Saturday, April 6, 2013

On Cancer (Re-Post)

***I wrote this piece years ago, when I was in undergrad, and am re-posting this in memory of one of my aunts. She passed away today after her second battle with cancer. Cancer. Cancer's taken away so many beautiful people who lit up the world with their kindness. Whenever I hear of yet another death from cancer, incandescent rage threatens to rise from the depths of my soul, and threatens to consume me. But then I remember that if I let rage win, it would dim the legacy of the person who walked on...Beneath anger is love. Always love. And love is what I choose to honour. Vaya con Dios, auntie P1***

I knelt at her feet, said goodbye and bared my soul; an intensely private moment juxtaposed by the hubbub of an airport’s international departure lounge. Her coal black eyes rimmed with cataract’s tell-tale blue, she held my gaze with the ferocity of a woman with a thousand years’ worth of wisdom to impart, but rushed by eternal twilight. They later told me that her passing, at half past noon, was serene. Across the Pacific, in the midst of a chilly New England autumn, I already knew. I knew, just like I knew the exact moment my father died. It is both a blessing and a curse to be sensitive to these things, to inexplicably see and feel the things skimming just below the surface of what people instinctively recognize. I felt the sudden charge in the air, and felt the sudden loss of the colours that were uniquely hers. Gone. I knew she was gone. Off to someplace that has yet to be unequivocally named and defined. Off somewhere that separates, divides. Unbidden, a memory of her and my mom singing Besame Mucho popped into my head. La ultima vez, I heard her voice singing softly, just as my phone vibrated. Patay na sha. It is with these words that certainty became a confirmation.

She was the grandma I always wished I had. With her there were no conditions in order to be worthy of being loved. She was born in a time and place that didn’t offer women much choice other than being a wife and a mother. Sometimes she’s haunted by what could’ve been; her longing is palpable when she sees women her age with careers and money of their own. But she knows she’s raised 8 children well, one of whom immigrated to the Land of Milk and Honey and ultimately brought her here as well.

She cooks well. Or rather, I meant to say she cooked well. Cook with an ed attached to denote past tense. But wait; she’s still a presence in my heart. An is, not was. So can she still be a present tense? Is there room for a future tense as well, just as love and memory defy timelines? Even as a linguist, language and grammar still have twists and turns I cannot make sense of. It’s not that different from the stages of grief, if memory serves from those psychology classes I took and loved. Yet despite the intellect people say I have in spades, I was--and am--still lost. In both literal and figurative sense, where do I go? Which turn should I take?

“Masakit pala (So it hurts, then)” were her last words to me when we parted ways. Bago lumipad ang aeroplano. Paano ba mamamaalam sa isang taong hindi mo na makikita pang muli? You say “see you later” and “get well soon” as manners dictate, when what you really want to say is, “Huwag mo kaming iwan.” You want to beg. You want to beg to  God, Allah, Saints, Buddha, doctors and loved ones. You want to beg for time, a cure, hope and miracles. Out loud you say it’s in God’s Hands and that we must accept whatever is in His Plans, but deep down you rage in defiance and questions. You say Hail  Mary and Glory Be, and take comfort in rituals because it gives you a purpose. Faith, hope and miracles give you something to do and postpones the inevitable confrontation of an ugly truth: people die, with or without prayers. It is a fact of life that transcends novenas and scientific breakthroughs.

“Masakit ba?” She always asked me.

Sakit. Pain.You see, when I had cancer and would lay on the couch while the extended family was eating and singing off-key karaoke, she would always check up on me. She kept me company. Makulit kasi. We talked about everything: mangoes, the weather, Pilipino languages. Her English was limited and my Tagalog was stilted, but we understood each other. Love communicates in ways that defy linguistic limitations. She would laugh and shake her head whenever I’d mention  my grand plans of covering up cancer’s battle scars with tattoos. And always this: she’d look at my grimace and ask about my “microwave” session (a.k.a. radiation). “Masakit ba?” Did it hurt? I could never find the words to answer that question. I could not bare my soul, afraid of the darkness that could come into being like Pandora’s secrets. I had to keep shards of dignity intact. When your body has been prodded, pierced, cut into, lasered and intubated by strangers, there is nothing you can do but bear it all. Cancer becomes your identity. Cancer had my body then, so I decided to fight to take whatever pieces were left. What was left was my dignity. I clung to it desperately to keep something for myself.

More than anything, I’d like to go back in time, back to to when I was a child and heard of cancer only in passing, as something that runs in my family like baby-fine hair and full lips. An inheritance, per se. A few years ago, I was innocent--unmarked, untouched,  unscarred--and only knew of chemotherapy and radiation as treatments. Never even heard of the funny word de-bulking. But that was then and this is now. Did you know that chemotherapy is a strategic assassin, like long-range missiles often talked about in political war on terror debates? It is your own private, ingestible terrorist. It is liquid fire that courses through your veins, humming and throbbing like the distorted drone of a hive. Mahapdi. It stings like a hundred bees feasting upon the fading of your strength. You want to scream until your throat is pierced raw. But you don’t. You can’t. Because it is uncomfortable. It makes people squirm to see cancer girls cry. It makes the tenuous bond between life and death all too real, too visceral. People may be okay with acknowledging that you have cancer, but they’re never really comfortable with the process and journey of cancer. More importantly, you have to be brave. It is cancer girl’s responsibility to inspire through quiet grace, strength and dignity, even if you want to shove any notions of hope and kittens up where the sun refuses to shine. 

Radiation is science and geometry--all about angles and alignment that precede a calculated beam of light. Its precision is both a homing beacon that takes you to a safe haven and a nuclear missile that won’t quit until every cell in your body is dead, collateral damages be damned. I learned to appreciate math and science that way, and understand the necessity of war as a journey towards reconciliation.

Cancer does not have a face; it has many. Some are moon-faced, bald, skinny cancer dudes with panda eyes; the ones most people associate with St. Jude commercials. And then there are the undercover ninjas who look like all’s well in their world as they battle the decay within. Uncle Fester bald, Robin Williams hairy. Skeletal, chunky. Just like how America is a melting pot held together by citizenship, people are brought together by a relentless stalker called cancer.

Having cancer is like sitting in a staid room, waiting for your name to be called. For death or for life, you can only speculate. Hope. You’re always almost home free, but never really home free. What’s certain is that a shadow will always be there. Lurking. Waiting. Stalking more persistently than a Lifetime: Television Movie Event (starring Harry Hamlin and Gail O’Grady) stalker. The fear is there. Una vida sentenciada. Once the dark mark is there, there is no turning back and no redemption like Severus Snape from being a Death Eater. I fear remission for me would be like driving after a rain and seeing a rainbow in the distance: just as I see it up close, it’s gone. I’d have driven past it.

Masakit ba?

Yes, it does hurt.

But I don’t know  which hurts more: leaving behind, or being left behind.

When the rainbow fades, I will let you know. Or maybe you will. 

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We must never permit the voice of humanity
within us to be silenced. It is Man's sympathy with all creatures that first makes him a Man.

--Albert Schweitzer

Everything can be taken from a man or a woman but one thing: the last of human freedoms to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.

--Viktor E. Frankl