tree cancer (a walk down a cancerous memory lane)

I think it is fair to say that cancer is not something that I’ve been oblivious about all of my life. It isn’t a word, or a condition, that just popped up a couple of months ago after having my testicle examined. For those of you who don’t already know this, my mother died of cancer too — she had a malignant brain tumor that killed her about six months after they discovered it. My siblings and I were young when this happened. She was admitted to the hospital, never to leave it, on my first birthday in 1974.

When I was a teenager I have a fairly vivid memory of going to the school library and checking out two books about cancer. I can still see one of the books, a slim volume with a jet black cover and a title (which I do not recall) in blood red letters. I think I remember the look of that particular book so well precisely because it was so ominous. The book itself seemed deadly. I took those books home and I read about cancer — most especially I read about brain tumors and what the word malignant meant. When I returned the books I knew something, not much, about the science of why my mom was dead. And that’s really all I was looking for. I had no notion then, nor do I have one now, about the deeper meaning of why my mom died when she did or how she did. It didn’t really matter because she was gone and I had no idea as a child what I’d really missed out on — even now, as an adult, I marvel about the relationships people have with their mothers. For me, my mother is an image in a photograph mostly, for I have no tactile memory of her.

The thing that I did gain from reading those books (or scanning them rather), and knowing how my mother died, was a sense of dread. Not a necessarily nagging, ever-present dread, but I knew that I did not want cancer. At times I even thought I was destined to get it. Don’t ask me why, I just did (I know that I am not alone in this sort of fear, because at least one of my siblings has told me about his own, similar fear of cancer, born of my mother’s death).

In the mid-1990’s I worked with a woman named Charlene. My dad would have described her as a tough broad. She was in her forties, smoked like a chimney, and drove a brand new Thunderbird. At some point, Charlene — a woman not always easy to get along with, but extremely competent at her job — began to make silly mistakes at work, and became a bit loopy. It turned out, weeks later, that she had a brain tumor, that is was malignant, and that she didn’t have long to live. She was dead six months later. My brother Steve would tell me soon after her death: “that sounds just like what happened to mom.” Suddenly I had an unwanted reference point for my mother’s illness and death. Having seen Charlene at various stages of the disease, I could now imagine what it must’ve been like for my mother — and my father — as she slipped away.

I’m not sure if that experience lessened or worsened my sense of dread, but it was one that I was grateful for having. It helped me understand something that I had no real way of understanding on my own, for the memory simply did not exist. It was a blessing in a way, and I’m forever indebted to Charlene for allowing me to have it.

When my brother Jeff was young, he did a class report on tree disease. It was an all-out oral presentation, replete with homemade visual aides, culled mostly from our set of encyclopedias I presume (how kids used to do research before the Internet). It’s funny the things you recall from childhood, but this one is an easy target in my mind, because what I remember are the pictures of diseased trees, looking as though they had giant tumors growing within them, and Jeff telling me that they had cancer. A tree with cancer, I thought, isn’t that sad? To this day, whenever I see a tree with a bulbous growth, I think of that day in the family dining room looking at Jeff’s visual aides — and I think to myself, “do you have cancer, tree?”

So, now that I’ve had it I wonder what will happen to my lifelong sense of dread. At times I hear a voice in my head telling me that this one doesn’t count: “You have cancer-lite, Lawler, and never had to face the truly grim diagnosis of a terminal cancer.” But, really, I think I’ll let myself off the hook. Life is short enough as it is, and I hope to let go of this fear that I’ve held for so long. As for the trees, I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to not feel a bit sorry for them when I see them.

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One Response to “tree cancer (a walk down a cancerous memory lane)”

  1. Dear Mike:

    This is a very interesting and inspiring story. I hope you will write more in this vein. In healing work, we pick up a wound like a tentacle and trace it back to its source. You have done just that in telling little “Mikey’s” story, and following his progress into adulthood. It is amazing how you reached back and followed the thread of connection which cancer has provided throughout your life. In saying you are ready to let it go, you have given little Mikey permission not too be afraid anymore. The most anyone can do, is to live the life they’ve been handed with courage and integrity, and to turn every blow that is dealt into something positive. Not everyone can do that, but you have. It probably doesn’t feel like it, but you may have already started turning the corner on your road to recovery. Will you ever be the same Mike that you were before the illness? I doubt it; and let’s give thanks for the ways in which the choices you have made along this rocky road can liberate you from the places where you have been trapped. You could look at it as though you were doomed to become a victim, sure. Or you could see it as though you were destined to be given the opportunity to heal from old wounds. There is such hope in this story, not only for you, but for others. Keep writing! lovelovelove.

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