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My mother is a devoted letter writer. She selects fountain-pen ink colours with more drive and focus than I selected a career. I grew up believing it was normal to receive ornate, resplendent greeting cards for Groundhog Day, or equinox or Thursday.
Her mantelpiece is covered with cards people send her in return, crowded like teeth. When I visit my mother’s house, I throw my coat over the banister, wander into the living room and pick through the cards displayed over her fireplace, skimming them for familiar names, nice handwriting or the sentence that deviates most wildly from the standard seasonal sentiments.
The cards form a bright accordion of greens and reds in December; at Easter, a lazy haze of purples and yellows; at Halloween, a conga line of black spiders on bold orange backgrounds.
Lately, though, the cards reflect a season I don’t recognize. It’s a new season for our family, one noticeably devoid of colour. The cards come in beiges, creams or sterile whites that evoke hushed conversations in hospital hallways. “Get well soon,” they say. And inside each one is scrawled in a tentative hand: “You will beat this,” “You will win,” “You will fight,” or “We’ll all fight together.” You, me and everyone else on this mantel.
The cards become an army – these flimsy, weightless soldiers that constantly topple over when someone opens the living-room window. We right our soldiers when they fall over, again and again. We’re attentive and patient when it happens. But this army only seems to make sense when the windows are shut – when the outside world is kept outside, far away from the mantel, where it can’t upset our eggshell illusions.
In April, my mother was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer. The news didn’t arrive quite like that: It wasn’t the sudden, unambiguous thud of the morning paper dropped at the doorstep, an elastic band around the entire story.
It was possibly cancer. And then it Was Cancer. And then it was cancer that had spread to other places. And then it was inoperable. And, most recently, incurable.
The cards didn’t wait for the entire story. They began arriving the minute it Was Cancer, which is why they call it a call to arms; why they all speak of the cancer as a fight.
In the early days of the diagnosis, we all spoke that way. There were electric moments of mania when we still believed a fight was possible, when we imagined ourselves a worthy opponent to the disease.
We sprang immediately into the role of opponent because, when it’s cancer, that’s what you do. We didn’t question it. Surgery came and we envisioned the scalpel as a bayonet. Radiation as a taser gun. Chemo as tear gas. Kill it, kill it, kill it.
But then the results came, and that day was the worst of all. The entire notion of fighting became utterly wrong and completely irrelevant. There will be no “beating it,” the results said. No “winning.” You can stop fighting now.
They don’t make cards for that – for that lonely, dimly-lit corner of cancer inhabited by those who know they’re not coming back. They don’t make cards for that because we don’t have language for that.
So many will never “beat” their cancer and have been given notice of that fact. But how do we conceive of cancer when it’s not a war?
I began noticing it everywhere: The obituaries tell of people who lost their battles; the charity walks and hospital campaigns inform us that cancer will be fought, beaten, conquered. All these places taught me how to talk about the idea of cancer.
Unfortunately, none of them taught me how to talk to my mother, a real person who wakes up each morning with the disease, floating in the uncomfortable grey area between cure and death.
We have words for when a cure is possible; they’re mostly about fighting. We have words for after death has come; those ones are about finding peace. What are the words for that terrifying, flailing leap across the divide?
Often, we will commend the cancer patient on her strength, courage, endurance or other qualities of a good soldier. I hear this on an endless loop from well-wishers and hospital staff. It hurts my heart because my mother’s strength has no bearing on the outcome of her disease. The “strongest” patient can die. The “weakest” one can live. If you “win” your “fight,” it seems nothing more than a simple function of luck.
Everyone on the mantel, myself included, is uncomfortable with the fact that cancer does not reward sheer will. It flatly refuses to conform to one of our most fundamental commandments. Perhaps we’ve created language to comfort ourselves, rather than the sick person.
The day we learned my mother could not be cured, her oncologist stared at the floor, gently reframing reality. Now that her cancer would not be beaten, she had to learn to live “in synchronicity” with it, he explained. The cancer is in her, of her, and it’s not coming out. The goal now is peaceful co-existence, which makes sense, because you can’t exactly go to war against yourself.
Treatment stopped and a treaty started: cancer and my mother will let each other live as long as they can.
Sophie Kohn lives in Toronto.
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