By Epiphany Ferrell
She’d lost a lot to cancer. A lot. What is “a lot?” An ambiguous, careless phrase meaning something between “a little” and “everything.” Both her parents had died from cancer.
Cancer had also claimed, just in the past two years, her veterinarian, her son’s teacher, a friend’s sister, that same friend’s mother, a co-worker, and an uncle by marriage. A lot.
Somewhere between a little and everything.
Some of the losses were personal, according to human resources, and the funeral days didn’t count as sick or vacation days. People say cancer is not personal, not
discriminatory. Paula ran her fingers through her hair, the hair she’d worn long since grade school, and thought about cancer taking her hair. Technically, it’d be the chemotherapy that would take her hair, but without the cancer, there’d be no chemo. So cancer takes hair. The rest is just details. And that seemed personal to Paula.
Cancer had taken one of her mother’s breasts. She remembered the look of sad disgust her mother had given the front of her shirt when she told them about the cancer’s return. “If they’d taken this one when they took the other one, it wouldn’t have come back,” her mother had said. And maybe that was so.
Paula and her brother had convinced their mother to switch doctors. Their mother had been so afraid even to ask for a second opinion. Paula had noticed that her mother had developed peculiar relationships with her doctor. He was condescending, but her mother had chosen to see that as confidence, as assurance he would save her. Paula had to calm her mother down more than once, over the phone, long-distance, as her mother fretted that her doctor was on vacation, he was going to Greece, why did he have to go there
now, when there was so much unrest? What if something happened to him? What would she do, who would be her doctor then? her mother had asked in a frail, shaking voice.
But after a second opinion confirmed that, yes, the first doctor might have done things differently and perhaps it would have made a difference, her mother had clung to the next doctor. And after that, it was second-opinion-a-rama, with this trial clinic here or “maybe I can get in that treatment program” there.
And the miracle cures. Mangosteen juice. Açai berry. Blueberries. Green tea. Black tea. Paula had neither encouraged nor discouraged any of it. If it made her mother feel better, then let it be.
The cancer took her mother’s sense of self and her sense of the passage of time when it entered her brain. Her mother had called her one night, needing to talk right away, it was serious. So Paula had driven overnight to arrive at breakfast.
“Strange things are happening here,” her mother said.
“Strange things. Like what, Mom?”
“People look at me while I’m sleeping.”
“You’re in a nursing home now, Mom. They do that.”
“They won’t let me sleep. They look at me. And my roommate is so loud.”
“She sleeps all day, Mom.”
“Just listen to her!”
Another time, talking to her mother about someone, Paula realized her mother was talking about her with her. And the daughter her mother was talking about in no way resembled the daughter she’d raised. It was if her mother, with the cancer nestling in her brain, remembered the daughter she always wanted, not the one she’d been given. Paula felt doubly lost that day. Not only did her mother not recognize her to talk to her, but didn’t recognize her in her memories, either.
She looked in the mirror over the sink in the funeral home bathroom. She had her hair.
She had both breasts. She had all her internal organs, even her appendix.
But she’d lost a lot to cancer.