So anyhow, to borrow the opening of Tig Notaro’s amazing routine, I have cancer. Luckily, in my case it just seems to be a very small, infant cancer, more of a cancerette, though we’ll know more after surgery, when all of my lady parts have been excised and the doctors can really take a look at the Little Stranger that has taken up residence in my son’s old apartment–the one he outgrew nineteen years ago.
To be honest, the news pretty much freaked me out, though I should have been expecting it. There’s lots of back story in my previous post, so I’ll just say here that I’d been bleeding for far, far, too long, that my son finally sat me down and made me google my symptoms, and that I wound up in the last place in the world I wanted to be–in a strange OB/Gyn’s office (they are all strangers to me–I haven’t visited one for something like seventeen years), locking up all my joints to keep from shaking, trying not to cry (there are good reasons for that seventeen years), and looking at the walls for distraction. And that’s when I saw it.
“My god,” I thought. “It’s a cow.” Which is not what the artist had meant and, as it turned out, not what my doctor had meant when she hung it up on her wall. But the cow was what I needed to see. I spent the rest of that horrible half of my life (hey, it felt like it) staring at that diagram. “Yes,” I decided, “it’s definitely a cow. With big curvy horns with eggs on the ends–gold eggs, because this is a cow that likes jewelry…”
Because I wanted to think about something–anything–except what was happening between my legs, I reported my observations to the nurse, who was very nice about it. She didn’t see the cow, she said, but then she really didn’t have to, did she? I saw it, and that was enough. The doctor finished. I put myself to rights, shot a quick photo of the diagram, and limped out of the office, drained and shaking–but with the seed of an idea.
At home, I opened the photo and turned it into Illustrator, and then set about painting the cow I saw. I called The Boy, who serves as my focus group in projects like this. “What do you think?” I asked.
“Maybe make the horns solid, not cutaways…” he suggested.
“Yes,” I agreed eagerly. “And I could make them carved into spirals, with precious jewels wrapped around them…”
I went back to painting. He went back to playing his game.
That night at supper I said, “I’m thinking that there’s a frog in there, too…swimming, with tadpoles that look like sperms…”
“Uh huh,” he said, because he understands that when I say things like this I’m not looking for an opinion. I’m thinking out loud. He only has to listen.
“The cow needs a red river, because periods,” I reported a little later. “And there need to be flowers in it, because in that blood lies the possibility of life.”
“Okay,” said The Boy, wincing a little. He’s evolved, but still human.
I went back to painting.
“It’s going to be in the desert, because menopause,” I told him. “But there needs to be a flower and a bee, because the birds and the bees.”
“Mm,” he said, caught up in a boss battle.
And then it was done.
I turned to the frogs. Long, graceful arms, spindly, pathetic back legs, waving water weeds, spermish tadpoles doing a synchronized swimming routine. And bathing suits on the frogs with flowers and jewels, because these are Middle-aged Lady Frogs who like bright colors, costume jewelry, and Slenderizing Lines.
In fact, they looked much like my Grandma, and, increasingly, me. Middle-aged ladies, carrying eggs…and so the farm wife was born, out in her overalls, carrying enormous buckets of eggs. And all around her, gigantic, fat hens with tiny heads, because after all, what would a hen do with a brain? A hen’s job is eggs. Lots of eggs.
And then I thought of ballerinas–middle-aged, portly ballerinas with saggy underwear. The Boy suggested that the saggy underwear should hold a well-used pad. And the picture became a metaphor about body-shaming, about how we women spend so much of our lives concealing the biologic realities that shape many of our days, about the risk of exposure if we choose to ignore those realities. I started the drawing. And then I went in for the D&C, and the doctor told me the news was not good.
“It’s cerous carcinoma,” she said.
For a second I thought she’d said it was “serious carcinoma.” Is there any other kind? I wondered, and then my mind went blank, and I couldn’t catch my breath. She went on to explain, and to give me some idea of what I needed to do next. This was good, because my future had just shut down in front of me. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t think.
“Is your son there?” she asked.
“Yes,” I croaked.
“Would you like me to explain things to him?” she asked.
I handed him the phone. He listened. He asked a few questions. He hung up. And then we clung to each other, and cried.
I called my sister, who agreed to tell the others who had been waiting for the diagnosis.
When my brain came back online I thought about my paintings, but the thought of my little ballerina with her overflowing pad was obliterated by the diagram I had started with, consumed by a black, lobed mass, growing and spreading and unspeakably ugly. There was no picture there.
I thought of my son, and the fear in his eyes, and realized that the cancer was real–but so was the fact that I am a mother, and as a mother I needed to be strong. You mothers who have faced a diagnosis like this understand what I mean–the cancer is real, and terrifying, and above all else we want to soothe that fear for our children. We have cancer, but we are still mothers, and we still reach for our children, and seek to give comfort, both now, and in the future. “How do I want him to remember me?” I asked myself.
And I knew. I wanted him to remember me strong, loving, caring, smart-mouthed, and laughing. I wanted him to remember me engaged in my life. And it didn’t matter if I had six months or six centuries left. Once I’d taken the steps I could to eradicate the cancer, I couldn’t control what might happen. But I could absolutely control how I met it. I could remember that even though I have cancer, life goes on, and I can continue to live it. I didn’t want my son to see a mom who fell apart before she had to.
That day may come. I’m still in early days, when the effects of the D&C have left me feeling far better than I’ve felt in years–so much better that I can joke that cancer seems to agree with me so far. But I’m not stupid. I’ve seen cancer. I’ve seen treatment. I know it can get ugly. But it’s not ugly yet. Now, my son and I go to movies. We play games, we laugh. We joke. We entertain his friends. Our life is good. And I’m loving every minute of it, even as I make plans to have my uterus and ovaries removed as soon as possible, even as the knowledge that I have cancer knocks my breath out of me for a second sometimes, even as I make the appointment with the attorney to write my will, my power of attorney, my advance directive, even as I arrange with friends to watch out for my son while I’m away in the hospital. Because the cancer is real. But so is the rest of my life. And for now, it goes on. I’m finishing up a couple books I want to make sure my son has. I’m painting the illustrations. Yes, life goes on.
I know it does, because I’m painting again, and I’m writing, and I am still a mother who loves her son, and whose son loves her.