Cancer Redux: Or why I never called you back
I was still in San Francisco, so my mom relayed the news to me, via my brother who was actually there. When I asked, “What does that mean?” my mom replied, in total earnestness, “Well, Anna, everyone has two lungs to start out with…”
Which was just endearing enough to make up for the fact that my mother thinks I’m retarded.
A friend of mine and I were talking recently. Both of our parents have lung cancer, and though we have a great many things in common, cancer is what brought us together. When she found out her mom had it, my friend decided to chop her long hair off. She asked me if that was my excuse too. I didn’t think so at the time, but now it makes sense. When we’re faced with these terrible, powerless truths — the people we love will die, possibly now — we think that changing parts of ourselves, parts we can control, might help us get some of that power back. I can’t jump into my dad’s ribcage and forcibly remove his cancer, but I can get an asymmetrical haircut. I can buy acid-wash jeans. I can blog about it. Of course, I don’t feel any more powerful. All of my decisions these days feel both dreadful and impulsive, as if life is a motorboat and I am what’s caught in the rudder.
When trying not to cry at work, I use a trick I learned from Cheryl Strayed’s novel Torch. You focus on something innocuous — in the book it was a can of beans — and repeat it like a mantra. Can of beans can of beans can of beans. Until you are calm again. Until you’ve regained composure. It works 90 percent of the time.
When you’re depressed, you get to a point where crying no longer feels cathartic. You simply feel like a sack of shit. You feel emotional, that dreaded word so often used to disparage women (and men too). Today I cried during a Katy Perry song. I tried to console myself by saying, At least it wasn’t the song about blacked-out teen threesomes. It could’ve been though.
I am tired of people asking me how I’m doing. I know these people mean well. I know they care about me, but there is no answer that’s not going to depress either one or both of us. Also, it makes me feel like this delicate thing. A thing that needs to be tip-toed around and inquired after. While I am both of those things, I’m also not. Mostly I’m just tired. Mostly I want to tell everyone to go fuck themselves.
In the past, when I’ve felt worthless, I try to turn my insecurities into admiration. I read my genius friends’ writing, like Erica Watson’s “The way we’ve always watched flames:”
…See how the palms of your hands stay cool
if you hold them to your face against the fire while the backs
burn and glow and there is something so exquisite
about that pain. How much of this is death and how much
is love, then, those things we’re not supposed to write about
or at least mention by name? The fire burned strong though
the wood was old and wet and heavy. You told me you’re tired
of people telling you you’re brave and I said I’m tired
of people telling me I’ve saved them. I don’t memorize
the name of your sickness or its symptoms.
I don’t listen enough, or well enough, and I’m a horrible gossip.
I don’t finish most things I start. I don’t start much …
In the airport, I bought Oprah’s magazine and read it cover to cover, twice. I took detailed notes about things that in no way apply to my life. How to get your dog to stop barking at the doorbell. How to wear Spanx with dignity. I found it all absurdly, profoundly inspiring. As if Jesus was speaking to me and he said, This is the lip gloss you’ll need to get your life together.
I take lots of notes, not just in hospitals, though especially in hospitals because there is so much that can’t be understood, yet so much I want to understand. Thankfully, there are pamphlets. Under the broth and the jello was a pamphlet: “What you need to know about your clear liquid diet.” Even broth needs bullet points sometimes.
I forget that I’m afraid of snakes, except in two circumstances: when watching Indiana Jones movies, and when staying at my dad’s house. I did both of these things recently. The last time I saw a snake was in 2005. A king snake lay stretched out on the cool tile between my old bedroom and the bathroom. I jumped over it and ran out of the house like it was a bomb. When I came back in 20 minutes later, with reinforcements, the snake was nowhere to be found.
My brother’s old room is a kind of glorified shed now. We keep all the crap in there we can’t throw away, but also probably won’t use again. In one of my many boxes were print outs of bell hooks essays, drag king anthologies, novelty books that were purchased during the phase in my life where I wanted everything to be miniature, etc. I think about going through the boxes every time I’m home. Every time, I take a quick survey, briefly rifle through the dusty detritus, and then back away slowly, as if I just stumbled upon a crazy person or a goat.
I wrote down Alternating Leg Pressure machine because it had my initials. I thought, I’ll always be with you dad, if not in person than in the form of a slowly vibrating leg cuff.
I wrote down “oropharyngeal suction catheter.” And next to it, “fancypants toothbrush.”
I wrote things down in hopes that the small act of motion would help me feel less alone. I wrote things down because that’s what I do.
I wrote, “One lung.” And next to that, “Better than none.”
- Lonesome was the blacktop
- Suppose I kept on singing love songs just to break my own fall
- The Evolution of Mourning
- Haiku for Adulthood: Melancholia