I studied French for three years in high school and one semester in college. I did well, though the class instilled in me such anxiety that when I saw Madame Kayne in church a couple of years ago, my heart raced as if I was afraid she’d ask me to conjugate the past imperfect again. In fact, my strongest memory from French class is hiding behind Chris Huang whenever Madame Kayne looked for a volunteer to tell the time in French. All these years later, my French is good enough to get around in Paris, but not well enough to converse extensively with anyone or read Les Miserablesas Hugo wrote it.
What am I fluent in, however, is cancer. Want to talk the side effects of chemotherapy? Staging melanoma? The pros and cons of radiation? Graft versus host disease? Bone marrow transplants? I can do that. And, well, too. And, you know, it’s awful. I hate it. So much. So very much. I’d give anything to have that French fluency Madame Kayne tried to instill in me, or even to be able to say more than “I don’t know” and “please” in Russian—my take aways from one crazy college semester of Russian. But, I have skills that, unfortunately, lie elsewhere.
My fluency didn’t come from academic pursuits, but from real life experience. My father passed away from melanoma in 2001, ten years after being first diagnosed. (That’s me and my parents in the photo above at my grad school commencement in 1996.) My father-in-law died in 2003 from prostate cancer. Two dear friends have faced leukemia and breast cancer, respectively—though each is doing well today. They’ve all taught me a lot about cancer, its triumphs and its devastating outcomes.
But, my greatest teacher has been my mother. Some Red Shuttersreaders may recall some posts from me last year about my mom and a difficult health situation she was facing. My mother, my dear, beloved, oh-so-wonderful mother, has been fighting a tough battle with ovarian cancer for the past six years. And, she was recently diagnosed—for the fourth time—with another reoccurrence of the disease. She’s had countless chemo treatments, radiation, and too many surgeries. She’s been so amazing through it all. I would be more depressed, angrier. That’s not my mom’s style. She’s mad, though, don’t get me wrong, but she has such a strong and beautiful spirit. She’s positive, telling me “Well, if I have to lose my hair again, at least it’s summer” and “I look great bald” when she shared the news of her latest diagnosis.
Being positive is the part of being fluent in cancer that I have not mastered. Sometimes, I can rally and focus on hope, on the future; I can be strong. If you talk with me about my mom and her cancer, in fact, I’ll amaze you with how well I have it together, how it’s all about taking care of her, doing what she needs and wants, focusing on getting her well again. But, deep down, I’m scared. I don’t want to lose my mom. I already lost a parent, and it’s terrible. Maybe this is all why turning 40 (there I said it) is so difficult. It’s not just that I’m aging; it means my mom is getting older, too. And, it means that time is more precious and ephemeral, and that there’s less of it.
But I keep coming back to how I have this fluency that I wish I didn’t have. But it’s what I’ve got, right? So use it, I think. Stay strong, pull together our circle of amazing family and friends, and support my mom through the next round. Use the fluency for good. And focus on perfecting those French skills another day.