Memory for Memory

I got to know cancer at an early age, and have had a relationship with it ever since. A month before my sixth birthday, in November of 1975, my mother died from cancer that had begun in her lung, and had metastasized quickly to her spine and brain. My first memories of cancer have stayed with me, and they were the signposts of my mother’s illness, as it progressed from a sudden diagnosis, through care and treatment, to her death at home.

Her diagnosis came after a family get-together. My parents, older brother, and I often shared large Sunday dinners with my grandmother. On one of those relaxed afternoons, my mother was standing at the sink, I across the room from her. In my memory, this short distance is made larger, as I stand in helplessness and confusion. She collapsed suddenly. My father ran to call for help, my brother went to her side, and my grandmother told me that something my mother had been eating had gone down the wrong pipe – it was something she thought I might understand at that age. Despite her effort to console me, I was frightened. Weeks later – my father tells me that first hospital stay was twenty-three days long, I remember my mother lying on the couch, and me stroking her forehead to soothe the pain. This went on for a while. I also remember her losing her hair, wearing a wig and bandanas. I remember her changes in behavior and mood, yelling and breaking things that had meaning to her. And I remember when I made a get-well card for her, believing she would get well, not realizing it was even possible she wouldn’t. The night after I made the card, she died. My brother and I were not sheltered from her passing. Standing at the foot of her bed, I heard my father say simply, “she’s gone.” Though the words might have been hard to fully comprehend at that age, the pain in them said it all.

Those are some of my memories of cancer, and I have since filled in the life around them with information and knowledge that was shared with me as I got older. I learned that after she collapsed and had been brought to the ER, the attending physician asked my father how long she had had cancer. It was news to my parents. That was their diagnosis, and she was given not much time to live – ultimately, she would have almost six months from that date. I found out much later that she had seen a psychiatrist through the summer and into fall, and though she had initially felt like a burden to her family, and had expressed deep concern about all three of us, she had finally come to terms with her illness and her imminent departure from this world.

I also came to learn about the specifics of her illness, and found myself stunned that it had been so extensive, and stunned because it had just seemed so unfair. She had been a beautiful, gentle woman, and I had become aware of a stark reality as a child, that something so bad could happen to someone so good. It informed my life growing up, my philosophy, and my perception of death and God. As an adult, I do not view her dying as having been a question of unfairness, but am still quieted by her experience, and have not been without fear of something similar happening to myself, or to those others that I love.

Cancer is no longer the death sentence that it was when my mother was sick. Research and treatment have come incredibly far since the seventies, but although I can rationally understand the science and statistics, I still sometimes feel I am facing it on a daily basis. I am still “coping,” with the suffering my mother went through, the experience of loss, and with the lingering possibility of being confronted again by cancer.

On cold, gray, November days, quiet tears and frustration might arise. When anyone else in my family or circle of friends receives a diagnosis, my heart races, despite sincere hopefulness. It is ever-present, never forgotten, what took my mother and became such an undeniable part of me.

But through this, on those November days, I feel a brush of wind that whispers to me, of inner calm and peace. Sorrowful images are replaced by joyful ones, as I exchange memory for memory – the coldness of a casket becomes the warmth of sitting together beneath the sun amidst favorite flowers, the emptiness of being without her embrace becomes the closeness of a night spent rocking on her lap in an old chair. I enjoy these other memories, of joy, of laughter, and closeness, of things she loved and loved to do. I feel her strength of heart and spirit, and realize that it is also my own. In contemplation I recognize that her wishes for a brighter future, and my belief in one, have lit the way. And I cope… day by day… from the sheer fact that we, her survivors, have survived.

© Nellie Levine