialist, and a mile and a half, as the crow flies, from my parents house though, of course, they sent the news in an email. My family performs perfection with painstaking attention to detail, proper spelling, the absence of meaningful emotional delivery or expectancy of response. We are nothing if not efficient in our processing, the distribution of news. There are 44 sounds in a 26 letter alphabet and we excel in their arrangement, drag and drip meaning across screens and accept the ways sadness colors our tone, though we’d never claim it. We are obnoxiously logical about our deep emotions and so we copy some links, label prognosis, cite statistics, cc: all.
I do this, too, with my clients when I insist, with under breath mutters of “ok boomer” when they push back, that they never call me, only email me. “It’s better in writing,” I clarify and it’s failed me only when printing terms like “uncoated” or “matte” still mean different things to different people, still have to be touched with fingertips and felt out loud.
Oh! It’s the wife of the surgeon who I clash with on the paper coating and terms of printing. Oh it’s this small town joy that her husband will remove my dad’s lymph nodes just almost exactly 24 months after he removed my mom’s. It’s this small town kismet or karma that I pray the $1000 credit I gifted his wife, the wife of a well to do surgeon, will come back in careful hands, the prayerful and pausing power of his slow cuts and patient knife as he sutures and saves or digs and diagnosis my father, the parent of a self employed graphic designer, the husband of a teacher. Is $1000 enough? Is there more money or more kindness I can breathe into the energy I’m passing, ensure that the cancer is touched with fingertips, eeked from open veins, felt out loud.
Can I give up an hour or two, now, from the end of my time to give my dad an hour or two, now, as he begins fighting for his. What are the trades I’m allowed to make, meaningful emotional delivery, expectant response?
It’s a cold Saturday here but places where white people love to travel are burning and places where brown people live are being traded for the price of a barrel of oil, barrel chested mini-men with eiffelesque insecurities holding the barrel of a gun against the chest of the Middle East and asking what is a life worth and what will you trade, now, for an hour or two.
What is it worth.
“You really got shit luck in the genetic lottery,” he tells me, shrugging but likely struggling with serious implications, his kids half mine. “But you’re pretty.” He means it like a compliment, like the sort of comfort an umbrella provides in a hailstorm, symbolic but insufficient as shelter. “Yeah,” I muster with a glare doused in straight up grace production, “I’ll look good in a casket when I die young.”
“Your life seems dramatic,” I’m challenged. I retort, quickly, verbally building walls and digging moats of defiance at adjective and subjective labels, “the drama is in the response. We never act dramatic.” The truth is somewhere in that chinking. Armor. Walls. The colors and the blends of sounds and stories combined to risk and rattle. It’s dramatic, of course. Two parents. Two cancers. Two years. But there’s worth in the way we react and respond, the lives we live in conjunction to the diagnosis. The ways we lean into the difference between sadness and depression. John Gorman said, “depression is numbing and hopeless. Sad is life-affirming and beautiful.” And really, logically, they are built in the same set of 26 letters and the same 44 sounds, tens of blends and myriad meanings. The impossible reality that we will battle alongside a second parent in the span of 24 months, a second beast, in the span of two years, and we will fight to make that beast beautiful, bald-headed and resolute, in the mix of sad and salvation that always sees us through.
I don’t wanna be dramatic, but it’s a cold Sunday in these sacred Black Hills and I thought of going to church to hold hope and prayer alongside other people experiencing 26 letters of chaos spread and arranged in aggressive prognosis or hopeful gaze. But I made a roaster filled with cheesy potatoes and trudged two miles north to spoon warmth into the bellies of food insecure friends because is it enough? Can we move the needle on grace or retribution. What is it worth, in kismet or karma, blood or belief?
My fingers go numb in the wind, though the sun shines. My blood is thick, thicker than water, flowing with life and love and a genetic disaster. I lick cheese from my finger, watch the wind whip my pink-haired son’s cheeks rosy and remember the way to put letters into words, words into sentences, sentences into prognosis or prediction or deduction or logic or limits or lessons or living or love. Is it enough? An email with links to education. A million dollars of chemotherapy. The scales tip from depression to sadness when we remember this is 100% the way to be alive.
We will not go numb in the face of diagnosis because when we have named it, it becomes knowable. Anything we know we can love, lick, leave, lose, let go. This drama is the heartbeat of this long lean into being, that ever hopeful hallelujah I reference but rearrange into hell or high water when I forget to first breathe, when I realize everything weighs harder and presses heavier without hope of eternity, here, ever, now.
So here, ever, now, cc: all… we’ll arrange the letters and sounds into meaning. Join hands and bring numb parts back into warm, though sometimes insufficient, shelter. Press the palms of our hands in prayer and holding, parallel lines leading to hearts that are carbon copies in chromosomes and tears. Twice in two years, two parents, an entire line of screaming genetic drama and happenstance means we’re armored and ready to fight, cry, stand, deliver — together.
It will be enough.