Chapter 17: Livestrong

For my mom Julie, who taught me strength.

Like most interesting stories, mine begins before I was even born, with a woman I never met yet whose story has become an integral part of my own. Diane was a nice Italian girl, born and raised in New Jersey and the eldest of Rita and Guy’s four children, first-generation immigrants I would eventually come to know as Grandma and Grandpa. From what little I’ve been told, Diane was a smart, witty, and loving person, hands down a real catch. Had she not died of breast cancer, I’m sure she and my dad would still be happily married. Perhaps then, everything would have been different for my father and two older brothers. Though “what if” is never a fun game to play. It’s too indulgent, since we’ll never have any way of knowing for sure.

Diane’s tale is much too similar to those made-for-TV movies: woman finds lump, complains to her doctor, gets a bad diagnosis, three months later it’s too late. You sit there in front of the TV, crying with a box of tissues in your lap, lamenting, how tragic. It’s a story we know all too well, because chances are you have your own Diane. Though I never met Diane, her absence has affected my family and consequently influenced my life. Morbidly, I’ve always felt somewhat guilty about her death, realizing had she not died I would probably be some other man’s daughter, telling a completely different story. But again, enough “what ifs.”

It’s difficult to imagine how things could have gotten worse for my father, but that’s Murphy’s Law. During Diane’s last few months, my two older brothers, who were three and five at the time, came down with a serious case of meningitis. Thankfully, by some divine intervention or whatever you believe in, they pulled through. Michael made a full recovery. Brian lost his hearing. Diane died. As for my dad, he never did fully recover. He had lost his wife, and a part of him died with Diane.

It’s hard to imagine what my dad might have been like before Diane, a man more carefree and open. Part of me wants to picture him as a Bollywood character, prancing in a field and merrily picking flowers to the tune of a sitar, a huge grin slapped across his face. While I can’t prove that my father knows bhangra, I know my father was once a sillier man.

One of my favorite stories that my father tells is about the time he and his high school classmates tied a horse to the church bell in the middle of the night. “The horse was so scared it starts shitting everywhere. And the priest hears the bell ringing, right, so he goes up to the church, walks in, and because it’s so dark, he goes sliding in the shit. Then comes in another priest, and same thing, down he goes. And me and my buddies are just in the bushes laughing, but really I’m thinking to myself, holy shit.” Having told the story countless times, he’ll deliver the last line flawlessly, tears streaming down his face from cackling.

My father never told stories like this about Diane. Sure, he’d answer questions, like how they met—bagging groceries at A&P—but his answers never turned into anecdotes. It was as if her cancer had eclipsed all of his happy memories of Diane. Feeling it wasn’t my place, I didn’t push him to elaborate. Plus, part of me understood my father’s reluctance. Casually bringing up someone’s cancer into a conversation isn’t easy. I’ve tried.

During my second year of teaching in Brooklyn, my stepmom Julie was diagnosed with breast cancer. Immediately after I found out, I went to call her, but before I could press dial, it occurred to me, what would I say? After spending so many years thinking cancer was a bad word, I suddenly couldn’t bring myself to say it, especially to my mom.

Rather, sick is the word I’d use. “My mom is sick,” I told a guy on our a second date. I figured that cancer, like anal sex, wasn’t appropriate to bring up until the eighth or ninth date, when things got a little more serious.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to do any of the talking. With a background in nursing, Julie had a rational and scientific explanation already prepared when the phone rang. In fact, having already practiced on Michael, her spiel was immaculate. Hearing her talk felt surreal, like a cancer Q&A. Just before we hung up, she gave me a list of book recommendations to explain more about cancer.

Julie’s reaction to big events has always been to buy a book. When Brian came out of the closet, she purchased So You Have a Gay Son. Then she went through menopause and bought more books, fashioning her bedroom into her very own library. I’d walk in to see her hidden beneath stacks and stacks of books, and be bombarded with an unprovoked lesson on the changes of a mature woman’s body. She became obsessed with talking about it. Sadly, now I know more about menopause than I ever imagined. Come age fifty, I’ll be ready.

Unlike Julie, my go-to reaction has always been crying. More than just in times of sadness, crying is how I express all of my emotions—happiness, fear, anger, or being overwhelmed. While some people may have the ability to differentiate their cries, mine always manage to make me sound like a Wookiee at a wax parlor.

As much as I wanted to cry, it didn’t make sense when my mom was able to keep so collected, talking about shopping for second opinions like it was a new car. Even though Julie has always been a calm person, part of me debated whether she was in shock. I was.

Looking for someone to confide in, I told the news to my cousin, who told my aunt, who in turn, told my birth mom. This I assume, as a few days later on the phone, she demanded to know, “Does Julie have cancer?”

I told her yes, and she grunted. It must be hard for her, I thought. Hating someone can be tricky when you find out they’re sick or possibly dying. It’s far easier to understand people in a cartoon sense where those who are bad are always bad and those who are good prevail. Then again, even mortal enemies like the sheep dog and the coyote clock out at the end of the day and find a way to put their differences aside while walking home together. I waited, but she didn’t pry for more information, nor offer well-wishes or condolences.

After Julie started receiving treatment I asked her, “So, any weird side affects?”

“Oh my god, I can’t stop eating chicken pot pies,” she replied, and I smiled, picturing this listed as a possible side effect on WebMD. Wouldn’t that be a field day for hypochondriacs? Teasing, I asked, “Are you sure you have cancer? Because it sounds like you’re pregnant.”

Rather than laugh, she said, “Don’t be ridiculous. I’m going through menopause, remember?”

While Julie felt comfortable talking about her cancer, my father was not. We’d call the house inquiring for updates and if my father picked up, he’d hand the phone directly to Julie. Though he never explicitly said he didn’t want to talk about her cancer, we all knew. Thus, he was the one we all worried about, not my brothers who had lost their mom, and not our mom, who actually had cancer.

To help her keep track of all her radiation appointments, Julie would write them down in a planner, and looking inside, I noticed next to every session was a sticker. Similar to the ones teachers hand out to first-graders, brightly colored stars were adorned with motivational phrases like way to go or good job!

“What are these?” I asked and she told me she wanted to monitor how she felt after each appointment.

“See, here on the twentieth I felt ‘Dyn-a-mite!’” she replied earnestly. Chuckling, I kissed her forehead and told her she was brilliant.

It’s not uncommon for people who have a near-death experience to get spiritual or reconnect with God. Shortly after her diagnosis, Julie started going regularly to the mall. There we bought matching faux jade elephants from a small cart vendor, who assured us the amulets brought health and happiness. She hung hers around her bedpost and so did I.

Not long after, I went to Spain to visit a friend and found myself in the town of Avila where I saw the finger of Saint Teresa. Like my jade elephant, it’s said that Franco kept the finger by his bedside as a sort of talisman. While creepy, I’ll admit the prospect of seeing the five-hundred-year-old finger of a saint excited me. Franco may not have been history’s most beloved dictator, but he certainly did achieve success, albeit brutally. Yet standing there in the dark, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed. It looked like a piece of wood with a ring shoved on it. There was nothing scary, powerful, or particularly special about it.

Proving not all was lost, just across from the finger were sanctified rose-scented rosaries. Before leaving, my mom had asked me to buy her one. When I got back, I handed the rosary to my mom and discovered she too had done some shopping; she had bought a bracelet decorated with the Turkish evil eye of protection. You had to hand it to her; she was thorough.

Seven months later, the doctor called, delivering Julie a clean bill of health. Though I can’t be sure, my guess is on the elephant.

“How are you feeling?” I asked her later and she replied, “Tired. I have no strength to clean the house.”

Amused, I shook my head, thinking of course you’d think that. Julie saw cancer similar to the way one thinks of a blackout, as just another one of life’s random inconveniences. She made it look so easy and so, the summer after she survived breast cancer, with a mouth full of bagel, I asked her, “How do you do it?”

Without asking me to explain what I meant, she answered calmly, “I just do my best to keep moving forward and focus on the positive. That’s all I can do.” That was it. Then she took a bite of her half of the bagel and smiled at me. Of course it was that simple. If only practicing this philosophy were.

When the cancer came back almost two years later, this time attached to her uterus, I was living an ocean away, in Spain. Now having cancer for the second time, I waited for Julie to react and she finally did. She was annoyed.

The day before I moved to Spain, she was fired from her job where she’d worked for ten years. Unable to find steady work, she suddenly found herself collecting unemployment, avidly searching for jobs, and to her dismay, going to doctor’s appointments to treat her cancer. “I know, cancer is so annoying, right?” I teased.

This time, the cancer required removal, a hysterectomy. As a woman, the thought made me squirm. Just as a kidney stone can be seen as the male equivalent to giving birth, a hysterectomy felt like the female equivalent to mental castration. Physically, I knew my mother was strong enough to endure the surgery. What scared me were the possible psychological ramifications. I didn’t want my mom to see herself as less of a woman. My mom has always been resilient, but even she had to have her limits. Fearing she could have side effects even more drastic than chicken pot pies, I took a page from my mom’s book and read up on it.

Using the Internet as a medical reference is not something I generally do or advise others to do. I know far too many people who have incorrectly self-diagnosed themselves or worse, scared themselves into thinking they have cancer. Should a friend tell me they read a web article and subsequently suspect they’re a celiac, I’ll remind them there’s a reason medical students go to school for seven years, and that if just anyone could do it, we’d all have a medical degree from Google University.

Forgetting my objections, I looked up hysterectomy and immediately wished I had taken my own advice. There, listed under side effects were drastic mood change and depression, due to the change in hormone levels.

For those who have not personally experienced the irrational craze that can come with a surge or drop in hormones, I can only describe it as a tsunami. You know this destructive force is coming, but you’re powerless to stop it. All you can do is tell people to flee to safety until it’s passed. Though Julie is strong, the possibility of losing her not just to cancer, but to hormones, terrified me.

The surgery took place around Thanksgiving and left Julie with several stitches in her abdomen, making it uncomfortable to laugh, as she told me over Skype. Nevertheless, she giggled every time my niece performed her latest trick, which involved hiding an object underneath the corner of our dining room rug, pretending it had disappeared. Though my niece couldn’t really talk, her face and hands managed to say, where’d it go? Then, once convinced she’d successfully tricked her audience, she’d unveil the object and squeal with delight. Ta-da! Only a year old, this was enough to entertain her for hours, and so everything within reach was grabbed and placed under the rug, again and again. Despite her pain, Julie laughed each time, smiling proudly at her granddaughter.

Watching my mother smile at the simple joy of my niece’s trick eased whatever fear previously I had. Cancer wasn’t going to change Julie. Uterus or no uterus, my mom would always be strong. For in fact, cancer was like the five-hundred-year-old finger of St Teresa. Neither had any real power, except for the power that people gave it.

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