Monday, November 19, 2012

Cancer in III Acts: Act II

Act II: Regaining the Home Advantage

“I have heard there are troubles of more than one kind.
Some come from ahead and some come from behind.
But I've bought a big bat.  I'm all ready you see.
Now my troubles are going to have troubles with me!”
— Dr. Seuss, I Had Trouble In Getting to Solla Sollew

            Mom, true to her word and her nature, fought the disease.  She refused to sit back and watch her hair fall out in handfuls, clogging the shower drain.  After her first chemotherapy treatment, I watched as she took an electric razor to her beautiful brown hair.
            “I am in control here,” she told me, though I think she was speaking more to the cancer itself.  “I will not be a victim.”  I looked at my mom’s bald head, and I didn’t see a cancer patient.  I saw a badass G.I. Jane, determined to regain the frontline of her body.
            The next day, we went wig shopping with my mom’s best friend, Jeannie, and her granddaughter, Cassie.  Mom turned a potentially depressing errand into an ironically fun social event.  At one point she tried on a platinum wig that could only be marketed to strippers and porn stars.  “Do blondes really have more fun?” she asked the store manager with a straight face.
            The chemotherapy ravaged my mom’s body, often leaving her tired and nauseated, while the experimental treatment caused her head to ache and her face to swell.  Even so, she refused to miss any of her graduate classes, and continued to craft her pottery, including a beautiful communion set for our church.
            Mom and I began meeting for lunch several times a week between classes.  She told me stories from her childhood that I had never heard before, and I wrote them down, more aware than ever of their value.
“I was eleven the first time I was asked to babysit,” Mom said.  “I watched my neighbors’ two kids every day for a week, and by the end of my last day I was thinking about what I would buy with my payment.  Instead of pulling out his billfold, however, my neighbor took me outside and presented me with my very own cow.”
            “A cow?” I asked surprised.  “In Tampa, Florida?”
“Yep.  A cow.  My neighbors had a field full of farm animals behind their house.  This was when the outskirts of Tampa were still mainly farmland and woods.  I had no idea what to do with my cow, so I led it home and put it in our family shed out back.  By the time I came back outside to check on it, the cow had eaten a pile of insulation and was lying dead on the floor.”
During some of our lunches, I asked Mom specific questions.  “Have you ever stolen anything?” I asked one afternoon.
“Yes.  But, only once that I can remember.  When I was six, my family went to our neighbors’ house for dinner.  Our neighbors had a two–year-old girl, and I was told to go play with her in her room while the adults finished getting dinner ready.  The girl had a black baby doll the size of my hand resting in a miniature cradle on the dresser in her room.  I had never seen a doll quite like it, and I desperately wanted it.  After we were done eating, I snuck back into her room, took the doll and cradle, and hid them under my jacket.  I stashed them in my bottom dresser drawer as soon as I got home, and after my parents went to sleep, I quietly opened the drawer just far enough to reach in and rock the baby doll back and forth.
The next day, our neighbors stopped by and asked Grandma if she knew what happened to their daughter’s doll.
‘We suspect that Linda took it after dinner the other night.’
 ‘My daughter would never steal!’ Grandma yelled and slammed the door in their faces.  I was ashamed once I realized how much trust my mother had in me, and I didn’t want to disappoint her.  That afternoon I snuck over to my neighbors’ and placed the doll and cradle on their front porch.  My family was never invited to eat at our neighbors’ house again.”
When Mom’s scans came back ten months after her diagnosis, there were no visible nodules in her lungs.  Even her doctor celebrated and hugged everyone in my family.  He immediately scheduled my mom’s double mastectomy, and told us that if the surgery went well she would be in remission.  Nearly a year after her diagnosis, my mom was defying every medical statistic.
            My brother and I went to the recovery room as soon as Mom was out of surgery.  Bald, breastless, and still loopy from the anesthesia, Mom looked up at us from the hospital bed and smiled. 
“Tell me the truth,” she said, “do I look like Uncle Frank?”
Several weeks later, the oncologists still couldn’t find any sign of cancer left in Mom’s body.  She insisted that I submit my application for a writing program I had hoped to attend in Scotland.  I was accepted into their poetry program, and in late July I flew to Edinburgh for a month of writing classes and workshops. 
Edinburgh was bursting with artists who were in town for the jazz, book, and fringe festivals.  The colorful bustle of the City and the passion and warmth of my classmates made me feel alive in a way I hadn’t since my mom’s diagnosis.  I saw “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” performed at Roslyn Chapel, and took a weekend trip with my new friends to the Scottish Highlands.  I drank at a Frankenstein themed bar, and had my copy of “Trainspotting” signed by Irvine Welsh at the Book Festival.  A group of girls from my class even had front and center seats for “Puppetry of the Penis,” a two man foray into the art of genital origami. 
One weekend I took a bus to Dundee, the hometown of my ancestors.  I kept my eyes peeled for any Walker family doppelgangers, but was unsuccessful in my search.  It was liberating, knowing that I was an ocean away from home and visiting a town without anyone aware of my whereabouts.  I sent postcards and letters to my family and boyfriend detailing each day’s adventures, and bought Mom the only souvenir she had specifically asked for—a plaid wool scarf. 
On my last day in Scotland, I hiked alone to the top of Arthur’s Seat, a dormant volcano overlooking Edinburgh.  The trail I chose was steep and my calves were cramping by the time I neared the top.  With each step, I kicked up new clouds of dry dirt.  Thin, dying weeds lined the trail, and an army of gnats continuously dove for my eyes and mouth.  I reached the top and a heavy wind blew my hair from my face as I admired the City that had given me what I so desperately needed:  time for reflection, inspiration to write, and a diverse group of new friends with a shared passion.  I scanned the view from Arthur’s Seat with my camera, so I could show Mom later how beautiful the City is.  I hoped to bring her to Edinburgh one day so I could share with her firsthand the things I had written about in my letters.
When my plane touched down in the States, it hit me that I was going to see Mom, Dad, and my boyfriend, Scott, for the first time in over a month.  Scott was waiting for me outside my gate and I ran to give him a hug.
“Where are my mom and dad?” I asked.
“They sent me ahead to meet you,” he said.  “We didn’t want you to be surprised when you see your mom.  She is in a wheelchair.”

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