second time cancers

The end of my gramp’s remission and how we held each other together.

connie ni chiu


Walking home after grabbing beers with a colleague I never talked to during my masters program, after a good time of laughter and discovery and complaints about our alma mater and an awkward let’s do this again hug, I pulled out my phone and dialed my mom’s number.

Hello? Hi Mom, what are you doing?

My usual words immediately after she picked up the phone because I wanted to imagine exactly and everything she was doing at that very moment. I wanted to be near her—to see her. What are you doing right now?

Her always response is, How are you are you okay? stringing both questions into one simple sentence of relief that I called, side stepping my first words because maybe she wanted to imagine exactly and everything I was feeling at that very moment she spoke her first words to me, wanting to be near me—to see me. How are you are you okay?

I side stepped and asked her, what are you doing? because I still couldn’t imagine where she was, what she was doing, what she was touching and holding and seeing. I wanted to see her.

I’m at the hospital with your gramps. His cancer is back. We just found out today. It’s bad. Cancers that come back are bad. They are hard to beat but it’s back. He hasn’t been feeling well for the past week and grandma just knew that it came back. He knew too and I knew that something was wrong but, why did it come back?

The conversation following her confession was a slur of

how did this happen
why did it happen

I thought it was gone but he went through so much chemotherapy and

is he okay
is he in pain
what is the treatment plan this time and

are you okay
have you been eating
has he been eating
are you sleeping
when will all the results come back
what about surgery
what are the chances

what are the chances

how much time do we have
how much time does he have

be strong
I am strong
I can take care of him
I will take care of him

should I fly home soon
I need to fly home
I need to see him

but don’t worry he’s strong and
he is okay
he is a tough man and
he can get through anything
he did it before once and he will do it again
I will call you if you need to come home
but he is strong so don’t worry
just take care of yourself

he will make it.

I walked home along Midtown East with the sound of traffic breathing down inside me, wondering what all this meant and how cancer can come back so quickly so fiercely so quietly. It was just this past winter that gramps uprooted the cancer as if plucking dandelions out of his lymph nodes, and as I walked with all the movement I could muster, I whispered over and over, This life isn’t over yet.

I read somewhere that second time cancers were the finale and deeply unforgivable but I also knew that my gramps holds onto this life and this family and this time with more faith and trust to see through it than anyone I knew. I didn’t know what second time cancers meant until I started crying, trembling, shaking in the corner of my studio with hardwood floors that couldn’t hold me back, all the weight of what ifs sitting in my throat and photographed smiles that my gramps never shared but married into through his eyes when he looked at me.

Second time cancers meant my mom would drink a can of beer by herself in that un-embracing corner of her loneliness and cry hard enough to make her son walk to the dinner table, drink another beer of can with her so we could all pretend that she was crying because she was drunk. Hard enough that my brother made me promise not to tell her that he told me about her drunk love crying, no secret that she is strong enough to see this through and that we just had to keep pretending that she was drunk, not sad.

Second time cancers meant my eyes also love drunk at every mention of gramps, hard enough for people to pretend that this, that this was not a big deal, that it was just another ordinary life where any and every thing would be okay. Might be okay, this secret love drunk shared separately between mother and daughter, this secret of crying behind eyes, not through them.

Second time cancers meant phone calls to my gramps more than ever before and before meaning no phone calls until this moment. The hearing of his rough voice fragile enough to crack me, cracked me each and every time, so love drunk, so hard that the crying could only be muffled inside my stutter of his language so he didn’t hear me sad or worried or losing faith in his body’s ability to persist, to dream, to hug back. Just that I missed him and think of him. Often. The only words I knew how to confidently say in his language, the only words that mattered because all I did now is miss him and think of him, even when he said that he was okay and that my mom was taking care of him and that I should take care of myself and not worry about him. But I only think of and miss him these days. The first time I called him after finding out about his second time cancer, he recognized my voice immediately and in a defeated tree of a voice said, Gramp’s cancer is back. Gramp’s cancer is back. It’s back. As if throwing each truth in the face of a universe to complain about the unfairness of it all, not the unfairness of his own body and limited time, but the unfairness of this burden and limited time with his grandchildren had his lymph nodes not deflated his lifeline, the mess of sanitized hospitals and English speaking doctors and skipping work and the intensity of not knowing if he’d still be here tomorrow, this mess he had created for his children and grandchildren. He named this the unfairness of it all and blamed his own body. I’m just calling because I miss you gramps and I’m thinking of you.

Second time cancers meant that within one week of return, his white blood cells would drop enough for a home in the hospital where he needed strangers’ blood to stay through the protective circle his family built around him. We talked on the phone for three minutes that night, that rough defeated tree of a voice fragile enough to crack me, cracked me. I’m just calling to say I miss you and think of you a lot, which translates into please don’t leave me, this life isn’t over yet, as if, as if, as if he was already leaving us.

Second time cancers meant my all believing deeply persistent mom would finally say, Maybe one more month.

Cancers for the second time are quiet unforgivable battles fought only for the ones you love most and I know that he is going to fight, to persist, to reach far enough until he folds us into his arms, spooning our drunk love worries in his tree of a voice. For the incredible unfairness of it all, every time cancers keep us close together, huddled around our gramps to be near each other, to see each other.

This is not a second time. This is our time, always. This life is never over.

Written August 15, 2013