When I was five, I thought that losing a strand of hair meant I had cancer. Actually, I was sure this was the case until the age of 10. When I was 10, I asked my mom about can- cer. I asked if she knew anyone who had died of cancer, or survived. We were driving in the car when I asked, just the two of us driving to my grandfather ’s house. A shadow of a grin came to her face. I was surprised. I had always assumed cancer wasn’t meant to be amus- ing.
“Oh, well actually Soph, I know a lot more than I should about cancer,” She respond- ed with a lightness in her voice, which gave me the impression that she wasn’t taking this conversation seriously enough.
There was an uncomfortably long pause as I began to go through all the possible outcomes of her next words. My instinct told me she was about to tell me I had cancer. Then I thought maybe it was Ethan, or Dad, or maybe one of the cats. Maybe that was why we were visit- ing Big Papa, was he dying?
“I’ve actually known multiple people with cancer, Sophie. And in fact, I’ve battled with cancer.” She said it with a kind of subtle pride I’ve come to admire her for.
We didn’t talk after that, not about anything at all. She let my ten year old mind adjust
to this new information for the last two hours of the drive.
After that car ride I didn’t talk to my mom about her cancer for a long time. But I didn’t forget about it. I thought about it, but never felt comfortable discussing the disease. I figured, if my mom hadn’t mentioned it for ten years, then she really had no interest in talking about it with me.
There is a picture of my mom in the living room. It is a picture of my Aunt Chopsie’s wedding. In it, Chopsie is dancing with Uncle Peter. I had never noticed it before, but one day I walked past and noticed something new. In the background, I can see my mom. She’s crying, and smiling. But that’s not why I stopped to look. I looked at her hair, but she was wearing a yellow, and red, and purple scarf around her head.
My hands reached immediately to my own hair, and I brushed my hands through it, imagining what it would be like to have none. I looked back at the picture and noticed how small and weak my mom appeared. Her shoulders looked as if they might swallow her up right there, leaving nothing but a silk scarf and a black dress. Her legs were hidden, but I knew they were struggling to support her.
This picture scared me. I didn’t look for long, and walked away trying to forget the piece of my mom I had just seen.
I was thirteen when my mom’s friend died. I had only met him once or twice. I didn’t feel as emotional as I probably should have. David Rakoff died in August, 2012. He was 47. He died of a post radiation sarcoma after battling Hodgkin’s Lymphoma for two years. David Rakoff was a writer, a radio host, and a Columbia graduate who had meant more to my life than he will ever know.
Two weeks after he died, my family visited New York. My mom was attending a memorial, and a more private funeral for David. Meanwhile, my dad, brother and I walked around midtown, visiting my dad’s office, eating junk and goofing around in the park. When we returned to the hotel, my mom was sitting on the bed. I could tell she had been crying, and she looked weak, which reminded me of the picture.
My mom walked over to my brother and me, and hugged us for a long, long time. It was in that moment that I decided I needed to know the story.
We had driven to New York in separate cars, so I was driving alone with my mom. It was almost the same drive we had traveled three years earlier, on the way to my grandfa- ther ’s.
“So what kind of cancer did you have?” I asked, trying to start up the conversation. She responded in a voice that reminded me of the one she used to say goodnight: Quiet, strong, and safe.“I had Hotchkins Lymphoma too. Three times actually.”
We talked for the entire three hour ride home. I found out that my mom and David had both been diagnosed with cancer around the same time, in 1982. They had already been friends and they choose not to discuss the diagnosis often. My mom went through chemo-therapy, but chose not to do radiation so she would be able to have children. David completed radiation, which could be why he didn’t survive. Both of them made it through the cancer by the time they graduated, and they went their separate ways. Even when living apart, my mom and David continued over the years to update each other on their health, and lives.
A few years later, in graduate school, my mom’s cancer came back. And again a few years after that. The final relapse was in the early 90s. My mom was teaching, and in the spring she had one of the first bone marrow transplants ever at the Dana Farber research center. It took a full year for my mom to recover, but the cancer was gone.
I let her talk, and didn’t ask that many questions, but there was one that I still needed to ask. “Am I going to have cancer?” I asked quietly, after a brief lag in the conversation. “I hope not, Soph,” she said, with a seriousness that was new to the discussion. “But this is a genetically carried disease, so you’re going to have to be careful.”
I told myself as long as I didn’t get radiation, I would be fine, and that’s how we left it, except for one more thing. “I wasn’t supposed to have kids.” My mom said, as we approached our exit. “The doctors told me I shouldn’t even try. They told me even if I got pregnant, they were sure it would be a stillbirth. I tried everything, and didn’t care what the doctors said.” I didn’t have any idea how to respond. I just nodded, and gave a generic teenage acknowledgement. We drove up the ramp, and up the street. I felt the familiar curb rumble under the tires, and unclicked my seat belt. I was opening the door when I felt my mom’s cool hands touch my arm:
“You are a miracle.”
I’ve known and lived with my mom for 15 years. It took me ten years until I bothered to ask why her hair was so incredibly thin and sparse and short. I had never noticed the scars on her arms and neck, or wondered why in the back of her closet was a box filled with scarves. Once I started asking the questions, I grew. I grew to listen to people when they had something to say, and to push myself to make others listen when I need to talk. I’ve realized that my world is more than 96 Jason street, and is more than the 21st century. My world consists of generations of struggle and celebration, as well as struggles and celebrations in the future.
Last week I noticed the wedding picture again. I sat down in the armchair and stared at it for 15 minutes. I now recognized the scarf. My mom had worn it to a party last week. I saw a glow in the image that hadn’t been there before. It surrounded only my mother, as if no matter how hard she tried, there was no way she wouldn’t be the focus of the image. Her bony hands hands were together and resting on her right hip, a familiar gesture. I became aware that there was nothing scary, or confusing about this image at all. In the background of that image there was no weak and vulnerable girl. Behind the newlywed couple stood my mom, she was beautiful.