“The worst part about cancer isn’t what it does to you, but what it does to the people you love.” — Deadpool
I love the rare moments in which she breaks through the borders of mother and scratches the surface of friend. Indeed, these were rare moments before the cancer.
I welcomed her cancer with surprised tears, a sharp gasp for air, and gentle sadness that transformed into fierce, throbbing hatred. I remember two things from the night she told me about her diagnosis: One, the words from her mouth — “I have skin cancer” — two, my body, cold and abandoned and disturbed, lying in bed hours later, wishing everything could all end faster than I’d ever wished before.
I was a senior in high school and editor-in-chief of our literary-arts magazine, Delphi, at the time. I was juggling the necessities, like eating, sleeping, doing homework, designing a volume of a magazine, and keeping up a healthy social life. So, the news of my mother’s cancer hit me harder than anything else at that point in my adolescence. It was the bitter cherry on top of an already hectic, life-changing year.
I heard somewhere that cancer only wins if you believe it will. My after-school routine consisted of lying on the couch, dozing off to Cash Cab and The New Adventures of Old Christine, and waking up to the noisy garage door. Mike, my stepdad, walked in the living room with my mother next to him, securely holding onto each other. He led her to the couch beside me and asked her questions, one after the other. “Do you want your blanket? Can I get you some tea? What do you want to watch? Do you need your heating pad?” The surgeries drained life from her; it was the least Mike and I could do to make her feel comfortable and safe.
This is the image I remember: she, my mother, lying on the couch for all hours of the evening, bruised, stitched, lethargic, and helpless, never moving, never making a sound — the image is permanently burned in my mind. She was like this almost every day for the rest of my senior year of high school. I recall Memorial Day weekend that we spent at our house at Smith Mountain Lake. We were relaxing on the dock when she asked me to rub sunscreen on her back, and while applying it, I quietly cried at the sight of her stitches — the places where the cancer used to live and tried to win, the marks of the pain she suffered, the shrouds for the skin that couldn’t fight hard enough.
Most of my time was spent thinking of the right words to say. How do you tell someone you love them when you know with absolute certainty that those three words are never going to be enough? How can you hug someone long enough for them to know you care? My words were more calculated than ever. I wanted to say the right things and do the right things. Fulfilling those desires was the hard part; doing the right things is hard when you’re seventeen. In the mornings I opened my eyes, squinting at the sunlight through my blinds, terrified to face another day of her pain, of my pain. I came to school late and zombie-eyed, and left early, walking to my car as the sun glistened against my skin and pierced my eyes like a bee sting. I sat in my car, sweating, watching the clouds pass, Kendrick Lamar’s “Swimming Pools” consoling me. I looked to the sun, I looked directly at it and said with raging passion, “I hate you. I hate you. I hate you.”
Cancer lives in all of us. It is the self-deprecating darkness that seeks to control us — our minds, our bodies, our souls, every ounce of our being. Many days I spent wishing I hadn’t said or done many of the things I said and did to her. For a moment I am fourteen, a few years before her diagnosis, and she won’t let go of my wrist. “Let go!” I scream at her, “Let GO!” I don’t hesitate to smack her hand from my wrist. She releases. And she has no other reaction than to stare at me in shock, with only one thought fixed in her mind: My daughter just hit me.
I was dangerous. We were dangerous to each other. But then the cancer happened, and that’s when we realized, we are our own worst enemies. Before, we blamed our flaws on one another. We were both hateful, and we directed our darkness toward each other. Now, at twenty, I shine with the glow of anxiety and depression; my mother, over fifty, she shines with the aura of survivor.
She is a survivor.
I didn’t know it then, but I know now: Mom didn’t believe the cancer would win for a second. When she could go to work, she would work. When she couldn’t work, she wouldn’t. For the first time in both of our lives’, we can actually have conversations like the ones I dreamed of having with her. Before, every interaction I could remember with her was full of anger and frustration. But the cancer hardened and softened us. We both became stronger, and in that way, we were softer toward each other. We are soft enough to pass the boundaries of mother and daughter and enter the reassuring space of friendship.
Years ago, I was too scared to hold on. Now, I never want to let go.
Featured Image: Al Raines