Stuffed ShellsJimmy Stewart and Charlie Brown
I’ve been compared to my grandfather since the day I was born. I inherited his dark thick hair and am told that I had a similar hairstyle to that of Ernie from Sesame Street. I guess it’s a stretch of a compliment at best. Our thin frame and George Bailey-like persona have always been looked upon as identical. I can thank my mother for these traits, whom is a spitting image of my grandfather. Proof of genetics. Like brown hair, cancer has to do with genetics. Unlike brown hair, cancer is far from a desirable characteristic. It’s like a family heirloom that no one wants.
My most vivid memory of my grandfather was when I was three. My brother and I were playing with a small building set on my grandparents’ living room floor. I broke one of my brother’s pieces and all I can remember is my grandfather’s disappointed voice. He wasn’t angry, nor did he raise his voice. He was disappointed which is far worse than anger. When I think about it, I can’t recall what he said but I can see him sitting in his recliner perfectly. In my mind his words are muffled by time and sound like the teacher from the Peanuts, frustrated “Whah, Whah’s”. Unfortunately, it’s the only memory of him that I have.
Years later, I remember rummaging through my closet and for whatever reason, discovered that the broken piece was the only one from our entire set that had survived many years of spring cleaning. Regrettably the unpleasant has a tendency of sticking around with us. Why couldn’t the unbroken pieces make it? They weren’t busted. Why couldn’t I have a more meaningful memory of my grandfather? Even in the short three years I knew him, I know there were countless of them. He passed away shortly after a five-year battle with leukemia.
There’s always an event every few decades that defines a generation, a landmark number on the calendar that connects the masses. The baby boomers are identified with the John F. Kennedy assassination in 1963; my generation with September 11th. Anyone that was older than three for either of those dates could tell you where they were, whom they were with, and will always begin or end their story with the cliché, “I remember it like it was yesterday”. But it’s true; I could tell you everything about that day. I was in Mrs. Fitzpatrick’s fourth grade class on a Tuesday when I found out about the attacks on New York City and Pennsylvania. I guess the mind has a way of capturing all these little details on our days that we would prefer to forget. In eighteen years I’ve only had one other of these unofficial “yesterdays”.
I remember sitting at the kitchen table as the words breast cancer fell from my mother’s sentences. I remember cringing almost as if snow had fallen down my back. The foul word was then followed by a gentle bombardment of more filthy words such as chemotherapy and radiation. The next 18 months of our family’s life was laid out in front of me like a blueprint, an agenda from hell.
During my mother’s treatment she wrote small stories that were later compiled into a memoir of her experiences. One of her first short stories she explained how she broke the news to my brother and me. She told of how strong I was and how well I took the news, a fourteen year old in shining armor if you will. I’m glad I will be forever romanticized in a piece of literature because I can tell you that this is far from the truth. The word tears never made it to my page of glory. Maybe her version is right and maybe I’m wrong (all I know for sure is that we had stuffed shells that night for dinner). But I can’t be, I remember it like it was yesterday.
Holding on Tight
Everyone has had that horrendous combination of fear and uncertainty at one time or another. Sitting at that table I’ve never experienced the feeling so strong. The only feeling I can compare it to would be like riding one of those rickety wooden roller coasters at one of those carnivals that stay in town for about a week at most. Oh, and you just ate syrupy cotton candy and over-priced popcorn right before you’ve mustered up the courage to pull that rusty bar down over your lap. There’s nothing you can do but go along for the ride. Every single drop puts your stomach up past your heart. But even this doesn’t compare to how I felt the next 18 months.
Just a Day at the Beach
The other day in my Microbiology class we learned that the word cancer originated from karkinos, the Greek word for crab. Hippocrates noticed that the inside of tumors looked similar to the outline of the crustacean. I couldn’t see the resemblance, but I couldn’t think of a better animal to name the disease after. It comes out of nowhere and bites you on the ass while you’re enjoying a beautiful day at the beach; just enjoying life. That’s what cancer did to us: bit us right on the ass.
Chicks Hate Pink
My mother’s diagnoses came only a few months after my best friend’s mom passed away from breast cancer. I can remember looking at his empty desk, as I realized why he wasn’t in school. I prayed I was wrong, but in the back of my mind, I knew I wasn’t. She had three sons, one my brother’s age, one my age, and one my sister’s age. She had battled cancer for as long as I could remember. During her treatments, members of the community would help out by making dinners. And I’m not sure why, but I remember my mother making their family stuffed shells.
When something is on your mind it seems to appear everywhere, in places that you had never noticed them before; a terrible game of hide-and-seek. Those little pink ribbons were everywhere, magazines articles, newspapers advertisements, canned goods at the supermarket, shampoo commercials, etc. And every single company seemed to be donating to the breast cancer society around the time of my mother’s diagnosis. It’s like they all jumped on the bandwagon once it happened. Of course they had always been there, you’ve looked at them, but you just never took the time to see them. There was no escaping cancer. No escaping the pink. My mother’s memoir is called ‘Why I Hated Pink’; properly named if you ask me.
Torn Pair of Genes
My mother’s cancer had nothing to do with genetics. Actually it had nothing to do with anything. Besides my grandfather, there was no family history or any outstanding risk factors that made her more prone than anyone else. “Just bad luck,” the doctor had said. I guess that’s one way to put it.
Doctor’s base a cancer patient’s survival rate based on a five-year increment. They give a percentage of the chances that the patient will live for the next five years. When I think about this systematic benchmark, all I can picture is a bunch of doctors sitting in a poorly lit room with short, smoldering cigarettes in their mouths at a poker table flipping over cards and handing out these unwelcomed numbers to terrified patients. A Hollywood hybrid between ‘The Sting’ and television show ‘Scrubs’. I don’t know what my mother’s “magic number” was, but I know for a fact it wasn’t a hundred percent and that scares the hell out of me.
I don’t know if it was a blessing or a disadvantage that my mother had been a nurse for over twenty years when she was diagnosed. I guess in a sense it’s a good thing to know what’s ahead of you. But after two decades I’m sure she has heard some horror stories. And I’m sure those don’t sit well with you and result in some sleepless nights. I think that’s the one exception that I would be okay with being oblivious to the truth.
My grandfather was in and out of remission a few years before he passed away. Somehow he remained positive despite leaving the hospital one day and answering the phone just to hear that he had to go back the again (explains the revolving doors at hospitals). My mother must’ve inherited his courage as well. In her memoir she talks about how she would draw strength from my grandfather’s memory. She would also say that we gave her so much strength but to be honest, she carried us through those eighteen months. Some days I would forget about that putrid word cancer if it weren’t for her bandana.
Dinner of Champions
From the first day she broke the news to us, my mom always said that things would be “business as usual”. That was our unofficial slogan. My mother kept a very tight circle during this time and only told close friends and family. She would only tell people if there was a reason to. Thankfully the grapevine didn’t grow uncontrollably. There was no need to make a big deal out of something that people didn’t need to know about. Many family members helped whenever they could and we continued our lives of organized chaos. I remember one night in particular, when my aunt made dinner for us; it was none other than stuffed shells.
Even before this series of unfortunate coincidences, stuffed shells were far from my favorite meal. The ricotta-filled pasta went from a dinner I could muscle through to an unbearable dish. Along with the agonizing taste of the Italian cheese come the memories of my mother’s diagnosis, chemotherapy, radiation and everything in between. But there is the sweet aftertaste of the words survivor, remission and cancer free.