by Michael Dea, submitted for the Third Annual Alexander Phillips Arete Award
No five-year-old child should have to learn the meaning of the word “cancer.” In a perfect world, every child would be blissfully unaware of death and how the body can be ripped apart and stitched back together in an attempt to keep a heart beating, a pair of lungs breathing, and a family living. However, the world is imperfect, and sometimes even five-year olds have to learn hard truths about it before they ideally should. And when a child is asked to grow up before their time, they will often struggle to connect with their peers.
When my parents sat me down to explain that my mother was ill and needed a risky treatment if she was going to survive, I didn’t yet know how to ride a bike without training wheels. Our house was on a steep hill that made me afraid to try, because I wasn’t confident that I could control where I went, but after learning about how something invisible might steal my mother away from me, I became terrified of life itself. Over the course of my mother’s nine years of surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, and experimental treatments, I was afraid of getting sick, and took to reading about how disease spreads and develops. I read articles about cancer and tried to understand biology so that I could make sense of what was happening to my mother, but also so I could comfort myself with a sense of control over the situation.
My hypochondria dissipated when my mother finally succumbed to cancer. At fifteen, I had witnessed my mother endure treatments that left her feeling weak, seen the scars that surgery had wrought, and the effort my mother continued to put in every day to love her children. In the last few years of her life, I had begun to choose her as my hero whenever I was asked to choose one, because she had taught me what it meant to fight against something that seemed impossible to win against.
Initially, I felt strange being the teen who had lost a parent to cancer. I didn’t want to talk about it much and threw myself into my work because I wanted to forget about feeling like I was somehow different from other people because I had lost someone. However, with time, I grew to understand that it was not as strange as I feared it was to have lost someone, and that gave me simultaneously a sense of belonging and a deep sorrow that I knew so many people who had suffered as I had. However, it would be many years before I found my place in this community, and by the time cancer overshadowed my life for a second time, I had begun to think of my task as one of endurance more than anything else.
I believe my father worried more about his diagnosis than I had at the time. I remember him telling me how he had asked the doctor to be clear about what to expect because he didn’t want to put his children through another ordeal needlessly, and even though he was worried about my mental health, I was more worried about ensuring he got the care he needed. At the time, I had armored myself in logistics, thinking about college and how I could help my father without treading on his old-school sense of independence and self-sufficiency. Throughout the course of his illness, I had begun to take up more of the cooking, cleaning, pet care, and other chores, because I saw how he would increasingly struggle to catch his breath, and he had raised me to understand how important it was to be a support to loved ones in a difficult time.
During that period, I had begun to rethink some of my priorities, and even let go of some of the aspirations that I once had. Living abroad was out of the question – because I would need to stay near my father in case he needed help – as was leaving the city where he was, since there was no way to know when an emergency might arise that would require me to appear on short notice. However, the one thing I had begun to give up on that my parents probably would not have approved of, was love.
I grew up as a hopeless romantic, and for a long time the only thing I wanted out of life was to have a relationship as loving and supportive as my parents had with all the bells and whistles of a romantic movie. I had been fed on love stories from their lives that had felt like they were taken off the silver screen, but by the time my father passed, I had been single for a couple of years and started wondering why I would subject anyone to the same suffering that I had endured for most of my life. I understood that there was a genetic component to cancer and knew that it didn’t have to determine where my future lay, but, at the time, it felt like trying to build a future with anyone would lead only to breaking their heart in an incredibly painful fashion. Worse than that was considering how it would impact my children, who could carry the same ticking timebomb that I felt was counting down in me.
There have been plenty of accounts of what cancer robs a person of. For patients, it’s a slow erosion of their life as their body gets robbed of its ability to remember, to walk, and to function; for families, it’s watching a beloved someone fade, fighting every day to remain a sharp enough image in one’s life. In my case, cancer did all these things, and made me believe that I couldn’t get too close to others, lest I brought calamity down on their heads.
However much I wanted to protect an imaginary partner with whom I could imagine children from the ravages of cancer, human nature drives a person to seek out company. I found a family I wasn’t biologically related to in the midst of those years and who continue to stand with me, and I also tried dating. A part of me was hoping somehow that I could keep my secret for a while without damaging the connection I was building, but before things could get too serious, the elephant in the room suffocated the fragile connection, and one of us would call it quits.
During a low point, when my hopes were at their faintest, I did eventually find someone who gave me an opportunity to take off my armor, if I wanted to. I told her my story of cancer, talked with her about what it had taken from me, and when I finished my telling, she held me close rather than running, as I thought she would. As painful as it was retelling the stories, I could only feel relief at the embrace, and I finally found the space to let something new and wonderful blossom.
I used to believe that secrets were the way to keep someone’s attention; the ability to keep them fostered trust between people and having a few of one’s own ensured that there would always be interesting conversations to be had. What I found, though, was that holding too tightly to parts of oneself can cause the connections between individuals to wither. Most of my life has taught me that letting go of fear, pain, and various forms of heartbreak frees up space in a person’s heart to welcome love and intimacy inside. Children do this intuitively, and life experiences teach them the value of shutting themselves off from the world, and it’s hard work to undo that training. But the journey makes it so much sweeter when you can finally relax into that warm embrace.