When a parent gets cancer, you find it harder to breathe. It’s a struggle to pack up your books and exit the public place you’d been in all those minutes before knowing. You blame your coffee, you resent your homework; somehow, if you had been doing something else, this wouldn’t have happened. You split time between the now and after. You’ve heard of that sort of time slicing before, but now you understand that it really can be done, without much effort of your own.
You sit in your car and decide who to call first. Friends fade away and the people you need to hear from become startling apparent. You grip the steering wheel. Your knuckles turn white, and you realize just how young you are, and just how old your parent is. You call the number and let the torrent of your words stop the friendly greeting. If there is silence on the other end of the line, you ask, “what do I do”, because at this point, all rational thinking has subsided. You wonder if you can drive. They ask you if you can drive. You say yes, and hang up abruptly. You wonder if you can bear to call the other parent and hear the news again, staining their voice, hearing them being brave for you. You honestly don’t think you can talk to the parent who has cancer. Bravery is not what you want from them.
You drive over to your friend’s house and you are shaking. There is blood in your cheeks, and you glance at yourself in the rear view mirror and your eyes are wide, yawning things. Swallowing becomes difficult. Your face is already splotchy with tears and you don’t even bother to brush them away. All you can do, now, is to drive in a straight line. Focus. Focus. Focusing.
You’re greeted with a hug and you cling on to that person. You really cling—pressing yourself into another life that doesn’t have the problem of cancer. You feel them, and they hold you tight, and this is the first time in your life that you’ve ever been truly held. The holding, it’s far more than the physical. It’s the emotional outpouring. It’s the wet tears and the way they grip you so hard and the way you grip them back. It is a silent thing, for a minute. You don’t talk, and they know not to talk, either.
Cancer has a way of deleting everything you could say. What is there to say, exactly? Their body is dying. But you don’t want to think about an end result, yet. Cause and effect doesn’t apply right now; you’re still grappling with the reality of the matter. You aren’t articulate, or brave, or clear-eyed. You sit on the floor and wrap yourself up into your arms and knees and bite down onto your hand.
Your mind begins to go places it shouldn’t yet; there’s a time and a place for everything during cancer. The right now becomes far more crucial during cancer. Essentially, this is all you have. The second, minute, the way you react to the small things. The big things come later. If you can teach yourself the small things, the larger things might be easier.
A few days pass, and there’s a weight in your heart. Sometimes you forget, and wonder why you feel the way you do. This is usually in the middle of the night. You’ve cried out half yourself at this point, and don’t see the point in it anymore. You begin to view bodies scientifically. You read essays about cancer patients. You recall all of the horror stories you’ve heard about the disease. Cancer becomes an entity, now, in your life. It is not a disease, but a being that happens to people. That happens upon them, and it’s a senseless and mean thing. It isn’t a movie plot, like it’s always been to you. It’s the right now and the gist of the matter.
You forget. You have more wine during the evenings. You think about reckless things. You realize they don’t matter as much, and you let yourself off the hook for a while. You don’t “do” school anymore. You call your parents more than you have in years. You cry on the phone and become embarrassed. You watch sad movies, and you go out often. You don’t know whether to talk about it or not. You haven’t figured out whether it helps to put the thing in words. People ask, and you thank them, but you know there’s not anything to make this better, or bearable. It’s just there. You live. You live a little more sloppily, and you hurt.
You get used to heaviness. You begin to enjoy things again and you know that’s a good thing. Sometimes, there’s guilt over it. Sometimes, you think you’re a really bad person. But you keep on living, and eventually, you accept it. And there is always hope. It’s not a transcendent thing. You’re never much cheered by the hope, but you appreciate it all the same. You take comfort in the fact that it’s still stuck around in the end.
You find yourself bartering with God. You make promises you know you’ll never keep and you realize there are so many other people with the same thing happening to them, and you feel less lonely and less inclined to ask for help.
And then, somehow, they’re coming home. They are paler, smaller, older: they are a new person, still sick and weak, and they stay in bed for hours at a time. You are quiet around their door, and find yourself silently blessing their sleep. You are shy, too. You are re-introducing yourself to them. And they know so much more than you, now. But there they are, finished with it all and just waiting to hear if it worked, and you smile. They try a smile too; you guess it’s a rare thing, and you appreciate it all the more. It’s the small things, now. It’s the day by day and waiting and the patience. It’s beauty of the human condition in all of its terrible fragility, and surprising strength.