January 7, 2010

Cancer: Instant Perspective

I was wetting down my son’s hair, wrestling with the hurricane cowlick at the back of his head, when the phone rang. It was unusual for us to get such an early morning call—I immediately thought, “Uh oh.”

The caller ID was unfamiliar, but when I picked up, it was my neighbor up the street; we’ll call her Susan because I don’t want to identify her here. Susan is an attractive blonde, younger than me by at least a decade, with two beautiful children, a new house in our upscale-ish development, and a husband in the medical profession. The few times I conversed with her, we hit it off—both of us are the talkative type with similar senses of humor—but probably for reasons attributable to how busy we are with work and family, we never became more than friendly acquaintances.

Susan’s daughter “Emily” is in my son’s first-grade class, and is a pale, serious child, smart and observant. She always seemed so much more mature than my wild child, which is probably why my son had a crush on her all through kindergarten.

“I thought I had your phone number, but I had to look it up in the white pages,” Susan said. I thought we paid the phone company $3 a month NOT to publish our number, so I was slightly annoyed. “Emily missed the bus, and I’m a mess this morning. I had some surgery last night, and I’m sore and running behind and I know you drive your son to school still, right?”

“Oh, sure!” I said, knowing what was coming. “I’m sick, just a cold, but I’ll keep my germs to myself. Do you have a booster seat?”

She probably meant to keep it to herself, but her talkative nature (so much like my own), the urge to share even the worst news, to EXPLAIN why she was so out of it and needed the help of a virtual stranger (albeit a friendly one), probably prompted her next words, “I just found out I have cancer.”

“Oh, my GOD,” I exclaimed. My son looked up from across the room. He was stuffing his arm into his coat, his hat perched rakishly on his just-combed hair. Tears flooded my eyes.

“I haven’t told Emily,” Susan said quickly.

“Of course. I won’t say a word.” My son asked, “What?” so I put on a cheerful voice and said, “We’ll be there in a few minutes,” and rang off.

I rushed him through the rest: shoes, zip coat, stretchy Spongebob gloves, backpack. I grabbed a plastic grocery bag as we went out to the truck; after strapping him in his seat, I filled the bag with garbage that littered the back seat: mostly straw papers and cup lids and napkins from McDonalds.

Susan ushered Emily out while I proclaimed, “Missed-the-Bus-Express here!” Susan hardly even met my eyes and I fully understood. I didn’t want to so much as offer her a sympathetic look. Right now, she needed to act normal. She needed to hide one of the worst bits of bad news a mother can get. Hide it from her innocent child, who got into our truck like it was any other day, like she rode to school with neighbors all the time.

I fought tears all the way to school. Luckily, my boy blither-blathered on, completely unaware, and if Emily suspected something was wrong, she gave no indication of it. I dropped the children off with a smile on my face, reminding my son to be good.

On the drive home, I thought about Susan. She would want privacy right about now, so I decided against calling her. On the one hand, I wanted her to know I was here for her, but on the other, I doubted she wanted to talk any further about it. She must be reeling right now, but I knew she had family to lean on and hashing it out with a mere acquaintance wouldn’t help. She probably needed to formulate a plan to get back on solid footing.

I thought about my life, of course. About how the little things had been getting to me lately. But no matter how frustrating the elements that make up my existence can be, at least I don’t have cancer…CANCER!—Jesus, that’s the scariest word. Something in your body gone dreadfully wrong, with connotations of chemo-therapy, radiation, indignity and death. Once you get that diagnosis, nothing is ever the same, is it? Even assuming you beat it, your life is now defined by it, forever. You are forced to join the legions of Survivors, and the fear that it will return will never leave you.

So this morning I guess I got a wake-up call. Suddenly the little things are in sharp focus and my perspective isn’t skewed towards the negative anymore. When my son went to school today, I wasn’t hiding anything from him. I don’t have cancer.