Mer, rhymes with bear (merriehaskell) wrote,
Mer, rhymes with bear

Growing up with cancer

Not my own cancer, but my dad's.

It was my 11th birthday card in which my father informed me he had cancer, couched in terms of "You've probably heard by now I have Hodgkin's."

I hadn't heard, btw. My mother had only heard rumors, and one does not inform their only child a parent is ill based on rumor; one waits for facts. (One might go and seek facts, if one were a different person, but my mother is not me.)

Of course, I remember lots of life events prior to age 11, but so much happens in that tween range, those 10-12 years that set your personality like an aspic sets in the icebox, that I honestly do not think about my life in terms of pre-Dad's cancer and post-Dad's cancer, as people do who come to cancer later. I grew up with a sick dad. I also grew up with an absent dad. He was fairly absent before cancer, and he was way more absent after, but it wasn't like the illness was the tipping point--but I forget, sometimes, that as he was going in and out of remission, and I wasn't being told about these changes until months later, that he was battling something huge.

Sometime in there, my mother went to work on an experimental cancer ward (it was supposed to be an easier kind of nursing than the ER, ha ha), and I spent a lot of time around her patients and their families. Most of the patients died. (You don't go experimental on a curable cancer.) We kept in contact with their families for years afterward. One year, when Mom and I both had pneumonia over Christmas, the only thing that fed us was the cheese gift basket sent by a family of a patient--we were too sick to go to the store.

So when I say I grew up with cancer, I really grew up with it.

As a result, I UNDERreact about cancer. I never have anything useful to say when people get diagnosed, because I'm too busy feeling my own feelings. I know how meaningless the word is, in terms of how someone's life can change. I also know how meaningful the word CAN be. So mostly, when I hear about cancer, I'm frozen like a rabbit, trying to figure out what's going on, just like I froze all those years ago and tried to figure out what was going on, and all the other times I froze when I heard remission was over. (Twice, I think, but I seriously can't remember. I remember so many things, but there are some empty spots around this subject in particular.)

Cancer stole a lot of things from me. It stole my 11th birthday (the card) and my 26th (when I learned my father had died), and in some ways, stole my dad and a lot of the years in between. I've often wondered why my dad didn't try harder to parent me, and I often erase from my memory that he was seriously ill most of my life. It's not an excuse, of course, but it could be a reason, or part of it. How he chose to "tell" me was also a theft. He only ever addressed the subject directly with me once, in that card; other people told me stuff about his cancer AROUND him, the rest of his life, sometimes through layers of three or six people. A game of telephone about my father's health.

So. Growing up with cancer. I remember watching Dad light up a cigarette when I was 13 or so, and wanting to jerk it out of his mouth and stomp it into the dust, and I swear, every time I see anyone smoking, that's my reaction. I watch my lymph nodes hawkishly with a combination of anger and fear. And I underreact, frozenly, to other people's major illnesses.

That's the legacy.

Well. Something else to take to therapy, I guess. Something else to work through.
Tags: family

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