The night my mom told me she had cancer, I took a walk. It was late, midnight probably, but when it’s April in Thailand, midnight walks still end in a pile of sweat. I relished it, the warm, heavy air. It mirrored the heaviness in myself, as if giving me permission to sink.
I did sink, quite literally, but not until I walked to the front of my neighborhood, past the sleepy guardhouse, and up to the big, crumbling staircase of the pool house nobody uses (or at least, I never used). It was there, thanking the lonely building for its hospitality, that I sank. Sank and cried and swatted at bugs and begged God to heal her.
“Cancer” had never been a part of my family’s vocabulary. In trying to wrap my head around it, I alternated between images of people I knew had suffered much at its hands, even died, and images of nothing. Because in reality, that’s how much I knew about what the next few months would hold. Nothing.
The days that followed pool together in my mind and form a muddied, brownish color, like a cup of water you’ve just used to rinse out paintbrushes or the Ping river when it rains. When I try and remember them, I see flashes of my family members’ pixilated faces on Facetime, our voices low as we discuss fears and strategies. I see myself falling on the shoulder of a friend and sobbing (ugly sobbing) for two minutes straight. I see my journal entries filled with questions: Should I go home? When? For how long?
One of the clearest things I see is the coffee shop I was sitting in when I took a deep breath and bought a one-way ticket home. Immediately afterwards, I felt as if I had done something wrong, like I should be ashamed. Going home was never a part of “the plan” – and by “the plan” I mean my decision to live overseas and write stories about missionaries for two years. As I told people over and over again before I left, “unless there’s an emergency” that meant no visits home. And here I was, facing an emergency – what does that even mean? – changing the plan.
And then there was the fact that I was excited about it. I was excited to hug my nephews, to speak English, to eat tacos – and I felt guilty for that. You shouldn’t look forward to going home when the reason you’re going home is because your mom is sick, right?
No, I don’t think so. But all I know is clicking the “Purchase Tickets” button felt like Christmas.
It was a Christmas unlike any I had ever experienced. The presents under this Christmas tree included jetlag, trying not to be terrified the first time I got behind the wheel of a car (right side of the road, right side of the road…), and the growing, uncomfortable feeling you get when you realize something is separating you from everyone else and you can’t just pick it up and move it. Those first days were nightmarish.
But the worst present of all was coming face to face with the fact that my mom had a serious, devastating disease. Before, I got glimpses of it through the six-inch screen of my phone, now it was everywhere, all the time. It was there as I accompanied her to a million and one doctors’ appointments, making sure to bring a sweater to each one (even in 110 degree heat) because apparently, medical professionals think it’s fun to freeze you slowly. It was driving across town to a store that sold wigs, only to watch her tear up as someone put a wig cap on her head and she saw for the first time what it might be like to be bald. It was carrying piles of colorful button up shirts to the department store dressing room because she wouldn’t be able to lift her arms over her head for a while. It was a whole new set of vocabulary words, pages and pages of chilling facts about chemo (“Don’t worry dear, you may not experience any of these”), and counting down the days until surgery. Overnight, her disease became more real than I ever imagined it could.
And yet, it didn’t, and here’s where I discovered what I thought I already knew about cancer: it’s invisible. Cancer is one of the scariest diseases we have ever encountered, but in its beginning stages, the sick person looks and feels perfectly healthy. Even more strange: the treatment is what makes you ill. The thing that kills you shows no symptoms, while the thing that heals you puts a blaring sign over your head that says, “Everyone, guess what? I’m sick!” It’s all backwards.
Reconciling the fact that my mom had a serious disease with the fact that she seemed fine wasn’t easy. One minute the reality of it was parading in front of my face, the next, we were going to the movies and eating pizza for dinner, talking about everything in the world other than the harmful cells that were invading her body. How quickly we forget what we can’t see.
In the days leading up to surgery, I learned how unsettling the word “just” can be.
“Oh, just breast cancer?”
I knew what they meant, and I even agreed to some extent – how grateful we were she had a cancer that was highly researched, that the statistics were good, and that they caught it early!
But it wasn’t “just” breast cancer to me as I laid awake in bed the morning of the big day, my body tense and jittery like it is when I’ve had too much coffee and not enough food. It wasn’t “just” breast cancer to my sister who arrived at the hospital 45 minutes early – extreme, even for her punctual nature. It sure wasn’t “just” breast cancer to my mom, who, with each passing minute during our long drive grew more and more quiet.
And neither was it “just” breast cancer to the group of friends who met us in the lobby, their faces warm and sad all at once. After a few hugs and sleepy “good mornings”, our somber group filed into the small hospital chapel and formed a circle around my mom. Together, we prayed – for my mom, for the doctors, for healing, for so many things – and by the end, everyone’s eyes were wet except mine. I was a stone, a stone who was feeling, I think for the first time, real fear. As we left the chapel, one of the nurses looked at us and said, “That place never gets used. Good job, guys.”
Yes. Good job guys; we’d made it. The plane flights, the pre-surgery tests, the watching my parents buckle under the weight of these decisions, all of it was over. The play had been written, cast, and rehearsed, and all that was left to do was raise the curtain and watch.