When I was eight, I longed to be ten with all my heart. Ten meant old enough to stay up and watch Fantasy Island and Three’s Company. When I was twelve, stuck in the doldrums of tweenagerness before there was such a thing as tweenagerness, the aura of sixteen was magical. Sixteen meant boyfriends and formal dances and a learner’s permit. At sixteen, mired in the muck of teenage hormones and high school heartaches, eighteen couldn’t come fast enough. Eighteen meant emancipation, college, freedom from the borders of a small town. At eighteen, the lure of twenty-one was temptingly within reach. And then…..then it just becomes a blur; jobs, college loans, relationships, marriage, life insurance, kids, mortgages, wills and more paperwork than you ever thought possible. Who knew that being a grown up would involve so many forms, so many things filed in triplicate, so many signatures?
The wedding years were fun, lots of travel, lots of alcohol, lots of dancing on waxed wooden floors. There was Pete and Kiki’s wedding in New Orleans (What happened in N’awlins stays in N’awlins). There was Phil and Fiona’s wedding where the men wore kilts and drank pints for breakfast and christened my husband with a raucous nickname that made him blush. There were heartache years and catch your breath years, funeral years (my uncle, my grandfather, my father in the space of 13 months). There were a lot of just living your life years, just getting through years. And so we arrive at the tipping point. At 43, it is likely there are more years behind me than in front of me. The ones in front of me, however, are weighted in my favor. They are what I think of as the orange years; not quite faded to yellow, still a decent way to golden. Except.
Except it seems these days every time I turn around, someone my age, someone I know, someone I remember, someone I care about is being tripped up by cancer. Not felled; they have not been felled. They have youth and health on their side, they have technology and screening and medical break throughs. They have been tripped up, by those fucking clusters of mutating cells.
Somewhere in the midst of the dancing and the drinking and the marrying and the birthing and form signing, the living, this became a thing. I—my peers and I—have reached a point in life where this is a thing.
I am no stranger to cancer. My father died of cancer. Near the end, when I had to stop pretending that he was going to be alright, that he was going to stick around to watch my son grow up, when I had to admit to myself and to him that he was not going to get better, I could feel the cancer in him. When I hugged him I could feel the tumors in his chest. That sickness, those fucking clusters of mutating cells taking over. The night I felt those lumps against my skin was the night I truly understood that my father was going to die. Not of old age on a porch swing or surrounding by his adult grandchildren and his gray-haired daughters and white haired wife: soon. He died a little more than two months after that night, surrounded not by his middle-aged daughters and his elderly wife, but at least, with a measure of peace.
When I was fifteen or so, a grade school classmate of mine drowned. A few years later another classmate, along with three others, died of carbon monoxide poisoning. It is hard to understand death when you are a teenager, when every fiber of your body is screaming LIFE. You are, quite literally, bursting with it. It gets marginally easier to understand as you get older–not easier to accept, mind you, but the idea of it starts to send out feelers and scouts. Last summer a Facebook friend posted the obituary of another high school classmate. He was 42.
And so it begins.
I don’t know how we got here, how my peers and contemporaries got here. Like Rip van Winkle it seems that twenty years have passed in a flash. I, who like to be prepared for all contingencies, am not prepared at all. I do not want to exploit the experiences of friends and peers who are facing their own battles. I do not want to tell their stories. They will have their own stories to tell when they are ready, when they emerge victorious, when the battle scars have faded. Those stories are theirs and they are vital. It is simply that words are how I deal with my own anxieties and emotions. It is how I deal with the ghost shadows that have been hanging around in doorways at night, insinuating themselves into my dreams. Words and writing are the way I turn on the light.
To those of you going through this battle, those of you I know and those of you I don’t, know this: you have a story to tell. Know that there are people in your life who will be part of your story, who will stay on the sidelines or who will take a co-starring role. When you are ready to tell your story, there are people who will listen. There are people who will look on in awe at your scars of battle because you will have done something that the rest of us fear we don’t have it within ourselves to do. You will have fought. And won.
For a few weeks now, I’ve been followed around by the ghost of The Outsiders. I should have realized that the message I’m trying to write here is contained within those pages, that two little words neatly sum up what I want to leave here. For I can tie all the pink and yellow and green and lilac ribbons I see around my heart, but what I really want to say is this: