On Being Human

Cancer patients do not look like the actors and actresses that play them on soap operas, made-for-TV movies or big screen films. They do not have perfectly made-up faces, perfectly coiffed hair with perfect lighting to make them always look their best. They are not necessarily noble, pleasant or suddenly full of a newborn wisdom that bubbles forth and brings closure and resolution to every problem, bad memory or care.

In other words, cancer patients are human.

In the case of my mother, human times ten.

True, she has her good days, and she’s been commended by many because of her amazing attitude. She has after all, received a cancer diagnosis, had both breasts removed, then had her lymph nodes removed, endured four infusions of chemotherapy and its subsequent side effects, and is about to undergo radiation therapy, which means five and a half weeks of going to the hospital five days a week to get radiated and hopefully not receive one of the harsher side effects of radiation, you got it, more cancer. (Sorry about the run-on sentence, but that sentence pretty much illustrates the way this experience feels.)

So yeah, she has her moments,

She is human after all.

She has days when she is joyous and she has days when she is bitter and miserable.

And me?

I have days when I’m feeling as if this is too easy. Yes, there are days when it feels too easy. For instance, when mom was recovering from her mastectomy and she was doing great. The day after she’d come home from the hospital she’d insisted on cooking and said she’d had very little pain. When the doctor removed her surgical bandages revealing the flatness of a chest that had once had breasts that were 44 DD on it, she was fine. She hadn’t been happy being big-breasted and used to joke about asking a doctor to remove her breasts, and now it had come true. It would have been funny except for the cancer. Yet, somehow it still was. She was happy to be boob-less and had no shame about saying so to anyone at all.

“They’ve served their purpose when I had my baby over there,” she’d say, motioning towards me, completely unaware that most people can think of other things to do with breasts besides feeding babies. I always smiled at her naïveté and so far, haven’t bothered explaining anything to her. There really is no point. She’d just roll her eyes and shrug before going into way too much detail than any adult child should ever know about their parent’s sex life, or in my parent’s case, lack of one.

It’s a miracle I was even born.

According to mom her gynecologist had said that to her because apparently her hymen was still somehow intact after I was born and I had been born vaginally.

Wonders really do never cease, it seems, and then this bit of reality; my mother has not said one wise statement throughout this whole ordeal. She’s said many funny things, bitter things, angry things, but there has been no grain of newborn wisdom. But that wouldn’t be her. Mom is not the type to put on that attitude at all. She’s a fan of Dog the Bounty Hunter, Leontyne Price and Walt Whitman. To call her eclectic doesn’t even cover it. Mom is wonderful. She is unique and feisty and sometimes just plain weird, but then again so am I.

I am her daughter after all.

Then there are the days when I am miserable and bitter. I have had zero help through all of this. Zero. Well except for a few friends who provide transportation because taking mom back and forth to the doctor’s office is a two-person job. So, OK, not completely zero. However, I am the only one who cleans the bathroom after she’s been sick, empties her potty chair, tries to reassure that it will get better when she’s sick, scolds her for not taking all of her medicine or refuses to eat, takes her hand and tells her that “yes you have to go have another chemo treatment,” “yes you have to suffer the pain of another white blood cell shot that causes unrelenting deep bone pain for days at a time, comforts her when she’s scared with no one to do the same for me. (Yeah, sorry another run-on sentence.)

I am not whining. I am merely saying this is so unlike anything you’ll see in a movie, and no, everything is not resolved in less than two hours. I have nothing against any of the actors and actresses who have played cancer patients, it’s just that anyone who watches those films and thinks that they know anything at all about this situation hasn’t got a clue. Of course, if anyone solely bases their opinions about life experience at all because they’ve seen a movie a play or read a book, then they really need to visit a child’s cancer ward or an infusion room. Some things just have to be experienced first h and. I admit it; some of my opinions about this experience were based in ignorance. I think everyone has a little of that kind of ignorance in them. We hear “cancer” and instantly think of death or some sort of poetic death scene that made you cry and feel uplifted by all at the same time.

It is so not like that at all.

There is no poetry in watching someone you love suffer. True, I could probably create a poem about it, but it would not be beautiful and you would not feel uplifted after reading it. I could write a poem about the smell of sickness that permeates my house at times or the look of fear that grays my mother’s face every so often, the deep pits of fear that make me feel as if I’m on the verge of a nervous breakdown or the endless days in and days out of dragging myself out of bed and back into action. (These run-on sentences are becoming a habit.)

I am human after all. I am strong in spite of myself. My mother and I are warriors in the greatest sense of what a warrior is. We fight and fight and fight. Sometimes we fight each other; typical mother/daughter relationship here, but mainly we fight the cancer along our own weaknesses and fears.

What cancer brings us is the knowledge that we don’t have to live up to anyone’s expectations of who we are supposed to be. I do not have to be the perfect caregiver and my mother does not have to be the perfect cancer patient. I realized early on that this was my mother’s experience and my job was to go along for the ride. When she looked at herself for the first time without breasts I knew that I had to go along with whatever her reaction was. If she was upset and traumatized, which is what I expected, then I’d have to comfort her and somehow help her through it. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case, but either way my job as caregiver is to allow her to process things in her way and not inflict my perceptions on her. It is my job to allow her to be human in whatever guise it comes. It is also my job to allow myself those same human qualities.

Who knew that being human was so much work?

(By the way, being human means that sometimes you write run-on sentences. Just sayin’.)


2 Responses to On Being Human

  1. Carmen says:

    This was very inspiring….and touching my soul and heart…I am a cancer patient myself and your right it looks to nice in movies

    • Blackbirdsong says:

      Thank you so much for your comment, Carmen. I wish they’d do a movie where they really showed what cancer and being a cancer patient was like. I think it would do so much to inspire people more than the fake stuff we see out there.

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