In that space between dreaming and awake there is no fear, no worry, just a beautiful and full nothingness. When my eyes open, reality creeps in and I remember what I’m waking up to – another chemo day. I fumble towards the bathroom in the darkness, running my hands along the furniture and wall, stepping over clothing and shoes on our bedroom floor. I turn the bathroom light on and squint, holding my hand up to shield my eyes from the harsh light. Once my eyes adjust, I look into the mirror. Even now, after three months of chemo, my appearance still startles me. My skin is chalky white. My eyes are bloodshot, the eyelashes and eyebrows have fallen away. Having lost my hair, my breast and my ability to menstruate, I am an odd mix of bald, prepubescent, girl-woman. Who is this person staring back at me? Then I see it.
I look like Dad!
Seeing my father’s face reflecting back from the mirror jolts me awake and I am shocked to see that I look like he did in the weeks before he died – me with my bald white chemo head. I’d heard it so many times before. “Liz, you’re just like your father. You look like him. You’re built like him.” (Gee, thanks!) “You have the same easy going nature and sense of humor as him.”
And now that we both have cancer in common I want the similarities to end there. I desperately want to have a different outcome than Dad. He didn’t make it and I don’t want to be like him. From what I could tell, he never complained about the rotten deal he was dealt. He was diagnosed at age 54 with stage IV colon cancer and died two years later. I never heard him complain about the chemotherapy and radiation treatments or the colostomy bag hanging off his body. Instead, he joked about it. “Just think of all the money I’ll save on toilet paper,” he’d say. And after he suffered a grand mal seizure, after the cancer had spread to his brain, his liver, his bones and he lost all of his hair; he still made the same joke about saving money, only this time on shampoo. I never did think it was funny. All I could see was the horror of watching my father waste away.
Before he got really sick, he made it easy for us to forget that he had cancer. He would go to work, come home, eat dinner and afterwards, play the piano like he always did; cheerful Broadway tunes that never seemed appropriate given the gravity of his condition.
The show must go on.
I never knew how he felt about having cancer. Once I tried to talk with him about it but he brushed me off and said, “I’m fine” and that he doesn’t “worry about it.” His response puzzled me. Maybe he was just protecting me from his own pain, maybe he was in denial or maybe he really was fine. I don’t know, but I do know that I would lie in bed at night agonizing over what he was going through and imagining the terror that he must be feeling as the tumors inside him grew and multiplied. But he just kept on going, as if cancer wasn’t spreading like wild fire through his body.
Everyone admired Dad’s great attitude and how he seemed to sail through his treatments. When he was getting daily radiation to his brain, he would walk into the center, smiling and greeting everyone as if they were old friends. He knew everyone’s name and joked around with them as if he were at a cocktail party. He made conversation with the other patients and proudly introduced me to everyone. “This is my daughter, Liz. My favorite daughter!” And then he’d look at me to see my reaction. I would smile wearily at him, having heard that line many times before. Of course I was his favorite. I was his only daughter.
Observing Dad in his cancer world was surreal for me, as if I were watching from behind a glass wall. I couldn’t bear to fully take in the horror of what was happening to him, nor could I buy into his cheerfulness. And maybe he was doing the best he could to navigate between his two worlds – his cancer world and his normal world. Maybe his playful banter, his jokes and his “What, me worry?” attitude were what kept the horror away so that he could carry on every day.
When I found myself in my own cancer world eleven years later I was able to compartmentalize at first. I certainly tried hard to hide my anguish from my children who were only 3 and 5 years old. Although I tried to be cheerful and optimistic, the dread and fear would inevitably creep in and I would retreat into myself. A woman from my breast cancer support group once told me how I would make good friends at the cancer treatment center; that I would get to know the other patients well, particularly during daily radiation. She made it sound like getting radiation would be a good social opportunity. But the cancer world did not bring out my best social self. On the first day of radiation, I sat across from a frail elderly man wondering what kind of cancer he had. I buried my face in a People magazine because I had no desire to engage in conversation. I did not want to belong to this cancer club.
On another day at the radiation center, I watched as two men unloaded a gurney from an ambulance. The automatic doors opened and a blast of frigid air rolled in along with a skeleton of a woman under a heap of blankets, her bony hand clutching the side rail as if hanging on to her fragile life. This was not the jovial party setting that I witnessed when Dad was getting his radiation, nor did it feel like an opportunity for me to make friends. Perhaps it’s my loss that I didn’t make the most out of these moments, but I just didn’t have it in me.
I see now that my cancer brought up – or perhaps was – the darkness in me; the darkness that I had been trying to hide from for so long. I feel grateful that I wasn’t able to totally split off my cancer world from my normal world like my Dad seemed to. It was only by allowing the darkness to come up from within me, that I was able to heal it – feel it, then heal it. The feelings that cancer brought up for me cleared the way for the same feelings and their associated memories to surface from my childhood. When I uncovered memories of being sexual abused by my Grandfather – my father’s father – and began to make the connection between healing from my past and healing from cancer, I often wondered about my Dad. Had Grandfather also sexually abused him? Had Dad buried his shameful secret like I had? And how would things have been different for my Dad, and for my whole family, if he had healed from his past?
I splash cold water on my face and look in the mirror at the eyes staring back at me, I see a glimmer of something that I did not see in my Dad’s eyes, something strong, something brave. These are not the eyes of a dying person. They are my eyes and they are filled with a resolve to fight back.
I am different than you, Dad.
As I look at myself I can see that I am different than my father. And I smile as I feel his presence and support and I hear his voice echoing my thoughts.
Yes Liz, you are different. You are going to make it.