Part 21. Need to Know
I kept it on a need-to-know basis. My children needed to know. The people I worked with needed to know.
My mother definitely didn’t need to know. Her hospice nurse had said we needed to let her let go. I spoke with her a couple of times each week and I kept the calls innocuous. She wanted to hear about the kids and I avoided any talk of work or going down any conversational path that might force me to lie. How could I tell her work was fine when I wasn’t working? You don’t lie to your mother. My goal was to make her feel that everything was fine.
I’d told my sister and my brother. Since one is a physician and one is a nurse, they had more than just compassion to offer.
My sister was doing the heavy lifting. Though she and her husband had both retired and lived in Virginia, they went to Indiana for a week once a month to be with my mother. My brother lived just a few miles from my mother’s “old folks home.”
I was the absent party. My mother’s mental acuity was slipping, but still I wondered if my absence was a concern or if it hurt her. She had been so many things in my life, including — frequently — my link to sanity. We had had a wonderful adult relationship and I missed not just the comfort of her as my mother but her steadfast support and advice. It was hard not to see her — or to tell her everything that was going on in my life. I’d always done that. But now I had to withhold.
So my cancer was my secret — from her and from some of my closest pals. I planned to keep my condition quiet and not tell my far-flung friends. But eventually the story got out.
I wasn’t ashamed or embarrassed — okay, maybe I was a little embarrassed because it was ass cancer. But mostly, I didn’t want my friends to worry. If I got through it and all went well, I would have alarmed people for no reason. If the treatment didn’t work, there’d be time then to break the bad news.
Since I’m comfortable in a lecture hall and speaking in public, people assume I am an extrovert. The opposite is true. I know what role is expected of me when speaking in front of a crowd. When class is over, I withdraw into my socially awkward self. I hate drawing attention to myself.
Despite my efforts and my plan to keep my condition secret, the news got out — and it was my fault.
It happened when David Carr died. David was a guru, a living god, a saint for American journalism. He was also a colleague in my department at Boston University. He died suddenly on February 12, 2015, suffering a heart attack in the New York Times newsroom.
I was deep in cancer treatment. I hadn’t seen David since I’d begun chemotherapy, but he’d sent me a few short notes of support, just to remind me that I was in his thoughts. Yes, he was a kind man.
A friend — one of my closest friends, Andrea Billups — sent me a text about David that night he died. She broke the story (to me); that’s how I learned he was gone. Andrea and I thus began a back-and-forth in which I let it slip that David had been so supportive of me when I got my cancer diagnosis.
You have cancer? Andrea was stunned.
That was not the sort of item that would escape the attention of a splendid journalist like Andrea.
Well, yes I do, Andrea. (Pause.) But everything will be all right. (My official policy statement.)
I think my news shocked Andrea at first, and so I told her about my diagnosis and treatment. She was a supportive and empathetic friend and I wanted — and appreciated — her expression of concern. Until that night, I didn’t realize how much I needed that.
Samantha Gross, then a reporter from the Daily Free Press at Boston University, called for a comment on David, and I again mentioned how much his support meant to me as I entered treatment.
I wonder if — on a subliminal level — that’s why I told Samantha about being cancer buddies with David. Maybe on some level I wanted people to know.
I needed the support Andrea offered in abundance. Even long-distance (she was in Florida or Michigan; it was hard to keep up with her), I felt her heartfelt concern.
I wanted to attend David’s memorial service and Tom Fiedler, my dean, offered to let me tag along when he drove to New York for the event. But when the time came, I was too exhausted to consider a trip. I was nothing but a grain sack, heavy and unmovable.
I wanted to honor David. We were building a friendship and I hoped it would grow in coming years. I looked forward to many years of knowing him, but suddenly he was gone. He was an amazing and inspiring man. I grieved for his three daughters and his wife.
Once the story about David was online — the one in which I outed myself as a cancer patient — everyone suddenly knew that I was sick. That dang ol’ Internet does that sort of thing.
I was touched by the notes of support I got. Some of my friends at the University of Florida sent me a care package of T-shirts, Florida Gator knicknacks and Rick Bragg’s biography of Jerry Lee Lewis.
Just as friends were becoming aware of my treatment, I was finishing my daily radiation and the first round of chemotherapy. After the final radiation treatment, I was puzzled — after adjusting my sweatpants back into position — to find myself alone in the treatment room. I shrugged it off, wishing I’d had the chance to say goodbye, then walked toward the exit. Suddenly there was a bleating of New Year’s Eve horns and a shower of confetti. All of the women in the radiation unit cheered and congratulated me on finishing treatment. They presented me with a certificate that hangs in my office, when my doctoral diploma is kept in a closet.
The chemo ended too though the port-a-cath stayed in my chest. I’d be back for another buffet of chemicals later in the year.
I suddenly felt a great sense of loss. I’d no longer get to visit the friendly crew in the radiation room each morning. It had been my tether, my reason to get up in the morning. No more all-day-thumbsuckers in the chemotherapy suite on Mondays — and no more chicken-salad sandwiches.
Nicole had a surprise celebration for me. During her mother’s cancer treatment, they had sung a song together, adapted from the film “Ted.” It was an utterly crude, lewd, bathroom-joke of a movie, so of course it appealed to our base and carnal senses of humor. It’s the story of a little boy and his teddy bear. They bond in childhood when the boy’s wish — to have his teddy bear come to life — is realized. The bear, of course, is monumentally foul-mouthed. They both share a fear of storms and declare themselves “thunder buddies,” singing a song together to ward off fear.
Nicole adapted the lyrics, changing thunder to cancer: “Fuck you, Cancer — you can suck my dick.”
And so after dinner, she presented me with a heart-shaped cake with ‘fuck you Cancer’ spelled out in icing.
The first part was done, but there was a long intermission before I’d get to the second part of my treatment. Tom Petty was right — the waiting was the hardest part.