Mark’s cancer is the center of the target, the kerplunk of the stone in the water. In the crests and troughs beyond are family and friends. The childhood friend who sits with Mark as he struggles; the neighbors who stepped in when Mark’s first wife was dying of ovarian cancer and now are stepping in again; the stepkids having their first experience with a family member having a debilitating illness. This is a guest blog post providing a glimpse of this experience from one of Mark’s stepchildren, my Alma, sharing their view from a ripple in the cancer waves.
My mom’s friend, giving her some feedback on her blog, said she should write more about her experience. My mom, ever the absolute giver, had the gall to say that it feels wrong to write about herself because this isn’t happening to her. Mark is the one suffering. I think back before Mark was diagnosed but when something had started to go wrong — insisting after a ten hour nosebleed that he was fine. It sounds quite silly. “This ten hour nosebleed isn’t a problem.” “My husband’s rare, aggressive, stage 4 cancer isn’t happening to me.”
But I guess I really do understand the feeling. If it’s not happening to my mom, it certainly isn’t happening to me, right? When Mark first got really sick, I remember telling people and hearing their, “I’m sorry.” Sometimes what my inner denial was saying: the grief wasn’t really mine – it was borrowed from my mom and his kids.
Having lived here for a month now, I feel more a part of it. I’ve seen and been part of this inner world not many people are privy to. But still, I’m not his kid or his partner. I get to leave. I will leave. Somehow, on February 4th, I will pack up my things, get in my car, and drive 600 miles away. Away from Mark slack-jawed and slurring. Away from nights when Matthew, Ben, his girlfriend, and I gather to eat dinner together without my mom or Mark. Away from my sister learning how to help with the feeding tube. Away from my mom performing a balancing act I wouldn’t believe if I wasn’t watching it. When I put it like that, leaving doesn’t seem all that much easier than staying.
My friends are all back from their break at college. I feel a million miles away from them. Last weekend, a few of them were messaging me, all of them enjoying their first weekend back for their last semester of college. I understand. I tried to respond to their messages to entertain them. I tried to not be overly enthusiastic but to not perform misery either. It’s a kind of stoicism I’ve learned from my mom. But even when I know it wouldn’t interrupt their fun, I still hold back most of the time. When I talk to peers about it, I mostly feel met with discomfort. They get quiet. They stop making eye contact. They stop asking questions. They stop talking about their own lives. I understand that too. It’s intense. It’s sad. It’s uncomfortable. They don’t know what to do.
I can always pick out those who do have personal experience – they’re the ones who do reach out, who brave the intensity. It is strange to feel closer to people I haven’t talked to or maintained a close relationship with for years. In high school, a girl tried to get me expelled in eleventh grade. We got together for coffee last Sunday after she messaged me. Her mom had cancer and is still in the waiting period of seeing it comes back. Someone I worked with at my first job responded to my Instagram story. She says, “everything you are feeling is okay.” She tells me about “parallel swimming,” how to survive a riptide. Her mom died last year. Not people I would have considered close to me, but people with whom I now have this shared experience no one else really gets. They are people I hold dear. Sometimes they feel like the only ones I could talk to without exploding.
Last night my sister and I talked on the phone for two hours (after spending three hours together at the hospital). We talk about our guilt. Guilt that nothing we could do is ever enough. Guilt that we get to leave from the hardship while Mom and the kids and Mark live in it. We reassure each other. I tell her about how often Mom and I laugh together. She tells me a quote she’s been keeping in mind: “You will not do, nor will you bear to do all that you have been ordered, nevertheless do as much as you can and be glad.” I realize we are really talking about grief. A grief that is ours. Not one that we borrowed or adopted from the people to whom this is “really happening.”
What I’ve learned is that this is happening to everyone. Yes, Mark is the one who had to go through weeks of radiation and chemo, who must cope with the loss of abilities, who will ultimately have to continue fighting and enduring whatever is to come. Yes, my mom is the one performing superhuman balancing acts. But it is also happening to everyone who loves Mark. And everyone who loves my mom. And everyone who loves his kids, and his family, and my sister and me.