Last summer, when Amma was diagnosed with advanced stage lung cancer, my elder daughter wrote this tribute:
First there were butterfly crackers and squares of cheese at the kitchen table. Amma spoke Tamil and I didn’t understand, but I knew she got out the crackers and that she cut the squares of cheddar for me. I liked adults who did this. I was four, and I liked Amma.
Next there were nightgowns at Christmas – beautiful and lacy – fresh off Amma’s sewing machine. “Thank you,” I said when my parents nudged me, and I hugged her, feeling her stiff, silky sari under my little hands. It was so unlike what my mother and aunts wore, but it felt right on her, because she was Amma.
Later, there were dresses and stockings, sewn and knitted, even as I started to notice Amma’s bony brown hands and wondered, Should they still be sewing?
I’ve never been a fan of February. In February in Minnesota, winter shows no signs of letting up. The few years I lived in Nashville I was shocked when spring started to stir in February. In Minnesota in February, spring is still years away.
On top of the arctic weather, February ushers in the Christian season of Lent, which as a theologian I strongly approve of. Theoretically. It’s important to pare down, do without, take stock of our sin, and reflect on the suffering of Jesus. But practically speaking, it’s the downer season of the church year. o when Lent comes in the middle of a Minnesota February, I dream of practicing another faith in another state.
The first February after I was diagnosed with stage IV cancer, Ash Wednesday arrived and I couldn’t muster up the courage to go to church. The thought of one of our pastors making the sign of the cross on my forehead and saying, “You are dust and to dust you shall return,” was more than I could handle. Two of my vertebrae had already turned to ashes and I feared the rest of me wasn’t far behind. I needed no additional reminder that death was near.
That February—a good two months after getting the diagnosis—was also the time when the seriousness of my condition began to sink in. It was in February I realized that eighty percent of people who have this type of cancer are dead in five years. It was in February when I entered the classroom again and learned I was too weak to stand up and teach at the same time. It was in February that the cancer-winter-Lent triple threat became almost more than I could bear.
In my last blog post on “Rejoicing While Others Mourn,” I reflected on the rejoicing we did as a family at the end of 2012, knowing that at the same time, there was much mourning by families in so many other places in the world. Shortly after I wrote those words, a time to mourn was thrust into our midst with the sudden death of our 20-year-old neighbor as she finished up her semester of studying abroad in South America.
As I spent much of the week at the Kaplan’s, helping plan a service that we hoped would be a fitting tribute to Tamar’s too-short life, the impossibility of such a task was an ever-present reality. How could a 90-minute service possibly capture the essence of Tamar? Of course, the question itself was an excruciating one—one that should not have to be asked by parents and siblings of a bright-eyed young woman with her whole life ahead of her. Yet there we were, compiling pictures, stories, readings, and music, all in an attempt to capture the rich life she lived.
This holiday season our nation experienced a jarring juxtaposition I’ve become
more attuned to since living with cancer: the occasion when heartbreak collides
with celebration. The mid-December massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School
injected shock and grief into a time when tidings of great joy are supposed to rule
the day. How does one rejoice in the midst of others’ anguish?
I admit that more than once during our family celebrations of the past few weeks,
my thoughts gravitated to the stark contrast between my family’s days of laughter
and joy and the families in Newtown crying their way through the holidays, knowing
that their precious little ones would never see another holiday, another new year,
another day of school. There were moments where it felt almost dishonorable to be
rejoicing, knowing so many others—both in Newtown and beyond—were buried in
As I approach the fourth anniversary of the day I was diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer, I’m caught between conflicting emotions. On the one hand, I’m extremely grateful to still be around. Reaching cancerversary #4 is a milestone. Definitely cause for celebration. But with the cancer reactivated and recent moves to new medication and more time in the chemo room, the celebratory urge has become more muted.
Since my diagnosis, I’ve struggled with how to have cancer and how to talk about it. Heading toward the cancerversary, I also struggle with how to mark the anniversary of cancer’s entrance into my life. On the first cancerversary, a dear friend who lost his wife to the cancer I have brought over champagne. We toasted the fact that I was living with cancer, that the medication had put me into remission, that our lives were beginning to resemble our lives before cancer.
People often ask me how life has changed since being diagnosed with stage IV cancer. On bad days, the question brings tears to my eyes. On good days, though, I acknowledge that cancer changes the outlook on many aspects of life.
Take birthdays, for instance.
This week, I’ll officially enter my upper-40s. Since the cancer diagnosis, I’ve become more attuned to the many protests we lodge against the aging process. The popularity of botox injections and coloring hair to hide the gray, to name just two visible protests, suggest we’re not too keen on showing the world we’re actually getting older. We want to look young, feel young, stay young. And then birthdays come around once a year and insist that we acknowledge we’re getting older.