I was headed east on I-84 to disappear for a week in the Tetons. Just shy of Boise a phone call changed my family: Mom’s bowel obstruction was stage 4 colon cancer. I had harbored fear of cancer, but “stage 4” was a sucker punch. My man put his hand on my knee and took the next exit, ready to drive through the night to get me home. I sank into my seat and fixed on the blur of trees settling into dusk, mirroring a blur within. This stoic woman I’d in turns admired, spited, distanced and reconciled – she would loathe being the object of pity, would rebuke inevitable helplessness. It was untenable. Eventually I slept.
I have since claimed that drive as a gift. The rest of my family was already at the mercy of hospital time and its maddening unhurried deficiency – of certainty, of air. I faced a private expanse of road and contemplation, and when I rejoined them the next morning I was strangely restored, ready for the unknown ahead.
My mother dealt with cancer as she would any unacceptable burden: The greater its toll, the more stubbornly she refused to humor it. She protected her family from the worst of its ravages and reinvented her role as hub and heart among us. But more, she welcomed the ministrations of all and bravely owned vulnerability she previously would have hidden. She also survived, and says of my characterization, “I just did what I had to do.”
Within the family, we each played a role none other could play. My brother calls mine “keystone.” I might name it “scribe.” I was fortunate to have a job that allowed me to be at many appointments. Afterward we often stopped by the store, then sat at the kitchen table with my grandma. Cancer made me cherish small talk and mundane chores. In unexpected ways I slowly understood her better, and myself. Now, each time I take her to breakfast after an oncology check reveals a still-clean bill of health, it means something new to know I am my mother’s daughter.