My other employer, Howard, came on the line when Lyanne passed on the news. He and I had been friends as well as colleagues since 1990, when we worked together at a large law firm once he graduated from law school. I helped him start his own firm almost a year later, and ended up working with him until my diagnosis. I’d like to think I was his right-hand man. His family and friends would tell me Howard felt that way too. We continue to keep in touch.
All I remember from my conversation with Howard is, “Do whatever they tell you.” I never forgot those words. He admitted a few years following my ordeal that he thought I was crazy for going through so many tests. In one way, I thought his comment was funny. On the other, it just goes to show you how unexpected this was for everyone. Howard never knew all my symptoms, so would obviously question my paranoia. I never took my health issues too seriously either. If the Help-Line nurse wouldn’t have told me to go to the hospital, I don’t know where I would be today. Perhaps not writing this survival memoir.
We turned onto Maritain Street, where my parents lived. As I stared out the window, the homes, the cars, and the people began to appear further than they actually were. The drive up to the house was unusual. I felt everything pulling away from me, and a sense of loneliness encircling me. The detachment was so strong, I almost felt consoled. It’s amazing how our brains cope at a different level during trauma.
So how the heck was I going to tell my parents their baby girl has stomach cancer, and would need a very risky operation? I have no recollection of the exchanges between Mariano and myself during the drive, or the thought process of what I could say to my family. Mariano tells me, “You were quiet and you weren’t crying.” I suppose the telephone calls were a great distraction for me.
Mariano parked the car on the driveway in front of the basement entrance. My mother was taking care of my daughter and my nephew – what she did every day while my sister and I went to work. We were lucky to have a healthy stay-at-home mom to help raise our children. My mother-in-law was also there, since she knew we were receiving important results.
When we’d walk in the house, there were usually aromas that filled the air. Homemade tomatoe sauce brewing or chicken cutlets frying would tell your stomach, “Why go home and make dinner?” And the baking! My mother was also constantly making cookies and cakes. Her famous birthday cake was large enough to feed at least twenty-five. The Easter bread was sometimes baked just because there were little grandchildren around – they loved the mini buns so much. Today was different, and ironically, no one was in the mood for food.
As I entered the family room, which at the time we called the playroom, those familiar surroundings became comforting, even for me.
Mariano entered ahead of me. It was as though my parents were waiting by the door for us. “It’s cancer, and she has to get operated.”
In Italian, my mother pleaded, “Don’t even joke about that.” She came toward me.
“It’s true,” I added.
My mother cried helplessly.
My parents became quiet. Each took their respective place in their comfort zone. My mom sat in a chair at that metal table in the kitchen, and my dad in his reclining chair in the family room. He didn’t sit back in it as usual, but near the edge.
I gave my mom a hug from behind. No words, no possible comfort, only stillness. After a few moments, I went to my dad, squatted down, and put my hand on his lap. No words, no possible comfort, only stillness. They were both pensive and teary-eyed. My heart hurt from their pain. How could I stop this from destroying my family? They tried to keep their emotions at bay, probably for my sake, but I felt that if they could, they would scream at the top of their lungs. They knew what this meant. They dreaded what was to come.
I didn’t cry. I couldn’t. I had to be strong. Being in control during critical times was normal for me. At that point, my emotions were unknown. My state of shock protected me, like an armor, to mask all that was fuming inside. But even in this unrecognizable and vulnerable state, how could I be so unyielding?
I still await the official clear from my doctor’s office. Mariano and I have seen him twice, and the technician’s report has yet to be posted for the doctor’s review. Yesterday, I left a message at his office, so I hope to get some news soon.
In the meantime, I mourn yet another loss. A good family friend, who spent a much longer time in the hospital while my beloved mother-in-law was there, passed away on the weekend. He too had cancer, as his wife did (my mother’s best friend, whom you’ll learn about in my memoir). May he rest in peace, and his family find strength and healing.
Cancer deaths seem to be growing, despite all the research, all the money, all the treatments… but we must do what we can to fight the deadly disease. And we must help each other along the way.