He went in for a minor surgical procedure. “No big deal,” he assured us. We didn’t worry—at least, not in the front of our minds. After all, none of us could picture a stronger, healthier fifty-five year old than my dad. Years of physical labor kept him trim and fit. Years of a diet of organic fruits and vegetables, and an absence of red meat and potatoes warded off the layer of gut hanging over the belt, the young skin and healthy teeth. If anyone would get in and out without a hitch, it would be my dad.
That was the front of our minds. In the back, however, concerns lurked in shadowy corners. I’d spent most of my twenties bouncing from apartment to apartment in several Midwestern cities before setting out for the big open skies of the West. My visits were less frequent, and each time I returned, I was surprised. I could never quite put my finger on what it was—but something was different as if he’d lost a certain gusto. He was tired an awful lot. He moved slower and with less confidence. My sister and I casually chalked it up to age, stress, or years of hard work. We assured one another that when he finished the next job, relaxed, took a vacation, or heaven forbid, just generally slowed down, he’d be back to the Dad we were familiar with. Then, one day, I saw him stumble on a ladder—after thirty years working dangling precariously on ladders and roofs, this shouldn’t have happened. He didn’t know I saw, and I never mentioned it, but I knew something was wrong.
I’d returned to the banks of the Missouri River, where I’d grown up, ostensibly to pursue graduate study. I was determined to attend the university in the town closest to my hometown. I’d made the trek back across the country earlier that summer, leaving the mountains and ocean at my back as I returned to the soft, grandmotherly folds of corn fields and the quiet rush of that big, muddy river. Perhaps those nagging thoughts had gotten the best of me, pushed me to choose that university, that program, above all others. I was determined to come home.
And then he went in with an enlarged lymph node that the doctors had repeatedly assured him was nothing to bat an eye at. He went in for nothing and came out with a diagnosis that none of us could confidently say or spell, but uses a C-word, the C-word, the word that sounds like a curse, and causes people to grimace as though you’ve struck them.
I stood in the field of clover that bordered the local farmer’s market, trying to process what my mother was telling me as we headed out for our weekly shopping trip. It was as if the sticky, humid August air suddenly got thicker and as she continued to speak, she was sucking the breath from my body.
“He has cancer, Sarah.” Her eyebrows were knitted together in that look that I’d grown up knowing meant trouble and should be avoided at all costs. That was the look that as a child sent me out on my bike for afternoons upon evenings. Twenty years later, she didn’t cry; she put her arms around me as I very publicly, and very uncharacteristically trembled and cried and gasped for air. We stood that way for what seemed like an eternity as the other marketers, our friends and neighbors, politely averted their eyes.
Emotions and crises are funny things. No matter how self-aware you are, they are unpredictable, thereby impossible to prepare for. Dad’s private nature and stubborn pride insisted on sharing minimal details and discretion. My very reactionary younger sister, still living states away, calmly and reasonably asked for the details, then began making plans. My mother, steady as always, began directing us all in her easy, gentle way.
I have always been a bit of a firecracker. When I was younger, my older co-workers affectionately called me Sparky. I have rarely been known to say no to an idea, preferring to instead figure out to make something outlandish work. After recovering my breath, I found myself screaming obscenities until my voice was raw in my car, windows rolled up against the world. And then, I retreated to the cool darkness of my apartment equipped with my books, a load of DVDs and a bottle of wine.
I thought of all the things I’d done to cope with heartache before: exercising away the stress of overwork, writing through lost friends and talking devastating break-ups to death. I’d always cried in the shower, believing a wise woman who once told me that the shower would wash away all the tears. It didn’t work this time. First there were too many, and then as the shock wore off, they wouldn’t come at all.
For days I was unable to speak to anyone—I could hardly conjugate verbs. When I wasn’t doing pointless research on the Internet, I was exercising my remote control muscles. I called in sick to work; I thanked God when it began to rain. I read two books in four days. I watched innumerable episodes of teeny-bopper television shows. I left the house to run every day, rain or shine, hoping somehow that when the thunder storms moved in, they’d shock something out of me.
All of this is uncharacteristic behavior. Words are my friends and have regular dialogues with my cat. While I appreciate the quiet of my home and my bedroom, I also need the chance to verbally process. The last time I was this reclusive was probably in utero. Day after day, I tried to find a way to voice it, expel it, release it, hurl it away from me, and the only thing I could say was “they found cancer.”
A friend emailed my parents testifying to the power of positive thinking. Everyone talks about this concept differently; some endorse prayer or visualization or “staying positive” or even, “having a sense of humor.” Some stress the physical connection between positvity and the body’s chemical composition. I believe that, I do. And yet, no matter how much I embrace the importance of keeping a positive attitude, I couldn’t help feeling broken.
How do you find a balance between optimism and truth? How do you feel sad and betrayed and still allow for hope? How do you honor your hurt feelings or distrust and still believe that things will get better? How do you feel like shit and manage to frame it in an affirmative way? As I’ve navigated through life, I’ve learned to embrace how I feel, to own those feelings and allow them to power me through to something better. I’ve found that the moments I was the saddest, angriest, most damaged to ultimately also be the most triumphant. How, then, do you allow yourself to feel what you feel and still be a better person, inside and out?
I woke up one morning and put on jeans and a tank top. I washed my face and pulled my hair out of my face. I looked in the mirror for the first time in days—and it was a sight to behold. My face, browned from a summer of landscaping work, was grayish and pale. I looked saggy and old. My eyes, though, were blank, empty. And it scared me. I looked like a drug-addicted creature of the night that had crawled out from beneath a rock.
I practiced smiling in the mirror until I could see something I recognized in my reflection. I ate a healthy breakfast and said good morning to my roommate and returned to my work in the sun, and somehow, that sun illuminated the corners of my brain where the shadows lurked. I rediscovered the things I new to be true, the things I truly believed in.
I believe in the power of honesty.
To be honest, I don’t want to brainstorm solutions to this quandary. I don’t want to discuss options with everyone who thinks they’re an expert or think too hard about what this all means. I don’t want to find fault or re-examine everything. I don’t want to hear about all the other people who have had it, beat it, and lived with it. And I certainly don’t want to hear about the people who have died from it. I don’t want to stop eating peanut butter or cheese or shellfish. I don’t want to be a vegan or start practicing yoga. I don’t want to worry about my drinking water or my shampoo or what cocktail of genetic predispositions my unborn children might possess.
What I want is to laugh. I want to hear the completely inappropriate joke and to hear the really good “I caught one thiiiiis big” stories from the old men smoking unfilterned cigarettes when I paying for gas. I want to marvel at the beauty of the white fencerow against the green hills and purple twilight, all the while holding my nose against the smell of pig shit. I want to let the phrase “y’all” slip back into my vernacular and chuckle when I hear it. I want to eat a steak off the charcoal grill while sipping a glass of wine while I watch the sunset. I want to run because it makes me feel bigger, better, stronger with every step, not because it will ensure I won’t be struck with an incurable disease thirty years from now.
My mom drew a picture she calls “Healthy Marty” after my dad. It was her way of being positive—a childlike outline of a person filled with sunshiny yellow and a big smile. First she made copies for my sister and me to post on our refrigerators to remind us that things would be okay. Then her co-workers asked if they could have copies to post around their offices. Dad swiped the one off the fridge at home and took it to his doctors who immediately asked for more. My sister had copies professionally printed, fifty of them, and express mailed them to my parents’ house.
It was like the rural American version of Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes. If enough people think enough grains of good thoughts, if they’re reminded every day to send just one thought Dad’s way, maybe we can all cure him together.
A few weeks after we learned the not so promising prognosis and just before he began what would be a hellish regimen of chemotherapy and radiation, Mom and I hung 50 Healthy Marty posters all over the house, the yard, the garden…anywhere he might turn, he’d be faced with a goofy smiling yellow Marty. It was like a protective shield around him. We giggled like children when he came out of the house and looked around. He shushed us at first, a little embarrassed by the ridiculous attention. And then he joined in. We sat out in the heavy heat of late summer in Missouri and looked at the Healthy Marty’s dancing in the wind. It felt strangely celebratory and cathartic.
That night, I drove home through the fields of hay, back to the stone walls of academia not far down the road, spent. I was ready to sleep through the night again. And as I drove, windows down, wind whipping, I whispered it to the world over and over again.
My dad has cancer.
And so far, we are still laughing.