Comfort

In sixth grade, I strode into your bedroom to find you situated on your bed with your Stephen King book in hand. Eyes almost closed, but not quite.

Settled.

Still.

Scruffy flannel pajamas snuggled your body. Antique quilts swaddled the bed. Your glasses had slipped to the bottom of your nose, like always, and you hadn’t yet shoved them back up.

Snug.

Safe.

Soft white light whispered to the shadows in your corner of the room. I didn’t say anything. Didn’t have to. But I needed to be close to you. At your side. A daughter needs her mother.

So I slid into your bed. Opened my R.L. Stine book. Exhaled.

It would have been different had we known what was to come; cancer.

Chaos.

Chemotherapy.

At that moment, we would’ve had conversations about life. About close family I never had the chance to meet. About what you were like as a child.

You’d show your candor, your true colors. But that knowledge, that experience, would’ve come at a cost.

No quiet.

No calm.

No comfort.

But we didn’t know. Not yet. Instead, only our steady sighs and the shooshing of turning pages swept against our ears. Everything else turned silent because it was our space, our time.

Serene.

Sound.

Had we known, we would have gained something. But we would have lost so much, only to watch the clock.

Photo by Umberto Del Piano on Unsplash

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The Cancer Chase

Cancer.

Everything about that word makes the bile in my belly rise and the hair follicles on my arms pucker in fear.

Cancer.

Saying or even thinking the word gives me shivers. The difference between the hard and soft ‘c’ sounds make the word sound like a scaly boa constrictor slithering its way around my chest. I’m suffocating from it.

No drinks with sucralose or aspartame.No furniture made with formaldehyde.No more chicken nuggets or hot dogs.Only eat organic fruits and vegetables.No household cleaners.No alcohol.No smoking.No microwaved popcorn.No artificial dyes.Stay out of the sun.Stay away from pollution.

The list of carcinogens, or cancer causing materials, is endless, and if I let myself think about everything I would need to avoid to avoid cancer, I probably wouldn’t ever leave my house.

Complications from cancer have killed strangers, acquaintances, friends, friends of friends, parents of friends, grandparents of friends, and family.

My grandma.

My mom.

My aunt.

It’s everywhere, tightening its grip on my lungs each time I exhale.

Since my mom passed away, I’ve had constant irrational fears that death by cancer will be my unfortunate, inevitable demise. I believe that I will end up just like her: in hospice on a morphine drip for my last days of life. I’m sure that the disease is already lying dormant in some unsuspecting corner of my body – ready to strike and steal everything I love away when I least expect it.

It’s not death that has had me looking over my shoulder in fear. I think the older we get, the more we come to understand that death, like birth, is a part of the cycle. We all must endure it at some point. But the pain, surgeries, chemotherapy, and radiation that come with cancer – sometimes lasting for years – have given me the kind of nightmares where I scream myself awake. Nightmares that leave me in sweats with labored breath and a heart pounding through my chest.

And the drugs given to help cancer make me cringe, too. They wreak havoc on your insides, making your organs burn like they are on fire, and cease to function properly. Chemotherapy and radiation can kill your healthy, happy cells along with the sick ones and slowly take you from the life you love.

What happens if It catches up to me? Am I next? Am I strong enough to endure whatever torturous medicines I’m prescribed? Who would protect and provide for my girls and my husband if I were to get sick? Am I destined to die from the disease that keeps stealing the women in my family?

I now realize that these are questions I can’t answer.

The older I get, the more lives I’ve had to watch slip between the cracks of my fragile fingers from this disease. But I’ve decided not to coil away from that monster anymore. Instead, I’m going to look it in the eye, with my fists clenched so hard my fingernails bury themselves deep into the fatty part of my palms, and I’ll acknowledge the possibility of cancer, just like the possibility of no cancer. I’ll let the fear slide off my back instead of continuing to encircle me.

I can’t let cancer control my thoughts anymore.

It’s time to breathe.

Photo courtesy of Pexels

My Mother, The Hairdresser

When I was young, my mom worked at the K-mart salon, making a living giving perms to the elderly while they were shopping.  I would go to work with her, watching her flawless beauty as she mingled with clients.  She was elegant then, with long hair that reached the bottom of her shoulder blades in waves like the ocean cascading against the sand.

Her hair, dark and lovely, was unusually long.  On warm days, she would pull it back in a loose braid at the nape of her olive colored neck, keeping her bangs feathered and full of Aqua Net, a style she couldn’t quite let go of.  In the evenings, she would drag me, by the hand, over to the couch so I could brush her long locks as she watched television.  I would fill it with colorful barrettes, pretending I was the stylist and she was my client.  Of course I wanted to be just like her.

One summer day, her Irish temper ran to a boil and she impulsively chopped every bit of it off.  We both stood in the kitchen, a mane at our feet, and cried, mourning the change.

Eventually, and for reasons unbeknownst to me, she left that job at K-mart and started styling hair in our kitchen.  My mom would wash clients’ hair in the same porcelain sink that she cleaned our Tupperware, never once dropping the Virginia Slim hanging from her burgundy lips.  Gold bracelets rattled as she scrubbed, then rinsed the suds with the faucet. I watched her long fingers, painted brightly, as she permed, trimmed and shaved, always in aww of her artistic flare.

After many more years, one more child, and a nursing degree, my mom eventually stopped doing hair.  Though she loved hairdressing, she thought that nursing, and helping people, was her true calling.  And it was.  Her kind-hearted, selfless nature made her the perfect kind of nurse.  Unfortunately, not long after she started nursing, she also found out she had cancer.  By the time the doctor spotted it, in her routine colonoscopy, it had already metastasized, and overtaken her body, spreading from her colon to her liver and her lymph nodes.  Though she was against it, she started aggressive chemotherapy to salvage what she could of her body.  My mom was devastated because she could no longer practice nursing.

In the end, the chemotherapy only delayed the inevitable.

Four years later, on the day that she died, cancer and the poison of her drugs forced everything about her, including her hair, to change drastically.  It was no longer thick and flowing, but instead brittle and matted to her ashen skin.  Her eyes were closed tight, as she slept away the pain with a morphine drip.  I used her brush to gently untangle her thinning brown tufts and move them away from her eyes, though I don’t know if she could feel my presence.  I wanted so much to remember how it was to be on our couch as a child, filling her waves with colors of the rainbow, but the papery, unnatural feel of her hair was forbidding me.  Still, I let my fingers linger there, wishing for a different outcome.

Despite my mom being gone more than four years, I think of her often.  When I think of her, it’s sometimes as the hairdresser, or sometimes as the nurse, but always as the most beautiful woman; selfless, loving and easy to get along with.

And today, more than ever, I want to be just like her.