The Great War. We always have one of those in a fantasy novel, no? The War of the Ancients. The Reckoning of Kings. The Day of Dragonfall. The Great War…All that fantasy-speak boils down to a cataclysmic event that changes the world: socially, politically, biologically—any mixture of adjectives. In a world’s history, these grand events signal a turning point. A point where something that was, will no longer be the same. In real life, not everything is so epic. Small disasters, personal torments are the rule of the day. We are broken, again and again, and we silently put ourselves back together—or fail to do so. In starting the story of my mother’s death, I felt it was important to write that moment: the day the Great War came into our lives. I said our lives, since everyone who was involved in Cynthia’s journey was affected and changed that day and thereafter.
I’m all about jumping right into an issue and letting the mess sort itself out. Life is supposed to be messy, dammit. So enough of the preamble. Here begins our tale.
Note: Certain names have been changed to respect the privacy of the persons involved in this story.
Chapter 1: When the Bombs Fell
“Yes. Of course. What’s wrong?”
It’s my mom, kind of. What an odd question and what a strange tone—trembling, confused—she has. My mother sounds so outside of her realm of behavior that I am immediately thrown from my comfortable fall afternoon. As I start pacing the room, she says the unthinkable.
“I have cancer.”
Just like that, a punch to the gut. A bit of silence, and then she rambles out a story.
A while back, sometime after grandpa’s funeral, she notices a lump in her pelvic region. A small lump; nothing to worry about, she is told by her family doctor. Eventually, the mere presence of the lump continues to aggravate my mother, and she is referred to a surgeon to have it removed. The Surgeon sends her away, nonverbally chalking her concern down to female obsessive hysteria, or some other dismissive condition that he scribbles in his notes. When she returns to The Surgeon a second time, he’s not so smug. Mom is angry and she wants the lump out of her body. Fast forward eight weeks, and she’s told to come in for the results of the biopsy for the lump. The nothing-to-worry-about lump is Cancer. Capital “C”, stage four. Later, I will learn and hear tales all too familiar to Cynthia’s; stories of various levels of failure in recognizing cancer as it takes root.
I am at a loss for words. Holy shit. What is happening? I’m shrieking this on repeat in my head throughout her five minute summation of this great and secret pain that she has concealed from me for almost half a year. Obviously, there are gaps, agonies she’s trimmed from the tale. When there’s a break in her breakdown—she’s sobbing now—I ask where she is and tell her that we need to meet. Immediately.
“I’m with Michelle,” she says.
I hear some shuffling, and a second later my sister enters the conversation. We haven’t spoken in two years or thereabouts. I believe we last argued about a cat; one of hers, which she put down. I disagreed with her decision. I often disagree with the decisions of others.
“Hey,” she says.
Instinctively, I’m trying to stay chilly—I could teach Narnia’s White Witch a few tricks on how to be standoffish. My anger, however, has a more meaningful purpose now.
“How soon can the two of you be here?” I ask.
“We’re on our way.”
I call my partner and we have a mutual meltdown. He wants to come home—he’s always rushing to fix things. He’ll be on his way as soon as he can leave work.
Long after we’ve ended our conversation, I continue to burble grief and snot. When you’re ruined, emotionally, all decorum and grace goes out the window. I quite hate not being in control of myself, but it’s impossible to maintain any illusion of okayness. My mother is going to die. I hear that wicked voice whispering poison into my ear and I can’t shut it out.
Finally, I take a fetal position on the couch and let my cats console me with their cuddles and disarming cuteness. Animals are nature’s angels. They love without fear or prejudice. Still, even they know that there is a problem beyond their capacity to fix. Mostly they sit and place their paws on me if I try to move. Often they lick me as if I’m wounded, which I am.
A family summit. My sister, my mother and I are gathered around my living room table. My partner is still on his way. He’s stuck in traffic since life doesn’t give two shits for personal tragedy. Remnants of a meal remain nearby, stinking up the place. We don’t particularly care. We’ve been strategizing, and not with much success. We’ve hit a wall with our medical system, where the nearest available appointment for my mother to meet with a specialist is weeks and weeks from now. Is this normal? Probably. Is it fair? Not at all. Life is hardly fair. Life is the dealer that always wins. I figure it’s about time that we cheat a little ourselves.
“I’m calling Fiona,” I declare.
(Let me tell you a story within a story. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before—or something like it. Incredibly beautiful, accomplished and intelligent woman. She speaks four languages and has traveled all over the globe. Not only has she been a successful model, but she’s a cardiologist, too. She’s the kind of girl that you’d love to hate, if she wasn’t so bloody sweet on top of all her blessings and winnings in the genetic-lottery. Only God did make one mistake in the recipe, God forgot to add a dash of “good judgement” to the batter of this perfect little cake. When it comes to men, and choosing where to put her heart, Fiona has all the common sense of a headless chicken.)
We’re not “connected” people, my family and I. Despite my mother being a lawyer, a PGT (Public Guardian and Trustee), we are not associated with a network or lineage of privilege and influence. My mother went back to school after raising two kids. She defends prostitutes and mentally and physically infirm people from the kind of spineless filth that like to take advantage of the disadvantaged. And yet, I have a friend, Fiona, who I met while I was a personal trainer and she was my client. At the time, Fiona was a woman who had just stepped into this country on the arm of a rather horrible husband (she loved him, he loved his trophy). I think of calling Fiona, because she is literally the only person I know who might know someone who can help us in our predicament. The problem being: now that my mom has cancer, how soon can we find out what the Hell is going on inside of her body?
Fiona doesn’t answer, though I leave a detailed message.
Afterwards, the three of us talk about what is to come.
“We’ll beat this,” we say.
A bold claim, considering we are ignorant of the severity of mom’s illness. We comb through what we know, now that mom is a little calmer. My sister and I ask again for the details of what she was told by The Surgeon.
And quote: The biopsy came back, and the tissue was cancerous. Stage four lymphoma. You need to make an appointment with your doctor. Stage Four Lymphoma. See your doctor. Then The Surgeon left.
I struggle to understand this part, seeing as my mother is not one for creatively embellishing a story. I assume that she’s left something out, or glossed over the encounter in her anger. Alas, she has indeed told the entire and ugly truth about a man totally devoid of empathy. A man who treated her with disrespect from the moment that he met her, and ultimately delivered her death sentence with the same nonchalance before slinking away. Total cowardice. Appalling behavior from a healer. What I do not know, is that through this journey we are about to undertake, The Surgeon will not be alone in his ivory tower of hubris. For as many glorious and caring souls as we are to encounter through mom’s illness, there are just as many members of the medical and critical care community that have no business tending to the ill. When you’ve lost your empathy, you’ve lost the compassion to be a front-line healer. Be the brains behind the treatment, and never the face. That face will be the first and only experience a cancer patient remembers when they are told that they have cancer, and it can set the tone for the entire course of their treatment and recovery.
Most of that afternoon my sister and I spend on trying to diminish mom’s rage from that encounter. Still, we will not mend this wound in her heart for many, many months to come. Mom will keep this anger until at last she reaches a concession, an agreement and acceptance with the growing virulence inside of her. Cancer is a living thing. A demon baby in the womb of our bodies. As much as we despise the illness, and the chaos it represents, it is a part of who we are. Cynthia will make peace with her disease eventually, but not today.
Fiona calls back. She’s been busy, it seems. She’s pulled every string she has and then some; an appointment has been booked with an oncologist at Princess Margaret.
Wow. We’ve managed to wring a bit of hope from this shitstain of a day. We all thank Fiona, profusely. You never know who your friends are, or how much they love you until you are faced with a crisis. Fiona came through as a friend for us all. We love her dearly, and have never forgotten her kindness. Tragedy has the capacity to either break us, or to make us stronger. I learned that lesson twice, in short succession. As mom stepped away to use the bathroom, my sister and I had our first, awkward moments together in years.
“How have you been?” she asks.
“Good, I guess. How’s Ryan?”
“I’m sorry for fighting,” she says.
I have to force myself to remember what she’s talking about. Any memories of the two of us fighting seem like scenes from a farce and not this life in which we now live. I’ve never loved my sister so much as in that moment.
When my mom returns, she sees us laughing and smiling.
We are ready for mom’s fight now, as a family.