I hate cancer so much I can’t put it into words without cussing so much you’d think I just got off a naval warship. I was considering breaking my longstanding streak of not really cussing on this blog, but then I decided against it. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how many f-bombs I drop. She’s not coming back.
Whether or not you believe in reincarnation, heaven, hell, nirvana, some other plane of existence or just damn nothingness at all, I think it’s fairly safe to say that there are few people out there who really truly want to die, much less die having been in pain for months on end. Nobody wants that. I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy, much less a member of my family.
So, here’s the deal: my aunt died yesterday. She was the only aunt I had related to me by blood; she and my mom were it for my maternal grandparents, and my father was an only child. When I was a little kid and we’d drive to New Jersey to visit with her and her husband (and later the family, after they had a daughter), I remember just marveling at how cool their house was. They had this great place, which I guess you’d label as a contemporary house (pointy angles and fun staircases), filled with books and niches where you could lose a day just reading. They had cable TV well before we ever did, which made their house infinitely cooler than mine in Suburban Maryland, and the open plan on the main floor made for an easy convergence of all traffic into the kitchen, the nerve center of the house.
You’d often find my aunt in the kitchen, smoking. I don’t remember her smoking constantly, and I really don’t remember the house smelling of cigarette smoke, but I have distinct memories of her smoking in the kitchen and this not being an infrequent scene.
My mom gave up smoking before I was born, and my dad quit sometime not long after I was born, although he still smokes cigars – a habit I find so utterly repellent that I can’t be anywhere near him when he lights up. My aunt continued smoking for some time, quitting more than a decade ago but obviously not soon enough.
The woman who I knew as a strong, intelligent, funny, sweet person, this teacher of Latin and mythos (primarily Roman and Greek), was first diagnosed with cancer when she was in her thirties. This was breast cancer, and a diagnosis that early is never a good thing. Still, she managed to beat it back and it wouldn’t return for several decades, when she would beat it back again.
Then there was the first diagnosis of lung cancer. We all held our collective breath. Lung cancer. Smoking. Of course. When it’s breast cancer, prostate cancer, or some other random but common cancer, you can’t necessarily trace it to any one behavior. But lung cancer and smoking go hand in hand like old enemies. But unlike Holmes and Moriarty or the Doctor and the Master, there’s no real love or potential fantasy component here. Whenever cancer’s in the mix, it’s just Atropos standing over you, waiting to cut the strand of yarn that defines the time you have left to live.
She fought off the lung cancer, losing part of a lung in the process, and we all hoped that would be the end of it. Of course, we were wrong. Sadly, we were just being hopeful.
When the cancer returned, within only a few years, it came back as Stage IV. She was given a meager prognosis and the doctors did what they could. What was toughest to watch was her withdrawal from it all. Much like how animals often curl up and hide when they’re sick, trying to preserve their strength and separate themselves from the rest of society, so she too tried to hide from the diagnosis and the reality that it dictated. She left us in little bits, day by day, wreaking probably the most damage on my mother, who was completely powerless to hang onto her sister. And that’s heart-wrenching for me on so many levels, not the least of which is that there’s only so much you can do when you’re 500mi away from the subjects of the conversation.
It wasn’t much of a surprise when we heard a few weeks ago that she was being put into hospice, that the doctors felt there wasn’t much more that could be done for her other than to make her comfortable. And, after a long battle that sometimes seemed endless and other times felt like time flying by, she closed her eyes for the last time.
I got the e-mail from my mother as I was on my way between meetings and I collapsed against the hallway wall. It takes the wind out of you to lose someone that you loved, whether or not you saw them recently, whether or not you could make it all better. I kept working for the rest of the day because that’s what I felt I had to do, but I put Radiohead on my iPod and mourned in my own fashion.
It’s impossible for me to express just how much I hate cigarettes right now. Having been a smoker for a while when I was much younger (albeit a very light smoker), I understand the draw. Really, I do. But I also see the consequences, and I can only hope that I escape the fate she had to endure. If even one person within the reach of my electronic voice can read this and put down their next cigarette, and the one after that, and the one after that…
Don’t lose yourself. If you’re smoking, please stop. Please please pretty please. If you won’t do it for others, then at least do it for yourself.
Rest in Peace, Jackie. I miss you and love you very much.