When You Stand There, Watch Bodies Full of Sickness and Pain

Instead of chocolates and flowers, today I am thinking in purple. For a year ago, my mother died of pancreatic cancer.

It is hardly a revelation to call the disease a scourge. My mother’s father also died of the disease, and because of this the chances are frighteningly high that myself or one of my siblings will ultimately be dealing with their own endocrine tumor sometime in the future.

Cancer in general has seriously affected my life. My father had throat cancer and, because of radiation, skin cancer. My sister-in-law continues to deal with the consequences of beating rectal cancer. A girlfriend in college lost part of her shoulder to bone cancer.

I mention cancers six times in my book. There were the tribe of one-breasted women downwind of the uranium mines near Laguna Pueblo, and those afflicted because of the abysmal safety conditions of the Hanford nuclear site. A girl I met in Canyonlands had lost her father to cancer, while a Buffalo man’s mother fought it at Roswell Park. An anthropologist in Butler Wash, Utah was celebrating her victory over breast cancer, and a boy on the monorail to Epcot told me that her “Mommy changed colors” years earlier– an innocent reference to the jaundice she suffered while battling her own case of the disease.

I don’t remind you of any of this as a means to ruin your Valentine’s Day. Though I have little use for the “holiday,” I hardly begrudge anyone who enjoys their observance of the occasion. During my mother’s wake, several people were declaring that my father had surely come for my mother on the 14th specifically, and that’s a nice enough conceit, even if it would have been totally out of character for a . . . well . . . very German man.

Rather, Valentine’s Day has become a day of remembrance for me. And as large sections of my book provided the catharsis for my father’s death four year earlier, I suppose this bit of scribbling is part of working through my mother’s.

It isn’t a perfect solution. Despite my experiences with the disease, I have embarrassingly little of value to say about it, perhaps because– thankfully– I myself have not been afflicted myself, or perhaps because I have not felt inclined to fully contextualize my part in the afflictions of my friends and family. I hardly remember my grandfather’s death or the battle my father endured with throat cancer (really, I almost never even thought about it later in life except on days he had skin cancer lesions removed, or when his lack of saliva glands forced him into a labored clearing of his throat). I consider my girlfriend’s diagnosis to be the moment of my true ascension into adulthood, though I have long since neglected to flesh out in coherent terms just what I mean by that. And perhaps out of cowardice or expedience or some other brand of personal weakness, I prefer not to plumb the depths of what it meant to care for a crippled mother, revisit the conflicted feelings I had when I was in Albany and not Long Island, and remind myself of what it felt like to watch my mother die. Maybe someday I will decide it is time to think and write about these things. But not today.

So I’ll just leave it there. It is the burden of the living to continue on without the dead. But it is also their gift. The sun is out in Albany. My dog derives a simple, unfettered joy from the ocean of snow in the park. And so I believe I’ll take him across the street, watch him play, and smile.

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