In Lieu Of
June 09, 2009
This post is sponsored by the American Cancer Society.
I was in the ninth grade. It was early spring, a few weeks before Easter. My mom offered to take me out for lunch, and I, in my infinite gastronomical taste and sense of occasion, chose Taco Bell. We sat at a tiny table by the window. I remember I talked a lot. I don’t remember what I talked about, but afterward, when we got back into the car, my mom drove out of the parking lot…and then parked the car a few yards away, in a different fast food parking lot.
That’s when we had the conversation I realized my mom had probably intended to have at the restaurant.
“Your dad has cancer.”
He had cancer of the larynx, to be exact. The voice box. He’d quit smoking when I was a tiny little asthmatic thing, but the long years of cigarettes and daily high school English lectures had taken a terrible toll. He underwent radiation. I have a weird memory of going with him to a radiation treatment that I think I may have made up. I started writing short stories and essays in earnest around this time. That Easter, my parents gave me a tiny black-and-white kitten. Her name was Sabrina. She cheered us all up, and she was especially fond of sleeping on my dad’s chest and stomach during his naps. He took a lot of naps.
But the cancer went into remission.
Five years later, I was a freshman in college. I was attending a tiny Christian college in the Midwest, 13 hours from home, and absolutely miserable. Not even a full semester had gone by, but I knew I’d made a terrible decision. I had no idea how to fix things or admit that I hated it there without disappointing my parents – especially my dad.
That’s when the phone call came. I was sitting outside in the hallway, the curly phone cord stretched across my tiny cell of a dorm room, when my mom’s words buzzed over the receiver, causing me to slide down the wall to the floor.
“The cancer is back.”
I came home and stayed there. My dad had accepted an early retirement package from the school district after his first diagnosis, and been teaching as an adjunct professor at a local community college. I got to attend it for free. I was happy there. I made friends and good grades and landed the lead in the drama production.
I also, inexplicably, like a jackass, took up smoking.
But I quit just a few months later, at the urging of my boyfriend. A tall, dark-haired boy who held my hand for hours in the hospital waiting room, whom my father had eyed warily from his bed as they wheeled him into surgery. He would lose his larynx, and his voice. His voice that I listed to on my old walkman while we waited, a tape he’d made at my request, a recording of his rich voice reading bits of Shakespeare and Bible passages until the rasping, tired soreness of the cancer took over and he had to stop.
The tall dark-haired boy and I were married a little over a year later. My dad read I Corinthians 13 at the ceremony in a hoarse whisper, his new voice. A few months after that, my cat Sabrina died of lymphoma.
I was pregnant when the next call came. I don’t remember any details like I remember details from the other moments. The grey interior of our Ford Taurus. The slickly painted cement walls of my dorm. The ugly blotchy pastel furniture of the hospital.
I was probably at home, probably wandering aimlessly around the living room like I always do when I’m on the phone. She’d probably told me to sit down, but I’m not sure I listened, since I was so sure it was nothing, so sure there was no question that my parents were fine now and would meet this grandchild. My dad had been cancer-free for years, my mom’s few scattered health scares had a remarkable track record for not being anything really, truly serious.
Until now. She had breast cancer. She needed a mastectomy.
Both of my parents are still here, still alive. They’ve met not one, but three new grandchildren since my mom’s diagnosis in 2005. My father has gone on to fight many other health battles, from thyroid cancer to skin cancer to an aortic aneurysm to diabetes to emphysema to congestive heart failure. AND HE IS STILL HERE.
When my grandmother died several years ago – of complications from a fall in the shower, not cancer; in fact cancer has yet to successfully take out a single member of my family – my mother still asked that donations be made to the American Cancer Society in lieu of flowers.
The American Cancer Society asked those of us participating in this sponsored post/awareness campaign to keep our stories of how cancer has affected us mostly positive, to not dwell on the insidious, the unrelenting nature of cancer, of the fear that hangs over your head once the diagnosis is made – fear of every check-up, every late-night phone call.
I could have easily written that entry. Cancer changed the course of my life – cancer was *right there* at every major turning point, nudging and sometimes walloping me in directions I never would have otherwise gone. I don’t ever want to get cancer. I don’t want my husband or my children to get cancer. I will continue to donate to cancer research to up our odds.
But I know it can be survived, and survived spectacularly. That’s the story I really want to tell, the story I hope came through in my rambling today, the story of a family who kicked cancer’s ass, in lieu of the other way around.