Choose Your Own (Cancer) Adventure
How to be present in a moment I want to escape.
Posted May 01, 2012
My dear friend Baba is sick. Her real name isn’t Baba. When we were in seventh grade we had a radio show where we were Jewish deejay’s called the Manischewitz Sisters. I was named Hummus and she was Baba Ghanoush. We talked into a mini tape recorder and interviewed each other with horrible Yiddish accents.
Baba has been my friend for thirty years. She makes me laugh even when I’m crying. She knows everyone in my family and gets my cousins to belly dance at her bridal shower and texts me dirty jokes about our fourth grade gym teacher.
Baba is sick. The doctors are using words like stage 3 and malignant and still she’s belly dancing in her living room with her 17-month old baby girl and I’m saying,
This time it will be different. I’m different.
I watched both of my parents and my uncle die from cancer. Yes, I was younger and clueless, but I still regret the way I handled it. Or rather, the way I didn't.
With my dad, I could feign ignorance because I was still a child. My uncle, I mostly just talked at him until he looked worn out from my visits. When my mom was diagnosed, I told her the doctors were hopeful, even though she knew I was lying. I denied her illness up until her last breath. When she spoke about how the future might look, I suggested we go shopping at the Container Store after her next chemo treatment. Mom never protested, lest she burst my optimistic bubble. Though I know it was her choice, I still think I took away some of her ability to say good-bye.
Now watching my friend Baba, forthright and open about her diagnosis, I feel like I have to follow suit. Maybe if I can approach the disease differently, I’ll uncrack its code. Only I’m clenching my body so tightly. Trying to flip through past, present, and future outcomes. Like one of those choose-your-own-adventure books Baba and I used to pass back and forth to each other in Social Studies class.
Cancer doesn’t work that way. Life doesn't work that way.
This past weekend, I go on a fact-finding mission. I prod Baba’s husband for any details he may know. Quiz him about side effects and support groups. I have a pad of paper for scribbling notes. I lecture about how I’m going to rearrange their home, their lives, their prognosis.
I thoroughly annoy everyone in Baba’s home.
By dusk, there’s a small group of us lazing on Baba’s couch, reenacting our tenth grade production of “The Crucible”. It’s easier to scream about witches in Salem than whatever lies under Baba’s skin. I know this isn't really about me, but I come home with an empty pad of paper, sobbing.
“There’s so much I know I can do,” I tell my therapist.
“Like what?” she asks.
There are no do-overs. No crystal balls or protective superpowers. Which I now have to accept and trust as a blessing. I don’t know the hospital where Baba is having surgery tomorrow. The smell of the halls, the squeak of the gurney. Everything will be new. And possible.
Want to do see my gown and synchronize our Swatch watches in the pre-op room? texts Baba as I write this.
Yes, I do. I want to be there by her side and face it with her. Honestly, patiently, even when it feels impossible. Still sometimes, I’ll have to take a break. I have a family to love and care for. To support and cuddle. And no matter how many interviews I conduct in any accent, I’ll never outsmart the unknown.