No broken promises here. Four years ago, my dad asked me to never write about his cancer because he wanted his privacy, his dignity, a small bubble where he didn’t have to endure being poked and prodded. This is not that.
What I understand now is that all of us…my mom, my brother, me. We’re all in the trenches now. Actually, trenches is the wrong word. This is not a battle, because we can’t possibly win. This is not a dance, because that implies invitation. This is a burglary. The kind where a stranger crawls through the window, pistol whips your objections, dumps your drawers upside down, rifles your closet, shits in your toilet and then mocks you by leaving the door wide open.
After the home invasion, nothing changes. Yet, everything has. Last week, I had to pull to the side of the highway because I was listening to This American Life where a marine sniper in Afghanistan was explaining why his unit was addicted to reruns of the Gilmore Girls. “It’s full of women, in a pretty town where nothing bad happens and life is so, so normal.” I burst into tears. Irrationally, I’m in love with that sniper. Only he can understand. Paralyzed in a drugstore aisle, holding an armful of Pedialyte, I cry some more, at how life is now lived in reverse, careening backwards. Christmas morning is the worst. While the world goes to church, opens presents, preps the ham, cancer families count on their fingers and hold on tight.
When friends ask me straight out, I answer short and sweet, and full of cliché, “putting up a brave fight, blah, blah, blah” because really, no one wants to hear the truth of it. It’s messy, sticky truth, full of bodily fluids and breathless terror, doctors by day and sleepless by night, punctuated, always by a pinprick of fear that we are all, each of us, dying in our own messy, sticky way.
Which is why I’m eating that entire plate of beignets with fudge sauce. And I’m okay with spending the day in pajamas staring out at the ocean, instead of scrubbing the tub, answering emails or reading books that are good for me. And when I pause at the sales lady’s poetic explanation of why exactly I need that outrageously expensive blue sweater of perfectly woven cashmere and cotton, a sweater that would cut into another airline ticket home, I rally and shout, a little too loudly, “I’ll take it,” because shit yeah, I’m fucking wearing a perfectly woven sweater. Baby, it’s gonna to be cold outside for the foreseeable future.
Perhaps the only blessing of cancer is that you are completely stripped of “living large.” And you begin to live small, inside the details. When I step onto my yoga mat, I really feel my feet now, toe by toe. When I press into the Ranger at night, I feel the battle readiness in his muscles and the deep waters of shared history. When I watch Mia on the forest trail in front of me, I feel the happiness in her limbs and the way the trees breathe for me when I simply cannot.
For Christmas, I gave my dad a black, wool Fedora to keep his head warm. He pinched it, peaked it, ran a finger around the brim then handed it back to me. With a look. I ran outside into the snow, still in my pajamas, and chased one of the farm peacocks into a frenzy, my arms fiercely flapping, howling with an anger I didn’t know I had until finally a tail feather dropped. I snapped off the last three inches of the tip, the beautiful iridescent blue-green eye, so keen yet soft, a rounded blade of every possible color. Tucked into the wide band, I handed the hat back. My father stroked the feather, pushed it a bit deeper, then snugged the hat on his head.
No broken promises here. I’m writing this for myself. And for you. Because I know I’m not alone. Cancer families recognize each other at the grocery store, in restaurants, online, in the street. No secret handshake. Just an unshakeable belief that today has to count. More than you can imagine.