We had been referring to Troy’s cancer as “our roommate.” That roommate who did annoying things at first – didn’t close the fridge door, beat you to the newspaper crossword – but eventually used your razor, slept with your significant other, and his/her mother/father, stole your money, wrecked your car, drowned your cat, and pimp slapped you for simply existing.
But really, cancer is a line of demarcation. It’s before and after, then and now. We speak of many things with a cancer reference.
“We should take a road trip like we did that summer before Daddy got sick.”
“I liked the dress you wore that Christmas after Daddy got sick.”
“Remember that baked ziti we had while Daddy was in the hospital?”*
I can look back at my work and see when I stopped writing, when words would have helped but didn’t come, or hovered in a dream, floating beyond reach. It was during cancer. I can see, also, that I was trying to be careful, and was afraid.
All the years that my children were small and I was exhausted, too tired to write, work and be a good mom, I chose to be a good mom in the way I could be, and I put my words on slow growth. They wouldn’t go away, the words, and nagged me through horrible depression, the characters calling and insisting they would have my attention. I went back to school for writing. My words came back.
Or maybe cancer isn’t a line but rather, a verb. “To cancer” is to live with chemo, death, radiation, acronyms, meals made by others, carpools run by others, missed tests, bathroom crying jags, Friday nights with insurance papers and fax machines, weeks without showers, breathing machines, frightening nights of a patient’s deep chill despite a smothering of quilts, heating pads, electric blankets, body warmth. Flakes of mustache falling into cereal. Bones protruding. It is to live with knowledge of dilaudid and propofol and epidurals that don’t work, the precision of the morphine timer, the need to have your “he has cancer we are in the hospital the girls are fine yes i will call if we need anything” speech written in a 2-minute press conference.
Or maybe it’s all three. The roommate never totally left, thanks to scars, scar tissue, rerouted and retooled guts and bladders, and our beloved chemo brain. We will never stop thinking in terms of before and after. It will always be before and after. We will never stop cancering. Gratitude and fear and worry and more gratitude put me into crying fits in yoga or at the sight of a bald scalp. We have three-month, then six-month, then yearly checkups. We all know what a person with reddish, peeling skin is doing at least once every three weeks.
I’m glad the words are back again. Maybe they’ll help me, or you, or someone you know.
And here’s hoping the line, the roommate and the verb are all far enough away that I can look for new ones.
*it was some ahhhh-mazing ziti, because Daddy was in the hospital 10 times, not counting chemo, and we STILL remember that ziti. We ate it straight from the pan, on the living room floor. The kids were 10th grade and 8th grade. They’re now a college freshman and a high school junior.