In February of 2010, DC had its biggest month of snowfall in years. Almost three feet of snow turned the streets billowy white and silent. The grocery stores ran out of chicken and milk (these are apparently the first things to go in a crisis), creating a pleasing air of disruption and end-of-business-as-usual. My roommate Min Jung and I tramped happily down the middle of streets in the most snow she had ever seen, alone except for the occasional swoosh of a cross country skier whose moment had come.
5 days later my mom called me from the parking lot of the radiology clinic, bleakly reading aloud words that conveyed very little but which clearly meant that the life we thought we’d have was gone. Malignant Neoplasms. Adenocarcinoma. 7 masses on the right posterior lobe.
After my mom hung up, I went outside and started walking. It was wet and overcast. Snow was still piled everywhere, and people avoided being outdoors for longer than it took to power-walk to the Metro. I appreciated this, distantly. The day you find out your mother has cancer should at least have the decency to be desolate. They hadn’t cleared all the sidewalks yet and the snow was above my ankles in places, but I kept going until my shoes were soaked through. I walked for a few miles, stopped to sob in the bathroom of a Starbucks, and eventually ended up on the steps of a shuttered church. I sat hunched over for a long time.
In America and other prosperous parts of the world, life has changed drastically over the last hundred years. Since the mortality rate is no longer “better have 12 children and pray a few make it into adulthood”-high and we’ve got antibiotics and a solid handle on infectious disease, we have a different relationship with loss. Death occurs with enough infrequency that the prospect can be ignored (or at least held off with Netflix binges and the purchase of increasingly specific kitchen gadgets). Being a human who is not racked with dread at every moment requires pretending, to a certain extent, that the tragedies that we see befall other people on tv and on the internet and on the highway at 70 miles per hour will somehow avoid us.
Pain breaks down some of the wall that separates you from other people and their tragedies. I cry now in sudden bursts at TV shows about moms and daughters, at articles about the cancer of strangers. I stop as suddenly as I start, and I move on like it didn’t happen. Sometimes, though, it feels like my ability to care is compacted down until my mother and I are the only two people who exist. Then the rest of the world, which needs so much help and so many people to fight for it, can go to hell. I want to fight rising sea levels, and systemic racism, and rape culture. But my mom feels really nauseated today, or is about to have surgery, or we’re waiting for the results of a CT scan. And I know I should at least take the time to recycle these cardboard boxes but really I just want to light them on fire.
Cancer does not exist to make us more enlightened. It is not the emotional equivalent of a billion yoga classes. We want to think that suffering has meaning, and that at the very least we’ll have the consolation of being better people after, but sometimes suffering just screws you up in ways you wouldn’t have anticipated beforehand. If I had some inspirational throw pillows inspired by the last six years, they’d probably say something like: Keep an eye out for some nuggets of good in all the shit you’ve been having to shovel. Try to grieve for strangers more often than you shut out the people you actually know. The key to surviving hardship: your only other option is death. (Maybe Etsy should be my new side hustle??)
If you’ve read this far looking for an update, bless you, because I really buried it. Here it is: Mom’s newest scan shows the cancer has moved to a spot on her rib. She’s stopped chemo for now, since it doesn’t seem to be helping very much. We are waiting for a clinical trial to open up (sometime this month, hopefully) so we can get her tumor biopsied and see if there are any genetic mutations in her cancer for which a targeted cancer drug exists. Despite the fact that we’ve been shoveling for what feels like a very long time, the options my mom faces and the choices she has to make now are new. The nugget of good here is that she has lived long enough with cholangiocarcinoma that there are now promising new drugs that didn’t exist when she was first diagnosed. There are immunotherapy treatments being developed and tested that represent a profoundly hopeful shift in the treatment of cancer. Jimmy Carter’s metastatic melanoma is in remission because of pembrolizumab, a recently developed checkpoint inhibitor (checkpoint inhibitors allow the body’s own immune system to attack cancer cells that had been disguising themselves). That’s a huge leap forward. This is the future of cancer treatment, and mom is alive for it.
I don’t remember how long I sat on the cold steps of that church, staring at the snow. I have no recollection of getting up and walking back to my dorm. I only have vague impressions of the next few days, figuring out how to finish the rest of my degree remotely, saying goodbye to Min Jung. I had no idea what was going to happen then. I have no idea what is going to happen now. There’s another big snowstorm heading for DC as we speak. The storm will close businesses and change the predictable formula of life, for a night or two at least. This is not new, even when it feels like it. Storms come, and you get through them, and then you know you can. In the mean time, take your chance to make snowmen instead of spreadsheets, and ski straight down the middle of streets.