The merest schoolgirl, when she falls in love, has Shakespeare or Keats to speak her mind for her; but let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry. There is nothing ready made for him. – Virginia Woolf
When I saw the dead body, I thought of you. The nurse showed me how to tag his toe. She zipped him up and then showed me how to move his body. A dead body is much heavier than a live one; I suppose it’s similar to carrying a sleeping body. She showed me how to shimmy my hands in the crevasses of his back and neck, to carry his weight without hurting my back—you can’t inflict much more pain on a dead body. I kept thinking of you. He was small like you, thinned in weird places, bloated in others. He was a man and bigger-boned than you, but I felt something similar in the size of his wrists, his spindly fingers.
The first dead body I touched was your father’s. I remember his skin, taught and jaundiced, even with foundation. Since then, I’ve witnessed many bodies—varying sizes, stages, levels of intactness. But knowing a body, the way I know yours, complicates my willingness to let you go.
You are not dying. But that does not change your stage 4 lung cancer—the recurrence of which is so deeply imbedded in your lung, it is inoperable. You are not dying, but that is in fact untrue, because even I am dying. Your diagnosis has simply made you and me more acutely aware of the fallibility of your body, than say, mine.
When you were diagnosed with the recurrence of cancer, your third cancer, you waited to tell me because I was away for college. When you talked to me over Christmas break, you told me all about your illness. You told me the stage, the size and location, you may have quoted your oncologist and showed me some scans. You told me what the treatment plan was, but you did not tell me your proximity to death.
It wasn’t until your second year of treatment, the wonder drug we call it now, that you finally told me. You told me how unsure you were, that you did believe you were dying, swallowed in impenetrable fear. Perhaps you had come to terms with your illness, that in fact, your little monster was never going away. We embraced because you were healthy enough to match my physicality, pull me close into your chest—your left lung, half excised. When you held me, the way you had done when you were still whole, I wondered whether you told your oncologist. Whether this whole time, you were honest with anyone. Whether it was only me in the dark, or whether I was with the majority.
Your body invaded my mind, my everyday which was breached by fears, both the sensibly calculated and violently irrational. There were no more deaths—in film or music or novels—that did not lead me to spells of anxiety, hot flashes. I had to leave the classroom. I could not look at a PSA for cancer, HIV, depression without seeing your face plastered to the subway car, billboards. It didn’t matter what physical condition, they all became you.
Your body was invasive, like your cancer. I spread cocktails of ointments and creams on your broken skin, places you couldn’t reach. I watched the scars on your back change colors like the seasons—red to purple to brown to yellow, then finally the fair, blushed tone of your tender arms. When your hair grew back and you gave your wig away, it took years for your hair to settle. It was coarse and dry, the opposite of mine, the opposite of your own.
Even when you went to the salon, there was a period I faked compliments, the same phrases I used when you worried your absent eyelashes were noticeable. Your body invaded my language this way. I censored my words, told you your hair looked normal, that the bloody whites of your eyes were hardly visible. I knew what to say to make you feel less sick. I spoke less, lied often.
I showed you how to use a hair curler and a straightener, how to apply mousses and sprays. I showed you how to use blush and contour when your face held so much water from your medication. How your face seemed to carry everything your body could not—nutrients, curvature, hope. These moments made me feel our relationship was normal, healthy even. Like we were preparing to go shopping or drinking, normal things normal people did.
But you had taken those things from me when you were first diagnosed with breast cancer. You were so young, but the doctors detected it early when your father insisted you get tested. Since the first diagnosis, when I was thirteen, there has not been a day when I did not palpate my breasts. Sometimes twice a day, even three. When I was in college, out drinking with friends, there was not a sip I took without thinking about its likelihood of increasing my risks for breast cancer, any cancer in fact. I cut ties with people who smoked, lost friends. I hated how uncool and petty it looked when I left parties because someone pulled out a box of cigarettes.
So when you were diagnosed with lung cancer, and then lung cancer again, you took away my chances of normal life. You did not smoke. And I am glad you did not, because had you smoked like my grandfather had, your lungs may have failed entirely. Your little monster may have grown faster, ruthlessly, fighting harder to survive than yourself. Your little monster may have reproduced, spreading beyond your tarred lungs. But you did not have black lungs; they were pink like your scars.
What you did not know was the fact that you did not smoke made it worse. You did not have a cause, a reason, something to blame. You did not have tobacco or asbestos or radon gas, no toxins or carcinogens, not even an unhealthy diet or alcohol. And this instilled in me the fear that I was next.
Your body invaded my body this way. When I was a student working at the hospital, I could not look at patients without seeing your face. When they coughed, I thought it was cancer. When they came in with diarrhea, I thought it was cancer. When they had no hair, I thought it was cancer. When they died, I thought it was cancer. I wondered if this was the way I would see patients when I became a doctor, if they would all become a variation of you.
There are times when I wish you could choose another body, opt out and find a new one. I do not want you to choose another body because your illness is proof of your resilience. But that does not mean I want it to invade my body. I resented you deeply when you had cancer the first time. I resented you more the second, then third time. But mostly, selfishly and blindly, I hated myself for hating you.
I went on a date recently and kept thinking of you. I felt I could not trust him, even when he told me he cared about books and my writing and pursuit of medicine, when he held my hand, when he kissed me.
In my gut, I felt I did not deserve his attention, could not have his love because my body would be like yours someday. My body would become one that invades and inflicts. I fear the day I will hear the diagnosis, see the tumor on the screen, feel the pain in my body. My body will become foreign, incapable of being understood by my lover, my family, my children. Most of all, I fear my daughter will resent my body that birthed her, and her own fated body, and that, that fear is what makes me hate your cancer most.
This year marks the ten-year anniversary since your first diagnosis. Four years since the recurrence. Your body continues to change, still more dynamically than mine, despite your age. I was hoping my classes in graduate school, with all the writing and theorizing, would rationalize my fears, maybe even dissolve them. I was hoping a better understanding of your pathology would lessen this feeling of invasion.
But it was not the case. When I moved to New York last year, there was only change. It was a new school and new friends, a new city. For the first time in my life, I encountered a world with so much materialism and self-centered drive. I sensed a general lack of empathy. I lost relationships and held onto others, I saw people come in and out of my life like passengers in subway cars. I realized, though even more pronounced in New York City than anywhere else, that my life has always been in flux.
And so, the only thing I really have is my body.
The only thing I can count on to be there tomorrow is my body. And yours.
Rumpus original art by Sylvia Nguyen.