A Thank You Note To Cancer

Mortality is a funny thing.

You tiptoe around the subject as a child, understanding in some part of your mind that people die, that life ends, but never thinking it will happen to you, or to someone around you. As a teenager, it’s impressed upon you by adults that you are not, in fact, immortal, as a way to reign you in before you get too out of control. As an adult, you understand mortality in a more concrete manner. Your grandparents may have passed away, or you may know people who lost their parents. But while you know, logically, that everyone dies, you subconsciously breathe a sigh of relief that it’s not happening to you, that it’s someone else dealing with the grief and the stress. You tamp down your inner child who laughs in the face of fate, tempting the gods by thinking, that won’t ever happen to me.

And then it does. Someone you know, someone close to you, the woman who gave you life, is diagnosed with cancer. And just like that, the bottom drops out of the world. You’re grasping at strings of logic that seem too far away, trying to understand why, to understand how this could happen to you, to your mother. This isn’t real, you tell yourself. It has to be a mistake.

But it’s not. You watch her go through surgery, and recover quickly. You exhale for the first time in a month. And then you watch it come back in her lungs. You sit impatiently, uncomfortably in the cold waiting room, in a hard plastic chair, unable to help, unable to do anything. You see her radiation “tattoos” and laugh at the jokes she makes about them. You watch her recover again.

You watch her break down when it’s Christmas-time, because it’s not just Christmas. It’s the memory of her mom, now gone. It’s the memory of the diagnosis, the day after Christmas. You watch her hate the celebration, and do it anyways, just for you. You refuse to celebrate, you sulk in silence. You try to run away. You swallow another mimosa and suck it up. You smile and take pictures and give gifts like it’s not a reminder of the day the world stopped spinning.

You move back home to be closer when it comes back a third time. You tell yourself you’re not giving up your life, not putting your dreams on hold. You tell her that. You see she doesn’t believe you, and she knows you know it. You both pretend you believe you’re telling the truth.

You watch her go through round after round of chemo. You watch her lose her hair, and then you watch it grow back again. You listen as she describes her inability to eat, and indulge her in whatever tastes good. You drop everything when she’s lonely; you soak in all your time together.

You celebrate 2 years of fighting. You gather all your friends and family together, and hug them a little tighter. You laugh together, you cry together, you pour another drink. You honor traditions you didn’t know meant anything, until the threat of never doing them again made you sick to your stomach.

You watch her keep fighting, every day. You watch her holding on. You watch her strength. You watch her chase down dreams, check things off her bucket list. You watch her struggle and you watch her win. You watch her loving you. You tell yourself she’s getting better, that it’s okay to live now. It’s okay to breathe.

So you move to a different state. You start a new job, a new life. You visit often and you call a lot. You introduce her to your friends and throw a fundraiser to lift her spirits. You meet someone, bring him home. You have dinner with his parents. You have dinner with your parents. You have dinner with his parents and your parents. You tell yourself maybe this is one thing you’ll get to help her cross off her bucket list.

You watch her get worse. You fly to NY for a more invasive surgery. You sit around again, feeling useless again. You walk the streets of New York at night. You get lost on a bus to the hospital. You find your way. You eat dinner with your grandmother you haven’t seen in five years. You eat a Sprinkles cupcake ice cream sandwich with her, just because she wants to. You pretend you’re not scared when you see her lying in that bed.

You break up with him. You go to the beach with them. You go to concerts and movies. You tell yourself you’re living your life. You get a new job. You move to another new city. You’re a little closer. You show them the new apartment. You send them samples of your work. You watch her get worse. And you pretend it’s not worse, that you haven’t seen it.

You talk about funerals plans. You talk about life after it happens, the elephant in the room. You talk about life and living it. You talk about death but you never use that word. You call it “gone” or “passed” or “not here,” but never “death” or “dead.” You talk about flowers and songs and ashes and boat rides and water and wind. You keep pretending it’s normal. You keep pretending you don’t know how bad it is.

And then one day, you do. One day, it’s okay to talk about how bad it is. It’s okay to know that the end is coming. You still don’t say “death” or “die” or “dying” but that’s what it is. She tells you to get a therapist. You tell her okay, for her.

But somewhere, along the way, you realize that it’s okay. It’s going to be okay. All those things you did and said, the places you’ve lived, the experiences you’ve had, you had them for her and with her. You had five amazing years with her in a way you never would have had without the disease. You realize it’s a blessing as much as a curse. You understand the dual nature of tragedy. You know that the end is coming and see that it’s going to be okay. You hate to say you’ve accepted it, because it sounds so cavalier. And maybe accept isn’t the right word. Maybe understand is a better choice.

You wake up and you know that the person you are today is solely because of the journey you’ve been on. That her fight and her struggle, her passion and her determination, her strength and her love for you made you this being standing in front of a reflection in the mirror. You want to live for her. You make plans for after, knowing everything you do will be for her and with her. You start to think about life as more than checking boxes on someone else’s list of things you should do.

Mortality is a funny thing. Because in realizing we are mortal, we find the strength to live as the immortals do. We jump out of airplanes and climb tall buildings. We do it for the photo, for the memory. We spend our hard-earned money and make tough choices. We love just to love, without any expectations or agenda. We do all we can to make the most of it, to squeeze every drop, every experience out of it. In recognizing we’ll all die, we begin to live. And that is the greatest thing we can ever get out of life.