When I think of cancer, I tend to think of breast cancer. This is because I have learned over the years that it is not a woman’s disease, it’s our disease, it touches all of us, and it is the common enemy that we can love to hate, because, as far as I have been able to tell, it is always there, waiting in the wings to come out for its frequent moments of importance, its fame that is measured in decades, not minutes, assuming we can truly win our battle with it someday, and those decades don’t stretch into centuries.
When I was a child, we had one of those Kodak carousels, a slide projector that Dad would load up with images of our most recent vacation of holiday. If we had a few unfortunate victims over for dinner, they would sometimes get hog-tied by courtesy and have to sit around the darned thing like it was a holographic campfire and stare blindly at the projected photos of our smiling family.
But that was long ago, and now those images are in my head, and when I lay that head against the headboard of my bed late at night, I often visit the images of my wife, or those of my sister, during their long, separate battles with breast cancer.
My sister, Kris, was an unusual woman. She was brilliant, quiet, deeply unhappy in many ways, and very overweight. Rather than shape her body to fit her culture, she merged into a culture that accepted her body as it was. While the rest of the family were simple, everyday Presbyterians, Kris became a Pentacostal, and soon after college, moved to Tijuana, Mexico, where she fell in love with a Mexican carpenter named Jesus, a quiet, simple man who neither spoke English nor possessed the kind of college or high school degree my parents had always assumed their son-in-law would have. When she told my parents she wanted to marry him, all they could think of to do was to ask her to wait a year. Which she did. She and Jesus then married, and ran a small community church in the outskirts of Tijuana, pausing from time to time to have four children. Then when she became pregnant a fifth time, during a routine physical exam, she found out she had breast cancer. Which she then refused to treat, for reasons that were never made clear to us, although I suspect she was afraid any treatment would harm her fetus. In November of 1982, she brought her family back to the suburbs of Utica , NY, where my parents lived at the time, to visit for Thanksgiving. She never made it back to Mexico. Her condition worsened over the holidays, and while we all looked on like the helpless fools we felt ourselves to be, she gradually slipped away. When my parents finally found a doctor she would allow to see her, it was far to late to do anything other than make her comfortable, and once again, she would have none of that – she worried about the child inside her. At death’s door, she slipped into a coma, and the hospital induced pregnancy. Her death certificate read that her death was due to childbirth, a statement so profoundly anachronistic, I have never seen its like in this or the last century.
Her family remained with my parents for four long tortuous months. Her daughter, Tabitha, was two months premature, and couldn’t travel back to Mexico until the spring, and Kris’ husband, Jesus, was loath to return until Kris had been properly buried in our family’s plot on the Vermont-New York border. The image I have of her goodbye is a chilly, sunswept day in the cemetery, listening to her twelve-year old son, Josh, translate the reverend’s words to his father in a low murmur, as we all stood by, thinking, What Next?
As it turned out, the next step in Kris’s story happened in Marblehead a couple of years later. I was in my studio one day when the phone rang. “You don’t know me” the fellow on the other end said, “But I’ve seen you in concert over the years, and I feel that I know you.” Fair enough. “I’m the Assistant Dean of Admission at Phillips Andover. Your parents brought your nephew, Josh, into our office the other day, and we liked what we saw in him. We’ve been talking, and we have a proposition: if you and your wife will take him in your home for a year and enroll him in your local high school, and he survives that year, we will favorably review his application. He’ll have to repeat the year, regardless of how well he does, but we think this is a risk worth taking.”
Talk about a Kodak moment. I knew Josh had expressed an interest in coming to America to go to school, but had no idea my parents had brought him to Andover. I told the Dean I would have to check with Carol, my wife. Which was the shortest conversation we ever had. “Of course,” she said, “Call him back and say ‘Yes’”. That conversation changed a lot of lives. Josh lived with us that year, went on the Andover, which was unbelievable difficult for him ( bear in mind he was a product of the Tijuana public school system, supplemented by one year of American high school ), and went on to Amherst College. Today he lives in San Diego, where he has his own family, a pretty good job, and calls me on a regular basis to ask me when I’m coming to visit.
I should add another postscript to my sister’s battle with breast cancer: several years later my wife and I were able to support her daughter Tabitha, born the day she died, when Tabitha expressed a similar interest in getting an education in America. We helped her attend a school in Vermont for four years, after which she went off to Redlands University in California on a full boat. Today she, too, lives and works in San Diego where she sees her sisters and father regularly. They continue in the Pentacostal ministry, running two small churches and a remarkable institution called El Refugio, the only free elderly hostel in Tijuana. If cancer had not stepped into my sister’s house, she would be there too today. But it did, and she is not.
But breast cancer was not done with us, not by a long shot. In the fall of 1994 my wife Carol discovered a lump in her breast. This was a surprise, as she had had regular mammograms, one of them very recently, and the lump seemed large. In fact it was enormous, and after a lumpectomy and several visits to various doctors, we realized that our family’s future was about to change. In fact, the changes we were about to go through was far longer, far more painful, and far more difficult to imagine than any of us could comprehend.