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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.



( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
Aug. 15th, 2012 04:15 pm (UTC)
Why the hell?

I don't even need to complete that sentence. Just "Why the hell?" Then you nod.


Edited at 2012-08-15 04:15 pm (UTC)
Aug. 15th, 2012 04:30 pm (UTC)
I think so many people gloss these things over with, "kids are resilient," and "oh look she turned out all right," without realizing that when something like that happens to a child, it's more like an open wound that stops bleeding but never closes. My life was warped around my mother's schizophrenia from an early age. I barely knew her before, and in some ways I turned out "fine." But in others I pay a daily price in pain for the tragedy that tore my family apart before I was old enough to even understand.

And there is some level on which this makes us the writers we are today. I have not known very many writers of fiction who don't have something like this haunting their dreams.
Aug. 16th, 2012 07:59 am (UTC)
I was just thinking about this. In my opinion the saddest and most enraging bit of the entire Anne of Green Gables series is this conversation between Anne and Captain Jim:

""You've been too happy all your life, Mistress Blythe," said Captain Jim thoughtfully. "I reckon that's why you and Leslie can't get real close together in your souls. The barrier between you is her experience of sorrow and trouble. She ain't responsible for it and you ain't; but it's there and neither of you can cross it."

"My childhood wasn't very happy before I came to Green Gables," said Anne, gazing soberly out of the window at the still, sad, dead beauty of the leafless tree-shadows on the moonlit snow.

"Mebbe not—but it was just the usual unhappiness of a child who hasn't anyone to look after it properly. There hasn't been any TRAGEDY in your life, Mistress Blythe."

Usual unhappiness, my ass. That's the tragedy of the world, right there: children not being loved and looked after by the people whose business it is to do so. (And blessings on the ones who try to be two parents in one, when the other one is absent, or who have the love and gumption to parent a child who isn't theirs and whose own parents aren't doing the job.)
Aug. 16th, 2012 12:18 am (UTC)
I'm sorry that i can't offer any words of comfort to add here that would seem truly meaningful. ... and maybe you don't need any, per se, but it would seem the compassionate thing to do if i could express anything but awe (and admiration of your strength) at this.

I can only thank you for writing -- because you've increased my perspective on several fronts -- and hope that, perhaps with the help of others more qualified than i, you can find peace in this over time. I would think that by these experiences you would have that help to offer them, as well.

Please be well.
Aug. 16th, 2012 01:27 am (UTC)
My Dad (still living, I think) was also not there very much, even before my Mom divorced him. And the times he was there weren't all that much better. When I was 19 he tried to reconcile with my brother and me, after 6 years of no contact. After a year of a rough time, he called it off and just cut us off. I'm not sure I worse for wear, but sometimes I find myself missing those spots where other people have fond memories and I have holes.

And cancer has been an ever present dance partner since my grandfather died of his third bout when I was 16. Since then my Mom has had cancers (still living), my grandmother died with a large tumor (which might have hastened her death), and my maternal uncle has also had cancer (still living). My cousin just passed (we weren't all that close, but he wasn't much older than myself) and many of my other cousins and remaining great aunts and uncles are dealing with it.

These days, as my friends start using the words in conversation, I find myself getting angry. Not so much at them, but at cancer itself. I'm tired of it stealing people away from me.
Aug. 16th, 2012 02:38 am (UTC)
Not sure what to say here, but wanted to let you know that I'd read the post.

Cancer is what my family dies of. But since it was either before I could remember (paternal grandparents) or when I was an adult (maternal grandparents, my first and second years of college, and other relatives, later) it's a very different effect.
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