I heard an interview a while back with Dan Marshall, who wrote a memoir about caring for his terminally ill parents. Yes, you read that right: parents, plural. Both of Marshall’s parents had a terminal disease: his mom’s lymphoma and his dad’s ALS.
The book, Home is (bleeping) Burning, tells the story of the Marshall family, who (except for their copious and creative cussing) sound like a regular American family living their lives and doing their thing until their regular lives are upended by health crises. Here’s how Amazon describes it:
For the Marshalls, laughter is the best medicine. Especially when combined with alcohol, pain pills, excessive cursing, sexual escapades, actual medicine, and more alcohol.
Meet Dan Marshall. 25, good job, great girlfriend, and living the dream life in sunny Los Angeles without a care in the world. Until his mother calls. And he ignores it, as you usually do when Mom calls. Then she calls again. And again.
Dan thought things were going great at home. But it turns out his mom’s cancer, which she had battled throughout his childhood with tenacity and a mouth foul enough to make a sailor blush, is back. And to add insult to injury, his loving father has been diagnosed with ALS.
Sayonara L.A., Dan is headed home to Salt Lake City, Utah.
Never has there been a more reluctant family reunion: His older sister is resentful, having stayed closer to home to bear the brunt of their mother’s illness. His younger brother comes to lend a hand, giving up a journalism career and evenings cruising Chicago gay bars. His next younger sister, a sullen teenager, is a rebel with a cause. And his baby sister – through it all – can only think about her beloved dance troop. Dan returns to shouting matches at the dinner table, old flames knocking at the door, and a speech device programmed to help his father communicate that is as crude as the rest of them. But they put their petty differences aside and form Team Terminal, battling their parents’ illnesses as best they can, when not otherwise distracted by the chaos that follows them wherever they go. Not even the family cats escape unscathed.
As Dan steps into his role as caregiver, wheelchair wrangler, and sibling referee, he watches pieces of his previous life slip away, and comes to realize that the further you stretch the ties that bind, the tighter they hold you together.
In the interview, Marshall read passages from his book, and just so you know, the language and some of the topics in Home Is (bleeping) Burning may be less than pleasant for some readers. (Does it mean I’m weird/crude/uncouth/all of the above because I really relate to and enjoy the mom, who is the most prolific with her cussing?). Also note that the Marshalls live in Salt Lake City but are not Mormon, and there are some non-PC comments made about their Mormon neighbors. Perhaps this book is not for the faint of heart. But then again, neither are terminal illnesses or recurrences or sick parents. As Greg Marshall (the author’s brother) so eloquently put it: “For the Marshalls, life is a contest to see who is _____-est. Bravest. Weirdest. Grossest. We take our lack of filter to superlative heights.”
Perhaps my own lack of filter attracted me to the Marshalls’ story. It could also be because I too cared for a sick parent. I too experienced the strange role-reversal that comes with caring for a parent. I write often about the terrible yet honorable practice of becoming the authority figure and advocate for the person who, until their illness took hold, was the authority figure and the advocate for me. I write often about how my mom’s death affected me, and continues to affect me. That’s why my ears perked up when I heard about Dan Marshall and his memoir.
This passage got me. Hit me hard. Reminded me of my own sweet mama (without the cussing). This passage describes the family discussion on Christmas day. The topic is how the family will handle Mom’s lymphoma recurrence and Dad’s new ALS diagnosis. Dan described his mom’s stance upon learning her cancer had come back:
“She wasn’t just going to roll over and let cancer f*** her to death. She was going to fight and fight hard. And she suggested we all do the same.”
Indeed. May we all do the same.
Over the weekend, my favorite girl asked me to help her with a project for her biology class. She’s a freshman in high school now. This is what she looked like at age 8 when I was diagnosed with cancer. I took this photo the day before my bilateral mastectomy. This is my favorite girl today.
I know, right??? How does that happen???
Anyhoo, back to the story: my favorite girl is doing a project for her biology class on a disease or disorder that has a chromosomal component. She chose breast cancer.
She needed the basic info of my cancer: stage, treatment, etc., as well as ancillary materials (photos and such) that tell “the story” of her subject’s experience with said disease or disorder. I pulled out my bulging “cancer catch-all” — my binder that holds all my paperwork, like pathology reports. That was easy because it’s all facts: this scan was conducted on this date and found this. Then she asked for the not-so-easy part: details on how my cancer affected me. While there are indeed facts involved with that part too, something else is involved as well, which is what makes it, for me, the not-so-easy part.
Feelings. The dreaded feels.
I don’t like feeling the feels associated with my cancer experience. (I refuse to refer to it as my cancer “journey” because to me that word implies an end point. With cancer, there doesn’t seem to be an end point. I don’t like it, so I’m not gonna use that word.)
Six years out, I don’t think about my cancer experience nearly as much as I used to (hence the loooooooong periods of radio silence from this blog). As with most calamities, time does smooth out the rough edges. But with my favorite girl asking me for all the gory details, that dark period of my life surrounded me, again.
When, exactly, do we “get over” this? At what point does the calamity of cancer lose its potent punch? I’d like an ETA on the return of peace and tranquility. Can someone please tell me when to expect an easing from the powers of the cancer calamity? Because I need to know that at some point, cancer will no longer upend my day like a sucker punch and leave me reeling, wondering why I feel as I’ve been run over by a truck.
That will happen, right?
Even though my cancer experience is no longer the petulant toddler whining for a pack of Skittles in the grocery-store checkout area, apparently that cancer still packs quite a punch. The simple act of flipping through my medical binder to locate information for my girl’s project sent me on a one-way trip through bad memories and scary places. I see myself from a distance, as if I’m watching myself on a screen. In the blink of an eye, I’m no longer a survivor whose scars are a badge of courage. Instead, I’m instantly transported back to that time. Those days. That period.
I hate that cancer has the ability to do this. I hate that cancer still controls me. Like a bad habit or a selfish lover, my cancer has a hold on me. Other people’s cancers have that power over me, too. Like my sweet mama’s cancer. That rat bastard smiles and licks its lips, knowing it is the puppet master and I am the puppet.
I should know better than to expect to be “done” with cancer. After all, I’ve been thinking about it and blogging about it for years. As I wrote early in 2011:
Another things I’ve learned on my “cancer journey” is that someone keeps moving the finish line. I’ve only been at this for 10 months, yet have seen my finish line recede, sidewind, and fade into the distance. It starts even before diagnosis, with the testing that’s done to determine if we do indeed have a problem. Get through those tests, which in my case were a mammogram, an ultrasound or two, and a couple of biopsies. Then there’s the actual diagnosis, and getting through that becomes an emotional obstacle course. Following the diagnosis are lots of research, soul-searching, and decisions. But even when those are through, the real work is only just beginning. After the big decisions come still more testing (MRI, CT scan, PET scan, blood work, another biopsy), and that’s just to get to the point of having surgery. Get through surgery, then through recovery, and just when I think I may be getting “there” I realize that even after recovery, I gotta learn about re-living, which is kinda different when “normal” has flown the coop and there’s a new status quo involved. You might think that finding the new normal would be the end, but guess what? now there’s the maintenance and screening. If you’re the kind of person who makes a list and takes the necessary steps to reach the conclusion, you’re screwed, because there is no end. I can’t even see the goalposts anymore.
I should know damn good and well that there is no end. So why do I keep looking for it?