Photo by Matthew Hughes

In the house of my anxious ancestors

Where hands wring in the dark

The house of my anxious ancestors is a dark room illuminated only by a dimly flickering amber light. Some of my ancestors are centuries old, while others have not been there long. They clasp their hands in a worrisome gesture, their eyes wide from trying to see in the dark. They speak to me in Spanish, and shake their heads in dismay when I cannot understand them.

Don’t underestimate my heritage though. The blood and fire of warriors flows, too, through me. When confronted with fear, they mostly fought. Sometimes — a lot of times — there was nothing to be afraid of, save the hoarse old voices of ghosts singing haunted folk songs. And when they fled instead — and they all ran at some point — they eventually found their place among the others in the house of my anxious ancestors.

In the days leading up to my bilateral mastectomy, my Cuban grandmother — the one they say I am most like — visited me in my home. She died seven or six summers ago. In fact, I believe it was sometime in August, and it was in August that I went under the knife. When her spirit visited me, she told me things like, “Why don’t you put on some Cuban music and dance in the kitchen while you make an avocado salad?” The car she used to drive — a red 2002 Chevy TrailBlazer — has been my sick chariot all over town, gifting me a sense of independence when the bus was unsafe for my compromised immune system.

As the nurses readied me for the operating room, they asked me, “What music would you like to hear?” And I said, “Seed a station with Buena Vista Social Club.” Maybe it was my grandmother who sang me into unconsciousness that morning.

The plastic surgeon prescribed lorazepam — an anti-anxiety medication — and encouraged its frequent use. It was during my battle with cancer that I took a desperate chance with venlafaxine, and discovered that my anxious ancestors had long burdened me. With medication, my sleep became more restful, and my mind became clearer, and I learned that one could live without being in constant fear.

I have my nebulous, unfounded, and admittedly glib suspicions on the correlation of stress and my contraction of cancer. That a girl exposed to sustained levels of cortisol is just as toxic as a lifetime of smoking cigarettes. And so — my cancer, my maligned DNA. My very rare, very smart cancer, which borders my future with an ominous vignette of uncertainty. The tumor — along with three lymph nodes — is no longer inside me, but its clever offspring could be circulating throughout my body too small to detect, dandelion seeds dispersed on the wind just waiting for a sinister place to take root.

But that is not what brings me to the house of my anxious ancestors, though it certainly is looming over my thoughts. I am here to revisit a pain older than confronting a possible premature mortality — I am here because I am in love, and among my anxious ancestors, nothing chills their warrior blood as much as the touch of a lover’s hand.

It is not their fault. Fleeing countries and murdered parents make not a stable foundation. Most of the stories they whisper are still in Spanish, but I can see even in the dim amber light that tears streak the faces of my anxious ancestors. Such profound pain and loss and insecurity needs no language to communicate — its tongue is universal as its mouth opens wide to howl into the cold stars, “Why have you forsaken me?” My ancestors tried their mortal bests, and pressed forward and pressed forward, so the first of theirs to be born on American soil could one day find her way to the American Dream in a daily pill that helps her get her job done. For a long time, I only wanted to make my ancestors proud of me, and my anxiety flourished in my sense of failure.

But I told you that the blood and fire of warriors courses through me, right? When faced with fear, I’ve often fought. Many times to my own detriment, but often to my benefit. I am most ferocious and creative when my back is against the wall, and cancer is no different. I will survive because I am too angry to die. I have succeeded because I am too pissed off to yield.

And yet, my heart softens into the scared, abandoned little girl when confronted with intimacy and vulnerability. I am trying to understand that just because a relationship — a new relationship — is in a transitional place, that doesn’t mean it is over. I am trying to understand that I am not the one who will end up on her knees picking up the broken pieces. I am trying to understand that he is not a god, that he is just as mortal as I am. I am trying to imagine myself lying with my back in the sand, lulled to steady peace by the ebbing and the flowing of the waves, and as the waxing moon makes the tides that I love to watch in hypnotic admiration, so too do changes make love flourish.

Photo by Matthew Hughes

It takes courage, and as I peer into the house of my anxious ancestors, I see there are no answers in their faces or wringing hands. When I met him — this person that I love — he showed me that in uncertainty great opportunities sometimes await, and that it is in the unknowing that we can find the most surprising things.

Cancer has changed me quickly. In the matter of a few hours, I went from a body with a tumor and breast tissue to a body with no tumor and no breast tissue. In just one hour long infusion, we poisoned my body to the brink of death. In just one day I turned from a naive, invincible girl to a woman with a serious illness. And on just one motorcycle ride, with just one gesture, I remembered I was still alive.

I remember standing in his kitchen, a strange universe between us, and a rooster was crowing and the clock which is still an hour off was ticking. The sky was muted with coastal fog. I almost walked away forever — I wanted to jump in my Chevy and drive home as quickly as possible, deleting his number from my phone — but instead I lingered, leaning against the counter.

I put a lorazepam under my tongue, and bow at the altar in the house of my anxious ancestors. I light a candle and make an offering of hope to them. Sometimes when faced with fear, the answer is neither to fight nor to fly, but to linger in fear’s kitchen, listening to the clock tick away, and to decide to try something new — like jump on the back of a motorcycle and hang on for dear life.

Never Tell Me the Odds is a series of short nonfiction based on and surrounding my battle with a rare and aggressive form of breast cancer at the age of thirty-one while keeping my hair on my head.