It's more than the cognitive disconnect that allowed me to think cancer wasn't "in the family" when I recall that at least two of my father's mother's sisters had breast and "abdominal" tumors. My memories of them are glazed with concealed apathy. I had long learned to humor these old folks that I barely knew by listening with feigned interest, returning home exhausted from the effort.
The younger sister, Dessa, relished the attention and would lift her shirt to show my twelve year old self her mastectomy scars. She would show me her poetry written in homage to her treatments and her surgery. “Happily living on aspirin” is the line I committed to memory.
These women are long gone now by a decade or more. They lived with cancer as a general quality of their aging lives (Cancer was something old people get, my young brain established as a general rule.). The older sister, Lois, was so stubborn that she lived by herself well into her 80s. Her distended belly was inspected by a doctor at some point, to be found, as her son put it, filled with “tumors and scar tissue”. With that and diabetes, my wager is she finally let go once she lost her ability to be independent.
These women that I barely knew…are now my sisters. I recognize more of myself in them, as I recall my time of coerced attention and feigned interest.
Until January 1st, cancer was still something that happened to other people and old people. As I was filling out the 9 page patient history form, I had to put a majority of X’s in the “No” column for the family cancer inventory. Then I had to look up both of my grandfathers’ gravestones because I knew they both died shortly after a cancer diagnosis. One with throat cancer from chronic heartburn, though he died from internal bleeding from an esophageal ulcer. He was 54. The other with lung cancer from his love of cigars. He was 61. I was surprised to learn that I was only 18 months old at the death of the former as I swear up and down I remember having a tantrum when my mother and brother went to the funeral, as I couldn’t understand why he got to see Grandpa and I couldn’t. I did not know my father’s father, but he looked like a lanky version of James Dean.
I don’t mention my grandfathers as some gloomy forecast of death. I know better than that. But I am suddenly researching a perspective of how these people made me that I had never considered before. I have to leap two generations back to find insight into my life today. I have to pay attention again to the ladies happily living on aspirin. Suddenly these four people are right next to me.