Friday, December 7, 2012

How Do I Tell Them?

After I found out I had cancer I had the strangest feeling. I liken it to Alice falling down the rabbit hole. Conversations with acquaintances became stilted and distant. The simple question we ask strangers - How are you today? - turned into a stabbing reminder that I'd be lying if I answered with the expected "Fine. How are you?"

So I would say nothing and smile warily before looking away or babble on about the price of blackberries to the well-meaning cashier at my local grocery store.

Talking to family and close friends plunged me further. Who do I tell and when? In what order? Is this the conversation where I dissolve into tears and tell my mother, who lives across the country from me, that I have breast cancer? How can I tell her when she is only a week away from a hospital stay to replace her pacemaker?

Who I told first and the details of the telling are lost in a fog of smiles, hugs, tears, and dread. I did what I had to do and quickly wadded up the moments and threw them away like letters I never wanted to read again. But there are a few memories that will stay with me forever.

I took a good friend of six years aside after a meeting and told her my news. As her eyes welled with tears, I smiled and reassured her that I would be alright. After a few minutes where she stared at me, a little dazed, and I told her the details of my illness, she said, "If you need help drawing your eyebrows on please come to me. I'll make them look very natural."  I was overwhelmed with love for her.

Soon after, my husband and I flew home to Georgia for his high school reunion. We'd attended the same school, so I knew most, if not all, of the people at the dinner. Reunions are festive occasions where we dress to impress, condense the last twenty years of news into a two minute recitation, and pray that we can match the names from the past with aging faces and bodies. I couldn't figure out how to work in the news that the following month I'd start Chemotherapy. I wanted to have fun and laugh for real, not whip out my practiced smile say, "It's okay really. I'm going to be fine."

It helped to reconnect with old friends
 Most casual conversations don't recover from the "I have cancer" bombshell. Todd and I ended up sitting at a table with a classmate who is also a breast cancer survivor. She talked about her experience in casual terms that I just could not process. To be fair, she'd been well for many years and didn't know about my problem. As she talked I listened intently, hoping to glean some wisdom without breaking down and crying into my plate of  finger food. Before the night was over, I went to the bathroom seven times. I counted.

To my right is a sweet lady (one of Todd's classmates) who passed away from breast cancer this month.
In the bathroom, I cried a little, splashed water on my face, shook out my hands to release the frustration, and gave myself little pep talks. "You can do this. Go have fun." Still, an insidious voice rose from behind me to say, "What if this is the last time you see this group of friends? It could be, you know. You could die before the next reunion. It could happen."

Then I'd start the process (1 through 7) of crying, washing, shaking, and reassuring all over again.

I waited to tell my parents in person. It was on this same trip to Georgia. We sat in lawn chairs under the big oak tree, as we often do in the summer. I don't remember what I said. I just remember the look of devastation on their faces, my stiff smile, and my repeated reassurances that I'd be fine. I had to be strong for them. Their only child was seriously ill. They needed to lean on me.

Gold panning in Dahlonega served as distraction after telling my parents the news.

That's what I mean about the rabbit hole. All of my emotions, all of my responses, all of my reactions were twisted, upside down, big then suddenly small, absurd then miraculously sublime.

I wish I'd just said to everyone I met along the way, "Good evening. Hello. I have cancer." Then zipped my lip and let the world take care of itself.

I could have been Tig Notaro. "Hello. Good evening. I have cancer," is exactly what she said when she walked on stage to perform her comedy at Largo in Los Angeles back in August of this year. She'd recently found out that she had breast cancer. It seemed insincere to do her typical routine. Her jokes seemed trivial compared to the earthquakes going on in her personal life. So she let the audience in, let them feel her confusion as she worked through the problem on stage giving an impromptu performance. I think it's the most touching dialogue I've ever heard. It's well worth a listen. This American Life did a segment called What Doesn't Kill You that featured a portion of the live half-hour show.

Tig Notaro on stage.
I never want a do over on the cancer bombshell, but if it happens I want to be as brave and forthright as Tig. God bless her. She's told the press that her treatments are going well. Here's to long and happy lives for both of us, Ms. Notaro!