I upset my husband last night with a little dose of dark humor. I asked him what cancer he thought would be the cancer that did each of us in, and he knocked on the wall. Apparently, he doesn’t want to joke about dying. I guess that’s alright, but personally, I would rather think about it now than be surprised by its sudden appearance. What is death, anyway, but just a phase of life, that seventh age, “sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything”? We should be so lucky.
Most of us aren’t going to make it to that seventh age that Shakespeare described in his seven ages of man speech. We’re not going to die in our nineties, drifting peacefully into oblivion while our family sits around the bedside, our spouses spooning soft food into our birdlike mouths. We can’t expect our deaths anymore, can’t plan for them. They’ll just announce themselves. Perhaps our family will be sitting around us when we go, but that probably isn’t going to be in our nineties.
Cheery, no? Maybe it’s the Fluoxetine, or maybe it’s just all the preparation I’ve had, but I don’t find death depressing. For me, it is not a debilitating thought. Do I want to lose my mother? Absolutely not. Do I feel that she and I still have a bucket list the size of Texas full of items that never will be checked off? Absolutely. Is she or I or anyone in our world ready for this? No. But it’s gonna happen, and it might happen far sooner than any of us thought it would. My mother has stage 4 pancreatic cancer, a nasty cancer that has metastasized into her liver. She can’t eat. She can’t sleep. She can’t even sit up comfortably. Two months ago, we were on a vacation together in Maine. She and I walked down to the main drag in Bar Harbor, and she nagged me about how much money I spent. Now, she’s homebound, using a wheelchair, wearing great big t-shirts twenty-four-seven, and not eating a single thing. She wants to go, man. Who am I to stop her? I can’t do anything except be there for her. And that’s what I intend to do.
I remember when my dad first got prostate cancer back in 2005. I was strung out back then, and so I bawled and bawled and made my dad’s tragedy all about me and my business, and my personal regrets. I didn’t really do much to help him or mom. That was a long time ago. I’ve since done a lot of helping. Like my recently departed uncle, I’ve showed up at hospitals with my sleeves rolled up, ready for action. What else the fuck can one do?
For three days, I’ve been wearing a tatty old dress that I bought on a road trip that I took with my mother. We spent seven days driving around Michigan together, sightseeing and driving each other nuts, and listening to the Grateful Dead channel, and bonding. It was the best vacation I’ve ever taken. In a little shop on Mackinaw Island, I bought a Woolrich dress that I wore almost every day for the rest of the trip. Somewhere, there’s a picture of me in that dress at the edge of the Sleeping Bear Dunes in Western Michigan, white sands that dropped so steeply into the shores of Lake Michigan that the park service posted warnings: you attempt to go down there, you will pay heavily for your rescue. And still, hundreds of tourists slid down those slopes and snaked their way back up the dunes. They looked like ant trails from our perspective at the top. What an awe-inspiring American vista. And I shared it alone with her. And now I’m still wearing that dress, even though the ass is worn out, and you can see the color of my underwear through the holes. I will never throw away that dress. I said I was accepting of death, I didn’t say I wasn’t sentimental.
There’s a lot of kids out there who treat their parents like shit. And there’s a lot of kids out there who are perennially lost. They need to look death in the face, stop knocking on walls. Cancer is the new black.