Cancer is an uninvited guest, a dark shadow on a sunny day, a pointedly mean joke without punchline or retribution. It inspires sympathetic head-shakes and hugs from those who might understand or only think they do.
Everyone, it seems, knows someone who has battled cancer. Or at least knows someone who knows someone who has battled cancer (win or lose). Or someone that is currently in the fight. And what is left behind.
On life and death
The room is a warm and steady 72 degrees. It doesn’t change much. In the hallway, the bustle of doctors and nurses in scrubs and white coats. We are at Regions Hospital in downtown St. Paul. The plants are plastic: living things are harmful. But there is still life here, watching my mother dance around the room in a hospital gown to music I play for her. The windows can’t be opened but sunlight is streaming through the pane with warmth as real as the summer outside.
But things are different inside than outside. Inside, cut off from the melange of cars and people that cris-cross through downtown streets. From their lives and stories. This is 2004, a decade before the Light Rail first passed in front of the hospital. She would have been excited about that.
It’s hard to write a story like this without coming across as sob (or looking for sympathy). As I write this, my neighbor’s dog is chasing a rabbit from the yard, barking, soon to be covered in dirt and mud, blissfully unaware of the emotional trials of humans. The dog does not offer sympathy, only support; companionship, and so when telling stories like these we ask only for the same from people.
But death is a fairly touchy subject. (Of course it is). It is the one thing we all have in common (and the dead even more so). It makes us uncomfortable because it is also the one thing we cannot control. When sharing a story of death, then, should we not make it relatable?
Cancer of a progressive type
40% of men and women (approx) will be diagnosed with cancer at some point during their lifetimes. My mom smoked as a teenager, but not much. She grew up in an era where everybody did, but it didn’t stick. I grew up in a strictly smoke-free household. In fact, in that special sort of irony, she worked many years before her diagnosis for the American Cancer Society.
This really has nothing to do with cigarettes.
Though her time campaigning against cigarettes in taverns and educating about the dangers of tobacco should be noted, if only because the link between cancer and tobacco will be forever ingrained in our brains.
Leukemia is by definition, progressive. As was my mother. It’s a hard word to associate with illness and death, leukemia: it has almost the seductive quality of a woman’s name.
To hear my mother talk about it, there was nothing to be afraid of.
I suppose that we are not angry with the impending end, just with our lack of ability to do anything about it. Cancer expedites this process and leaves us feeling even more helpless, hopeless. Though, if there is one single piece of grace, it is that cancer at least gives those left behind something real to blame/to shake their fist at/to curse the name of.
Someplace to put their anger and despair, as the ancients might have cursed one of their many gods.
Cancer is Hades. Cancer is hell. It makes true the worst suspicions about life: that we are powerless, that we can do anything and everything right and still be left in a hospital room surrounded by plastic plants.
Cancer vs. the butterfly
But these are feelings only those from the outside know how to articulate. My mother was more worried about us than herself; more concerned that her three children (my two sisters and I) would be left with questions she was no longer there to answer. How can you speculate, muse, philosophize as your body weakens and each day becomes a struggle?
She had, for three of her remaining four months after the diagnosis, an IV pole attached to her at all times. If she wanted to walk somewhere, it would walk right alongside her. If she wanted to sit down or stand up; eat, sleep, yell, it was there. So she gave it a name: Denzel.
“If I am to be attached to something,” she said, “it may as well be something I want to be attached to.”
(She had a crush on Denzel Washington. Who doesn’t? This was her opportunity to finally have him on her arm.)
She also had a power animal (sometimes called a spirit animal). A practice recommended by books and holistic healers: a companion to give strength through life’s toughest trials. Hers was a butterfly. Mine might have been an ox, or a bear, or some other bullish creature of physical strength, but only because the prospect seems much more daunting (intimidating) to me than it did to her.
With Denzel on one side and a purple butterfly on the other she taught me to see beyond suffering: That it’s not about the hospital bed, or the science-fiction machines looming over us counting moments in beep, beep, beeps… It’s not about the sobering quiet that comes from realization and understanding, or tears that flow through the last light as it disappears.
It’s about the moments that will always have happened; the things that cannot be taken away. It’s about caring so much that those feelings will never disappear. Memories that remain. What will stay. The spirits that blow through open windows with the wind.
My mother’s impact is not forgotten. Her garden still grows, her wisdom endures: it’s not just about living, but life. Every undeniable, indefensible, gloriously right or horrendously wrong piece of it. This is what she taught me before she passed away. Gone for good is the wrong term. The butterfly remains.