It's like Sex and the Suburbs and 30 Rock all rolled into one…
About a year and a half ago, my mom was diagnosed with skin cancer, the worst kind you can get. (She’s fine now, over a year cancer free so we’re blessed and lucky; they found it in time.) Intellectually, I think, I understood that my mom has been getting older and our family has a history of cancer. It’s one thing to know that someday a parent might die, it’s another to be confronted with that possibility and have to deal with the emotional consequences. Cancer, specifically melanoma, is ominous. It does not bring forth images of health and happiness. Because of medical advances, ten years ago my family would be saying goodbyes. Today my mom just has to keep out of the sun and get a yearly check-up. Still, I was afraid. Even though I spent a good amount of time visiting sick and elderly relatives, sometimes distant ones, as a child dealing with hospitals, nursing homes and going to wakes, I was always able to separate myself from the situation. It was my great aunt who I had met a few times who was sick. It wasn’t my mother, the woman who for some odd reason thinks I’m capable of something great.
And I was alone. My family lives an hour south of me; I was working an hour north of where I live. It wasn’t possible with my line of work to leave work a little early and go visit my family whenever I wanted. I couldn’t hug my parents when I was feeling afraid. My sister, who had yet to move into the 5-1-8, had the ability to be with our parents because she was physically there. I wasn’t, and couldn’t be there as much as I wanted. It wasn’t as if I had a partner I could turn to; I was single and I live alone so there’s no roomie love. There were my friends.
Two of my friends were with me the night I got the news. They did what anyone would do – got me drunk, fed me Mexican food, and put me to sleep on the couch. But as the month leading up to the operation ran its course, they each got caught up in personal struggles that demanded their full attention. I wasn’t upset at all; I understood they needed to focus on their own issues. A couple I was friendly with also showed their support as well, but a few days before the big surgery, his grandmother died and they had to go out of town. Again, I wasn’t hurt – they had their own personal tragedy to confront. Many of my friends sent polite inquiries as to my mother’s health, but no one really sat me down and asked how I was handling things. For the most part, people left me alone to confront my mother’s mortality. Oh, and a guy I knew would text me to see if I wanted to hook up with him at 2am. When I told him I didn’t really feel like fucking, he asked why and of course, in my sleepiness, told him my mom had cancer and her operation was in a few days. He replied with an “oh” and a click of the phone.
But someone, out of the blue, stepped up and took care of me. The night before my mom’s operation, he very simply cooked me dinner, tucked a blanket over me and made me watch hours of The Office. When he decided it was time for bed, he curled up around me and held me. To help me sleep, he gently massaged my forehead or shoulders. He asked me if I were going to be okay; he drove with me to the hospital. After the operation, even though we had been told that my mother was going to be fine, I was exhausted. He once again made dinner, bought us beer to celebrate, and even cleaned some of my apartment for me. All of which he didn’t need to do; we hadn’t really been close for a month or so. Yet upon hearing my situation, he took care of me when I needed someone to.
As I’m getting older, more and more of my friends come to me to confide that a parent is sick. I suppose as we grow older, so do those who gave birth to us. And I always think of my friends who took me out to dinner, who let me drink gin and tonics on their couch as I got bad news, and the guy who essentially made sure I ate the day of my mom’s surgery. They showed me how to act. So now when my friends turn to me, I have been given the best lessons in compassion. I know what to do.