Sunday, January 26, 2014

That Which Shall Not Be Named

Quicksand, according to a recent public radio program, was a concept that used to be one of the most frightening to kids in previous generations. It appeared in books and movies, unexpectedly swallowing the occasional lost traveler or a villain on a getaway horse and its latent threat was reflected in the artwork of schoolchildren as the cosmic punishment for those who didn't mind their parents about staying in their own yard. 

 The guy on this program was talking about how present day kids don't know anything about quicksand and thus, have no fear of it. It has almost disappeared from the national consciousness. As a little girl I remember feeling vaguely bothered by that something in nature which could bury me slowly. However, the most terrifying combination of words for me was not then organic, but a thing crafted by humans. The iron lung.

 Originally, I visualized an iron lung in a literal way in that I assumed doctors replaced the old organs in your chest with heavy metal ones. Like an internal iron maiden, minus the spikes. Imagine my learning that an iron lung wasn't something they put inside you, but a terrifying machine in which you were placed. This news was difficult for me--a dedicated claustrophobe--since I screamed every time my mother helped me pull a sweater up over my head in an attempt to remove it. Indeed, the idea of being trapped and sealed inside a metal box which purported to breath for you was--despite its helpful purpose--nightmarish to me. Photographs of smiling, disembodied heads on pillows did nothing to dispel my fear of being contained in such a way that I could not see my own hands and feet or in any way extricate myself from its strong metal confines. In short...a complete loss of control over my own life.

This past week my otherwise healthy 78-year old mother was diagnosed with cancer. 

The woman who lived through the deaths of twin daughters before giving birth to three healthy ones and who remained strong throughout my own dad's recent health trauma is now the focus of our worst fears. The mom who read Uncle Wiggly to me, taught us to make bread by hand and value the feel of sleeping with a cool and crisply ironed pillow case beneath my head went to the doctor and came back holding the "C" report card that in no way guarantees a pass. In fact it frequently does not. And even though the word is ridiculously commonplace these days, the weight of its mantle is still mercilessly heavy. 

 The superstitious whisper it because of the fear it imparts. It is--like the fictional Voldemort--that thing which shall not be named. It is the sound of the other shoe dropping. The dark train pulling into the station with its accompanying ominous screech of oily brakes. It is--for me--the iron lung of all diagnoses. I am not ready.

I am so. Not. Ready.


  1. I am so sorry. I hope your mother's fight will involve as little pain and as much grace as possible.

  2. I am so sorry. This is so strange as I was just conversing with someone on FB about my mother's death. My advice to your family would be to think about what treatment you want and not just go with what they suggest. I hope you don't mind the advice. Hugs.

  3. Cancer sucks. I lost my father to lung cancer almost 17 years ago and my mother is a breast cancer survivor. I don't know what kind of cancer your mom has, but chances are you have been given more than one treatment choice, and I'm sure that your heads are spinning. Take your time, talk to people, and do a little research before making any decisions. This disease is a roller coaster: we found ourselves thrilled about the smallest things - and, oddly, devastated by equally small ones. When my dad had a rough day after chemo, it crushed and terrified me more than you can imagine. On the other side of the coin, a joke or a smile from him filled my heart with hope that could make my week. Do not be surprised when this happens - it is normal. Take advantage of people who have been there if you are so inclined: my parents began attending a cancer support group shortly after my dad's diagnosis, and those people became like a second family.(I should add that I would have never thought of them as 'support group types' either - so don't write off the idea automatically if your mom is a private type like so many of that generation.) My mother is still in touch with a number of them and I went with them a few times when they had a meeting while I was in town. I wish I could say something helpful, but the best I can offer is that many of us have been there and we understand. So, so, sorry to hear this.

  4. I'm sorry. That's the worst word a person can hear their doctor say. People around here still drop their voices and even whisper it. I hope your mom gets hooked up with the very best care.

  5. Oh God bless you, it is so hard to have a parent facing this fight. I'm a 10 year breast cancer survivor, and can only say Ms Caroline is right on the money with her advice - Having been there, done that, I absolutely agree with her!

  6. Peace & strength & luck to you and your mom.

  7. Very sorry to hear your news. It is not an easy thing to hear or deal with. My dad passed away three years ago from a rare form of leukemia at the age of 89. You are never ready and can only face things one minute at a time, day by day. I agree MsCaroline's advice is best: research, talk about the treatment options and find a doctor you like and are comfortable with. Thinking of you and your mom.

  8. I'm so sorry. Cancer truly is universally terrifying. I hope your mother's treatment goes well and that she has a caring doctor. I have to say, (and I hope this is helpful) I work in oncology, not as a clinician, but as an analyst. One day, I was in a meeting with an oncologist and he had to take a call in which he was discussing a patient with another doctor. The thing that struck me was while it was clear that the patient was pretty sick, the oncologist was really confident about what to do to get this patient through her rough patch. I could see that to him, cancer was something that he had conquered multiple times and he felt he would do it again. It was comforting to see that.

  9. Oh, my friend.

    You're never ready. But you put one foot in front of the other, and you do the stuff that needs to get done. You do the research. You go to the appointments. It's horrible, but you do it.

    When my mom was diagnosed, I was angry for a very, very long time. It's OK to be angry and scared and maybe a teensy bit irrational. Just do what you need to do to take care of yourself.

    Please know that you have so many people sending you and your mom love and support. We are here for you.


Be nice. It's not as hard as it sounds.