Cancer, Care & Community in the Times of Covid

Image Description: A child-sized, blue cotton face mask featuring a drawing of Minnie Mouse and long pink ties on the sides, lying on a brick sidewalk. Photo: AB

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When I was a little girl and the thunder woke me up, I’d leap and race down the hall to Mom and Dad’s room. I was still little enough, for a while, to squeeze in between them and listen to the hum of their quiet night talking, even as my own voice went piping out like a nesting plover because I was excited to be awake at night and have their full attention (family of 7).

My parents both slept with their knees up and I would stare over the quilted mountains and talk until my mom would mumble, in 18 or 19 different ways, it’s time to get some rest now. At some point, my dad would quietly take my hand. He did it to settle me, but in my young mind it was also a pact: if I could be quiet, he would keep holding on.

Those nights were different than the days, when there was often real thunder and a terrible lightening that sometimes started our own house on fire. My dad was an alcoholic for many years until he went into recovery when I was 17. By then in many ways I had hardened my heart, with my closest family being my dear sweet cat, sauntering in through the window as I came home early in the morning. Hello, Miss Muffet and she would curl at my feet as I thought back into the night world I now inhabited, within a tribe my family never knew—an extended family in its own right.

After my dad got sober it was my duty to forgive and forget and I did so, with a high mind and a heart that didn’t easily take hold–because some part of me had been changed and I couldn’t help that. I loved my dad with all my… mind, if that makes sense. It was a kind of love and it was the best I could manage at the time.

And years later, as Dad was dying from Stage 5 Parkinson’s, I flew down to my folks’ house. He reached out–a slight flick of the wrist–and I knew what to do. I held his hand.

I’ve been thinking about my dad this week because one great thing about him was he never varnished silver linings. I would be able to tell him I have breast cancer and he would instinctively say how awful that was because he really felt the world—it’s one reason he was so complicated. I know that there is lots of “good” news in my bad news—for example, I’ve got a good plan and good care (a Team I’m told), etc. To any of us who have lost friends to cancer, this is indeed, obviously, a silver lining. But also, I hate all of this.

Like most women, my relationship to my breasts is complicated. When I was young and trying to navigate the world, they were something I often tried to hide. So much of the time, whether on the subway or at work or at a pub with my friends, it felt like they got in the way–each time I was objectified, harassed, or even just seen as other by men.

When I got pregnant, this all changed quite spectacularly and my breasts suddenly became almost apparition-like, twin suns beaming towards an abundant future!  Breastfeeding was a weird, animal experience that made the world seem very simple and small and slow – which was the beauty of motherhood in those early years. Having a baby makes you slow down and it changes your perceptions in a way that brings wisdom, if you roll with it.

Up at night now, unable to sleep, I find myself thinking back to the nights when we were still co-sleeping and my son would be chirping away to me as I fought the nods, sensing this moment as a time to connect but inevitably at some point murmuring my own mom’s words “It’s time for us to get some sleep.” I wonder, too, if I’m now being as patient as I was then—since time has had its way of speeding up and he approaches tweenhood.

Since being diagnosed, I have a new urgency to live life with a laser-like focus, cutting every shred of bullshit and getting the important connections and the best moments; basically, cherishing the fuck out of it and everyone in case, you know… the bad thing comes back.

This kind of good nature exhausts itself eventually, I know. Just like someday our evening neighbourhood cheers will peter out as the virus recedes in our lives and we get back to normal: jockeying for space on the streetcar and passing our neighbours hurriedly with a nod at 8:45 am each day, forgetting that for months our city opened up our windows and our lives to one another in an intimacy that –let’s face it—is unprecedented in Toronto. This is okay, too. We’re all undergoing a trauma and some of the moments that sustain us now we will also desire desperately never to repeat again.

On Friday, I’ll go in for my surgery. In my pre-op call they warned me “You’re going to see us dressed in masks and visors, in Covid PPE.” These days, when we step apart and avoid that human touch, it is a gesture of kindness. But even as we don the masks and take those distancing strides, it feels counter-intuitive. Like the cancer inside me, and the virus that lurks among us, I hate the masks and the distancing in my heart–even as I understand the why. We humans are designed to share a biome, to touch beyond that small bubble that ethical social distancing requires right now. That desire (in normal times) is a biological imperative and a human need.

But these are not normal times. We’re all running down the hall in the darkness now, wondering when the thunder will stop.

After my surgery, my family will be waiting in a Beck taxi outside, because they can’t safely come into the hospital. They will be waiting in a Beck taxi in a world that will feel much too bright and real for me until I’ve gotten back to our home, our sheltering place. Then I’ll settle down on the couch with my guys and offer up a kindness I know best: one hand, reaching out to another.