Last spring, my brother got diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer exactly two weeks after I fractured my ankle. I was lying in bed in a heavy Percocet haze when my sister-in-law called me — I think she was trying to reach my mom — and told me he was in the ER and that (what else) they didn’t know anything yet. Instant freakout. But, you know, maybe he’ll be fine, maybe it’s stress, food poisoning, he’s been looking tired for days, we’ll see. We’ll see.
Turns out he wasn’t fine. He had a 9-centimeter tumor in his large intestine which apparently had been growing for years. Put your hands together and approximate how big that is. Imagine it nestled in your insides like that hard white phlegm in your throat you can’t cough up or swallow. Your brother has cancer. What the hell are you talking about, no he doesn’t. He’s only 37. He quit smoking years ago. He shops at Whole Foods for Christ’s sake. He can’t possibly. But he can. And he does.
I’ll never shake the feeling of finding out, the bitter nothingness of a mere possibility morphing into hard fact. Rilke wrote that we all carry our death inside of us, that it grows, develops, changes with us until it’s strong enough to take hold. My brother’s death was unfurling like a dragon, fast and aggressive. It was coded in his DNA. The cold fury of that, of my own immobilized helplessness, rose up in my throat with the sudden insistence of water breaking through a dam. I started to scream.
There were so many words, too many words. White cells. Transfusion. Hemoglobin. Malignant. Surgery. Blood loss. Genetic. Chance. Chemo. Mutations. So many meaningless words. Just the words are enough to make you sick.
All the memories I had of him came flooding back with sudden clarity and it was both sad and amusing because we’re 15 years apart and there simply aren’t that many. One where he adopted a German shepherd from the pound and gave him to me for Christmas when I was 6. One where he took me to his favorite coffeehouse in DC, I was 15 and he made fun of my eyeliner. And one where he grinned broadly, endlessly, at his wedding as I recited a love poem and my stilettos sunk slowly into the wet grass. The sudden realization of potentially losing someone I hadn’t fully gotten to know, yet loved more than anything, slowed my heart nearly still.
My mom took me to visit him in the hospital a few days after his surgery, me in a wheelchair with my big awkward cast that she kept running into things — walls, elevator doors – because the chair was too big for her to maneuver. Twelfth floor, cancer ward. She wheeled me in as I rehearsed don’t cry, no matter what you do don’t cry over and over. Of course I took one look at him and burst into tears.
“Wanna see my scar?” He grinned and lifted up his hospital gown. “Cool, huh?”
It was gnarly and purple and veined with white stitches, bisecting his stomach weirdly. I emitted some kind of weak laugh-sob.
“Wanna see mine?” I lifted my leg but the sheer weight of the cast sent it crashing to the floor. We laughed and it was so hilarious and tragic and stupid that my laughing turned to crying all over again. He told me to man up and reached for my hand. I felt the warmth in his fingers and sobbed even harder. Mom just stood there and looked at her busted children, shaking her head with a weird half smile.
It took me two months to start walking again, slowly and not well, but walking nonetheless. I had a job and summer classes to return to but I babysat his daughters when I could and drove him to his chemo treatments, where he sat and thumbed casually through The Economist as I looked at the other patients’ faces and tried not to shake. We never talked about it. My brother would still rather drink rocket coolant than admit he’s scared.
I’ll admit it, I get scared. Sometimes I’ll think about the possibility of losing him, of something else going wrong, and freeze for a millisecond. And then I realize it’s stupid to do that — we never really know when we’re going to lose anyone, duh, so we have to make the most of the time we have while they’re here. We can’t wait until something horrible happens before we tell the people we love that we love them. All that inspirational live-in-the-moment BS, we need to start acting on it — we aren’t guaranteed a future but there’s always a present.