Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The C-word

This is about the C-word; not the one that offends and can never be spoken, but the one that terrifies and must be whispered, or simply mouthed.

She has Cancer.

My cousin, who is only a year older than me, just found out a month ago she has cancer. While I would never suggest that there is a good kind of cancer, I can say that hers is a decidedly bad variety.
I find myself wondering what the word conjures for her in her mind. Or does it simply short-circuit thought altogether—and might that be a good thing somehow?

I first heard the news from my mother. Unfortunately, I’ve been the recipient of lots of bad news over the last couple of decades, and more often than not, my mother has had to be the bearer of such news. She has a very particular Bad-News-Voice that I’ve come to recognize, and to dread. Sometimes it carries a hushed, matter-of-fact resignation. Sometimes it’s a teetering and quavering, like a teapot on the edge, just before its breakthrough scream. It’s to the point where if I hear even a hint of that Bad-News-Voice (even if she’s just phoned when she happens to be tired), I can go through my mental Rolodex in a nanosecond, imagining all manner of tragedies befalling just about everyone I know. This is not something to brag about, I know, and I’m not. Just telling you how it is. A steady stream of close-proximity accidents, injuries, and illnesses will do that to a person, and hyper-vigilance becomes a way of life despite its ultimate impotence.

This news conjures various images for me, personally. I’m wondering if I’ve reached a place of acceptance with the nature of things, the nature of the world and of life, or if that’s just a sturdy veneer of denial talking. I’m not really sure it’s either. I think I’m maybe somewhere in between; a place of recognition of the sweetness and sadness inherent in all things, as we know all things of this world to be transient.

I hear about my cousin and her illness, and all that goes with it—tiredness, weight loss, medication, stress, worry, uncertainty—and yet I picture her, about eight years old, blond and bubbly, and ready to put on our mothers’ high heels. I picture her with me, seven-year-old brunette, bookish and tom-boyish, resigned to the fact that she, my cousin,  will always be the pretty one, because she is the blond one. It’s not fair. She doesn’t even have to try.

We would compete in our own way, fight like wild dogs, and just as quickly make up. Once, when our parents had taken a trip together and left us (perhaps passive-aggressively) with our grandmother, a screeching match broke out, as usual. Our grandmother finally couldn’t take it and rushed into the kitchen, murder on her mind. She grabbed the nearest weapon which, sadly for her, turned out to be a soft, white loaf of Wonder Bread. Also unfortunate was her choice to grab it by the twist-tied end of the plastic bag, so that when she tried to hit whichever one of us she could reach first, it flopped and flailed, sending us from angry screeching at each other into paroxysms of laughter and an instant alliance against a common enemy whom we evaded by running circles around the small kitchen table, making a game of it, until she was too tired to continue her pursuit.

By evening, probably tired from all the arguing as much as from the fun we were having, we’d beg to sleep in the same room, the same bed, where as we talked each other to sleep, we’d also play Guess-Which-Letter, where we’d take turns drawing letters on each other’s backs, as softly as possible, until the other one guessed. When that was too easy, we’d write whole words or draw pictures. When we were a little older, we’d just crack each other up with our own smart-assery until one of our parents would yell from another room, “Will you two SHUT UP and go to SLEEP?!” She’d blame me, of course, and everyone would believe her because . . . well because I was a more public smart-ass, and she was smart enough to reserve that mostly for private. Pretty slick. We’d calm down for a bit, then start up again until hearing, “If I have to come in there, you’re both going to be SORRY!” I seem to recall a few occasions where someone actually did come to the room to yell, and we’d fake sleep as if, like two unfortunate narcoleptics, we could go from laughter to being passed-out in a matter of a seconds.

Our grandmother’s house was a common meeting point for us, as her family lived about an hour from Gram, and mine lived about three hours. So, when we visited our grandmother, her family would come for a visit, too. Then, when my family lived with my grandmother for about a year, we’d see hers more often. I remember the feeling of intense anticipation when I knew they were coming to visit. My grandmother’s kitchen window was large, and looked out on a beautiful view of the highest mountain in Massachusetts, as she lived on one of the steeper roads across the valley from it. I remember being glued to that window, waiting and watching for their car coming up the hill, then shouting like the town crier when it did, “Here they come! Here she comes!” and then running out to the driveway to greet them. It was usually only a matter of minutes before all of the kids would be on our way out to the pasture behind my grandmother’s place.

It seems a big pasture to me even today, even as its edges have been sold off bit-by-bit and built upon. But then, to we kids, it was vast; it’s southern end virtually uncharted territory. We could (and did) spend entire days exploring the pasture and it’s adjacent woods, losing all track of time, hiding and seeking, running, building dams in the small, unnamed stream, avoiding the cows and their droppings, shooting my brother’s arrows, catching salamanders and even the occasional crayfish, and never exhausting the possibilities for adventure there. Miraculously (it seems to me looking back) we didn’t tire, we didn’t want to return to the house, even as the sun began to go down. Typically, our Uncle Joe’s figure would rise above the hill to the north, and he’d call and whistle to tell us it was time to come back to the house (though sometimes, he’d join our adventures). Sometimes, if the relatives were only visiting for the day, he’d come to fetch only my cousin, and the rest of us would say our goodbyes there, then later look toward the far edge of the pasture toward the main road, so we could wave and shout as their car passed, heading back home. Honk! Honk! “There they go! There she goes!”

In my mind, in this little paradise we created, everything is greener than any present-day green I know. The birdsong is more abundant and melodious. The sun is brighter, yet more forgiving, than the present-day sun. The sky is bluer, the occasional clouds more soft and more billowy. And I don’t think this is retrospective idealization. I think it really was that way. So much so, that even today when I drive past green pastures and see cows, my heart skips a beat for sheer delight, and I roll down my window and breathe deeply. My partner might wrinkle his nose and say something like, “Are you crazy? Roll up that window. It smells like shit!” And I smile, still breathing deeply, saying, “I know . . . isn’t it great!” It is for me like a dreamscape, and yet, we really lived there. It was real.

In that paradise, the C-word didn’t exist—and yeah, I see that part is idealized, as such things should be for children. Perhaps that’s why, when I hear this news, the pasture is where I instantly go in my mind. I see the little brunette and the little blond, full of vigor and life, and nothing bad can touch us there, amid that sea of green, under that bright sun.

But here in the present, we are not surrounded by gently swaying grasses and softly lowing cows. We are surrounded with questions; primarily, how long? What will happen? What is to come? Will it be a year? Five years? Ten years?  And whatever the number of years, how might they best be lived? When can we stop being afraid?

These are not only questions for my cousin, but I find I’m asking them of myself, as well. I find myself shaken from complacency and reminded that there are no guarantees in this life. I find myself remembering, rather sharply, that this daily stuff is not a dress rehearsal for something else that happens later. Perhaps why I’m trying to write more, like I always tell myself I should. This here, right now, is life, Blanche. Wake up, you know . . .we’re all dying.

So, what are you going to do? A voice keeps whispering this in my ear lately, trying to keep me awake, trying to keep me from falling back into sleep. What would your cousin give for such lazy confidence in Time, the voice says.
This is good. I need this reminder, and often. Rehearsal over—it’s show time.

These tears are so warm, and move so slowly that I’m aware of each millimeter of my cheek. They are so salty, and I can taste them . . . as though I’m alive.


  1. This really moved me and I'm sorry.
    The C-word sucks, and yes I just lost a loved one to it and yes my bestie has lost her hair and yes we'll are dying, but we are, at least for today, very much alive. Take care and make sure you share those thoughts with your "pretty one, your "blond one", your beloved cousin.

  2. What insight you have on the human mind and how easily we forget that we are all here for just a small moment of time....

  3. Thanks for reading, Anonymous friends. And thanks for your kind words.

  4. Hi Blanche Sorry to hear about your cousin and thank you for your understanding which we can all share. We have a friend in a similar situation so your words are appropriate and timely. As far as the description of the scene of the highest mountain in Mass is concerned it brought back memories for me of watching the stars out on top of it and then falling asleep ready for the AT the next day


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