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My brother and me on my 50th birthday.

№20 Funny Story…

My brother has cancer.

A few weeks ago, my mom had my brother’s family and my family over for dinner. Tony had just gotten a lump removed from his neck. There was a possibility it was cancer, but he hadn’t yet gotten the results. When it was time to set the table, Tony said, “I can’t because of the cancer.”

When it was time to clear the table Tony said, “I can’t because of the cancer.”

He got a few chuckles from his kids, but his wife, Lisa, who didn’t laugh, said, “What is wrong with you?”

From across the table, I said, “Lisa, he has cancer.”

She laughed hard. Everyone laughed, so I called for a vote.

Whenever someone in my family says anything funny, that person calls for a vote. I said, “Who’s the funniest in the family?” Like always, we all voted for ourselves. I’m 50 now and Tony is 52. We’ve been voting this way since we were little kids.

The dinner was a celebration of my mom’s dog’s 10th birthday, which isn’t as funny as when our childhood Labrador, Hannibal, turned 13 and my mom threw a Bark Mitzvah. Hannibal died that day, which turned out to be not funny at all because hours after the vet dragged him away in a black bag, 50 people showed up for the party with bones and tennis balls.

The day after our dinner, I called Lisa to get the results of the biopsy. She was driving with her best friend Suzanne, whose husband survived bone cancer twenty years ago. She said, “It’s thyroid cancer.” She told me he’d need to get his thyroid removed. She told me when the operation was scheduled. She said, “I can’t talk long, I’m in the car with Suzanne.”

I said, “Cancer wives.”

Lisa laughed so hard it was almost weird. But that’s one of the things I love about Lisa. She’s a laugher.

Lisa said, “Stop making me laugh about cancer.”

I wanted to call for a vote.

People say thyroid cancer is a good cancer. I have also been saying that since 1976 when my mom had thyroid cancer. She’s still alive so I know it’s true — thyroid cancer is a good cancer.

My brother didn’t inherit my mom’s cancer. My mom got thyroid cancer because kids in the 40s and 50s were treated with radiation for tonsillitis. Thirty years later, my grandmother read in the paper that those kids were developing thyroid cancer.

I was eight at the time. All I knew about cancer was that Brian Piccolo had it. He was a football player I knew about because they made a TV movie about him called Brian’s Song. Brian died.

I was so afraid my mom would die.

My mom was a smoker then. We made a deal that if she quit smoking, I’d quit sucking my thumb. She quit cold turkey. Eventually, so did I.

Years later, my mom and I saw Terms of Endearment. We love and hate the scene where Emma, played by Debra Winger, is uncomfortable in the hospital and her mom, played by Shirley MacLaine, screams at the nurses. When Emma died of cancer, my mom and I cried and kept crying long after the movie ended.

The weird thing is I will cry watching a movie but I rarely cry in real life. The last time I remember crying was when one of my best friends from high school got cancer. She was 33. Doctors discovered the cancer when they did an emergency C-section. Six months later, she died.

At the funeral, when the cantor sang, “Tears in Heaven,” by Eric Clapton, I cried so hard I couldn’t breathe. Karyn, my best friend since first grade, hugged me and said, “I’ve never seen you cry this hard.”

Now I can’t say “cancer” without laughing. I say it in a stage whisper every time. Sometimes I laugh so hard, tears come out. I know I use humor as an escape hatch. I need to laugh because I can’t even imagine my brother dying.

Last Friday, they cut out my brother’s thyroid and any suspicious nodes. The operation was long. They said it would take four hours, but five, six hours later we were still waiting: Lisa, her parents, and my parents. Three times someone came in to say the operation was going well. If the operation wasn’t going well, my mom would have become Shirley MacLaine.

When I got to the waiting room, Lisa pulled out a note my brother wanted her to read. He wrote out all the lyrics to the song “We Are Family” by Sister Sledge. He said, “I don’t ask for much. I certainly did not ask for cancer.” He thanked us for being there. He said he knew he’d be okay. He said he wished he were on the tennis court.

My mom said, “Last time your brother wrote a note was when you got into Penn.”

My brother has always supported me. I crushed him in tennis when we were kids. Now he crushes me, but back then, when he could have been jealous or insecure, he cheered me on. When I wanted to visit him in college, he didn’t treat me like an annoying little sister; he welcomed me and all my friends. And when I got into Penn, he sent a letter home from the University of Florida, where he was barely passing. Maybe because he’s a boy and I’m a girl, we don’t have that sibling rivalry, but I think it has more to do with Tony just wanting the best for the people around him.

My brother is the guy who calls me on the morning of my dad’s birthday and says, “Call your father.”

He’s the guy who wakes up at 6 am to get live shrimp then baits every hook for every kid.

He’s the guy who makes pancakes with Aunt Jemima batter.

When my grandmother was nearing the end, my brother sorted her jewelry and asked me what I wanted. When the hospice nurse called my dad to say she was about to die, he called Tony who raced over there so our grandmother wouldn’t have to die alone.

When our parents are about to die, I know Tony will race over. When they’re nearing the end, he’ll divide their jewelry and he’ll ask me what I want. He’ll divide up everything. He’ll handle it so I don’t have to.

The morning after the surgery, Tony sent a group text. He wrote, “I’m awake. I seem to have been hit by a train. The doctors say I look good. They obviously don’t know how good I usually look.”


This is №20 of my #weeklyessaychallenge. I started this challenge the week I turned 50. I’m going for 50 essays this years.