I don’t remember most details about how I reacted the moment my mom told me she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. The best I can come up with is: white noise, thick tears, numbness in extremities. At the very beginning, I didn’t have all the details. I just had the one fact.
She first told me through a text—something along the lines of, “It’s not great news.” I was at my internship in Brooklyn, sitting at my desk. I suddenly felt hot, self-conscious, trying to blink away acid tears all while focusing on not calling attention to myself in the office. Excusing myself quietly and walking briskly to the bathroom, I cried in one of the stalls for a while. All I could feel were short sharp shocks, hitting my body hard and fast, over and over. This kind of stuff never happens to me, to us, I thought. Isn’t that what everyone says when something like this happens?
I washed my face in the bathroom sink, dabbing it dry with some rough, industrial-strength paper towels, and returned to my desk with a neutral smile and puffy eyes.
That afternoon, I took a walk alone in Greenwood Cemetery. (In retrospect, I would not recommend that particular activity right after your parent gets diagnosed with cancer.) It was a pleasant change of pace from the busy office—free from excruciating pleasantries while my mind throbbed and ached, constantly fluctuating between feeling too much and trying to stop. But the cemetery was quiet. Being there felt like receding into my mind.
Later, I called my mom—it wasn’t a long conversation. She simply reiterated what she had said over text, and I didn’t really know what to say. When I got off the phone, I admired the mausoleums and tried to find some famous people’s headstones, before finally sitting down on a bench to look at the lake for a bit.
Soon enough, I decided it was time to make the commute back uptown. I stood on the subway, holding the center pole, swaying gently with the train’s movement, still absorbing the shock waves one by one. Although the subway car didn’t have the same room to breathe as the cemetery, I could still be alone. It felt comforting—I didn’t have anybody else to worry about for a while.
Over the next couple of days, I received a barrage of text messages from each of my aunts. They were variations of the same themes—all expressing their own sadness and shock, telling me that they loved me very much and that they were always there if I ever wanted to talk. I replied to each text, thanking them for their kindness, but I knew that I was never going to want to talk about it. Not because I was in denial or in a downward spiral, but simply because that’s how I’ve always done it.
My mom’s treatment started shortly after, and it moved quickly. Since I wasn’t at home, I tried to check in regularly. Sad as it was not being there with her, I thought I was handling the situation pretty well. We sent each other Friends gifs and messages of I love you. We talked on the phone, too, but it was hard to find a regular time between all her appointments and all my classes.
When I returned home for winter break, my mom asked me how I was feeling about “the whole thing.” She said I didn’t really seem concerned, and I realized for the first time that she might be upset that I’d never asked how she was feeling. She had never seen me cry about it or tell her I was scared.
I didn’t really know how to respond—of course I was sad and scared at times, but I just didn’t like to talk about it. Confronting it in that way made me nervous and self-conscious—why do I need to tell you how I feel? It’s just how I feel. But unlike the subway car far from home, where I could get lost in the sea of people, it was just her and me sitting there at the kitchen table. When it was my turn to say how I felt, I awkwardly laughed, made a joke, and changed the subject.
Even though she dropped it—out of sight, out of mind—I felt guilty. I hadn’t reacted the way my mom expected me to, but I didn’t really even know what this expectation was. Maybe it was the reaction we all see on TV, the large group hug with plenty of tears. Maybe I was supposed to soliloquize, maybe I was supposed to climb Mount Olympus in her honor. But all I knew was the unchangeable reality of my mom sitting across from me..
Over the break, we laughed about the diagnosis at Christmas dinners—my mom likes to joke that she can get out of just about any obligation using her Cancer Card—but my family members’ concern for me was still visible on their faces.
How am I supposed to act? I thought to myself. Should I make that chemo joke? It was uncomfortable; part of me reluctantly admitted that it was so much easier just to reply to their texts and move on.
White noise, thick tears, numbness in extremities. Same reaction, but this time, my mom had just told me that my parents were getting divorced. I felt confused and betrayed—absolutely blindsided—just like I had a couple months earlier when some higher powers gave my mom cancer.
This time, though, it wasn’t over text. She told me face to face. I couldn’t shove my phone back into my pocket and forget about it for the day, get on the subway, get back to work. She said that if I had any questions or just wanted to talk about it, she was there for me. But the shock had made me feel slow and heavy, and my mouth felt sealed shut. The only word I could push out was a pathetic, high-pitched, “What?”
I lay in bed later that day, letting each individual grain of fear and sadness and confusion whirl around my room, get in the creases of my eyes and my ears and my hair and under my nails. I felt like I had to physically hide in my own house, like I was five years old again and just wanted to throw a tantrum in peace. When my dad came into my room to give me a hug, I leaned limply into him, avoiding his face, wishing he’d leave.
In those moments, I needed to leave the wet, suffocating cloud that was hanging over my childhood bedroom. It wasn’t a fog I could share with anyone else; it left me feeling hot and sticky and itching for space. I stayed at my best friend’s house that night.
The next day, though, I knew I had to confront that cloud again. I spent most of the afternoon compulsively tidying the house, making everything clean and organized and right again. The laundry, the vacuuming, the dusting, the Christmas decorations. One task at a time. But the cloud was starting to condense, and each droplet was sticking to my prickling skin, no longer short and sharp but long and grinding.
When my parents came home that night, we went out to dinner and talked about our days, and me going back to school, and “How is your pad thai?”, and other normal stuff. It felt like we had forgotten about it for a while, like I was just making my usual commute back to Manhattan, but of course it wasn’t really like that at all. There wasn’t as much space in my bedroom or in a Thai restaurant with my parents as there was in Greenwood Cemetery.
By the time the rest of my family was informed about the divorce a few weeks later, I was back in New York for the semester. I received the same stream of texts as when my mom was diagnosed—people sending their love, offering an ear if I ever wanted to talk or cry or scream. But this time, while I was away at school, I didn’t have the pressure of facing them head on. I wasn’t forced to look at them and read the sympathy in their faces.
Smile, reply, move on.
My phone buzzed again. I looked back down at my screen: “It is never easy having parents divorce. I know you are very private, but if you ever anytime need a shoulder or want to talk about anything, I am here for you.” I read the text message again and smiled, noticing that the cloud that once suffocated me didn’t seem so thick anymore. It was almost as if I could reach through it—but I wasn’t being pushed.
“Thanks,” I typed back, “I love you lots.” But this time, instead of shoving my phone back in my pocket, I kept it in my hand. I dialed my mom’s number and brought it up to my ear. She picked up on the first ring.
“How are you feeling?” I asked. I could sense her smiling on the other end of the line.
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