Told through a son’s eyes. Please, if you like this, and or think this site has some interesting/quality reads on it, please share. I’m going to just drop this whole professional/portfolio writer-looking-for-work thing soon and begin telling the truth, ugly though it may be. “Soon to be veteran career strategist!” my ass. I doubt I’d make it through certification, so I’ll delete that soon.
One thing is that I may not have long to live, due to a tragic series of events that currently has me stuck in Colombia. I’m not ready to share all of that yet. But here is one thing: my name is Jason Edward Harrington.You can search my Wikipedia page for more back story. I got a beautiful book deal with a major publisher in 2014, and I abandoned it when I realized I couldn’t write an autobiography at that age of 38. It’s a very, very long story, one that is currently put down into a new autobiography that now sits at 280 pages or so– the story of how I failed to write a conctractually obligated story. That’s why my name is HowiAbandoned: the name of my first and likely final book is “How I Abandoned a Book Deal, Ran to South America, Partied Away the Advance. And How You Can Do it Too!”
I’ve essentially been a man on the run for eight years now. I’m not ready to share the full, tragic, downward spiral that has been my life, just yet. But here is a very personal story that similarly reaches down into the depths of sadness and despair that the man behind this blog is truly experiencing every morning, day, and night. I only wanted to be a writer when I grew up, when I was a bright eyed, curly haired little brown boy. I hope you’ll help me reach readers, after all my failures.
JUST IN TIME FOR CHRISTMAS
JASON EDWARD HARRINGTON
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and it had always passed, I must confess, with little awareness on my part. I was aware of an abundance of pink ribbons—taped to front doors, printed on bumper stickers, tied around bike handlebars, pinned to people’s lapels. When, from my back porch, I would notice in the distant Chicago skyline the top of the John Hancock building bathed in pink light, I would think to myself, “It must be Breast Cancer Awareness Month,” with little perspective on the matter; with little sense of cause, or effect: the grass is green, the sky is blue, the top of the John Hancock building is pink. There was very little difference amongst these things for me, until the sky came falling down.
“I have breast cancer.”
My mother’s voice quavers before the end of the sentence, and I’m sure she’s been repeating the words to herself like a mantra for at least one full hour before dialing my number; steeling herself to make that sentence— to do it without betraying any fear in her voice— but she gets to that last word, and her voice goes tremolo. She gets to that last word, and I hold the phone away from me— I don’t drop it, it’s not quite like the movies. I just hold it away from me, and stare at it hard, sitting on the bus, at some stop— maybe mine, maybe not— glaring at the phone and thinking: I am going to destroy this black magical device currently recreating my mother’s distant, frightened voice— “Hello? Hello? Jason?”—I am going to send this harbinger of bad news into oblivion, maybe launch it, launch it into the…I look out the bus window: the grass is green, the top of the John Hancock building is pink, the sky is— I see the sky is blue, has the nerve to be blue, and finally I bring the phone to my ear.
“This is terrible” are the three words that I manage to gather. And I’m dimly aware of one thing, the first in a series: that I’ve just succeeded in stating the painfully obvious. Indeed, in the weeks since my mother’s diagnosis, I’ve become keenly aware of a few things.
I’ve become aware that full grown adults can become reduced to children when finding their loved ones caught in the path of cancer. Right after hanging up with Mom, I called my sister.
“Mom has cancer,” I told her, walking punch-drunk laps around my local liquor store’s aisles.
“Does not,” my 25 year old sister wittily retorts.
“Yes, she does,” I counter.
“No, she doesn’t,” she replies, in a voice at first only vaguely familiar, but then very familiar for a very obvious reason: it’s the voice of my sister, age 8, with that same soft tone of shyness, that same timidity of a little girl refuting, from beneath bed covers, the truth behind a bedtime ghost story.
“Heather. Bilateral mastectomy in one week. Chemo after that, then radiation. She has cancer, Heather.”
“Fine,” she surrenders, old enough to rent a car again.
“I’m going to deal with this, and you’re going to deal with this, too. You are not going to tear yourself down. And you are not going to drink your way through this.”
At that moment, somehow, it became real thing, acknowledged and confirmed by a second party, my sister, the person to whom I’d always been the closest. Have a Holly Jolly Christmas was playing over the store’s speakers at the moment when my mother‘s cancer became real, and I thought to myself, “just in time for Christmas.”
I’ve become aware that alcohol is a very unwise crutch to lean upon when dealing with a thing as serious as…well, this. This was a momentous realization to come to for a habitual alcohol and drug user. The first thing I did after winning the third grade debate with my sister was to settle on a cheap bottle of vodka and head for the liquor store’s counter. I had more than a few that night, more than usual, and I had more than a few the next few nights after that. Historically, whenever I’ve come up against something truly daunting in my life, I’ve drowned it in glass and aluminum containers. After the abrupt end of a five year relationship with an ex-girlfriend of mine, I drank no less than a twelve pack of beer a night, every night, for 2 years straight. Rows of beer cans lined up like refrigerated mortar rounds, the only way I’d ever known how to wage war against pain. The night before my mother’s bilateral mastectomy, just one week after the initial diagnosis, I came to the decision that I was going to face my mother’s cancer sober. There was no trip to see the man behind the liquor store counter that night, no anxiety meds, no sleeping pills, none of that: just me, a dreary mid- November day, and the terrifying, inescapable reality of what my mother and I were up against.
I sunk in my bed as soon as the sun went down, still hung over from the night before, feeling that suffocation which comes with problems that reach much deeper than an inconvenience; those problems that cannot be solved with a mere rearrangement of the trivial pieces of one of life’s day-to-day puzzles. Cancer is not a bill that you can pay. It is not a coworker you can ignore. It is not a stain that can be dry cleaned, or a garment that can be discarded. You close your eyes and wish you could free yourself from your Self; escape what it is you’re up against; like a child, squeeze your eyes shut and take the whole world with them— blink reality out, put everything on pause. Like all such things in life, there is often a moment in the morning when you first wake up, and for an instant, are free of some recently-installed black fact of your reality; the rude monster still lodged in the night before—out of sight, out of mind— but then, just as fast, the monster awakens, catches up to you, and you remember, with a sinking stomach, that it’s still there.
Lying there in bed, hung over and pining for a drink, I felt as though my head were being uncorked; as though something inside of me was being unthawed. Not the reality, but the implications of the reality, hit me that night— without alcohol as anesthesia, the pain of the implications was infinitely more profound. I could, sooner than later, find myself without a mother. Lying there in bed, I struggled not to let any of the hundreds of beautiful moments I’d shared with my mother be tainted by slow motion replay and a sappy movie score.
Lying there in bed, for the first time in a long time, I really cried.
I have become aware how painful, on many levels, it is for a woman to lose her breasts. My mother is a sweet woman of 65 years, mother of four, her eyes bad and her knees long ago gone out, even before the operation she was a woman who more than once had become mired in a sofa, or a recliner, and having done so, would ask for a hand only as a last resort.
“I’m getting old. Falling apart,” she would explain, apologetically, a little ashamed.
Walking into her hospital room for the first time, I saw what I knew I would see, what I’d dreaded to see: my mother, no longer just falling apart, but now ripped apart, lying in a bed that, to a son, might as well have been a butcher’s table. She’d been optimistic before the operation, as usual, even if only in appearance: always the doting mother, not wanting to be a bother, or a worry.
“I don’t need these things anymore, anyway,” she’d joked before the operation.
Now she was bleary-eyed, pale, shrouded in bandages. The optimism was gone. Now there was just a placid confusion in her eyes, drug-induced, most of it. Her voice barely there, trying to fight the morphine in order not to fall asleep, she mostly listened while I talked. I talked about going home, about having a drink when this was all over, about how it would be over, soon— we would beat cancer. I didn’t fully believe those words. I couldn’t believe them, seeing her like that. But I said them anyway. And it was only when she noticed my gaze sink furtively down to her chest, to the two bandaged pouches of purple and red flesh, that she seemed to awaken from her stupor.
“They’re gone,” was all she said.
She cupped her hand over her mouth then, and it seemed to me that she was, curiously, trying to stifle the pronouncement already made. But then, for the first time in a long time, it was my mother who was crying, sobbing, behind the cup of her hand.
“They served you well, Mom,” was all I could think to say, idiotically, as though I were a general addressing the mother of two fallen war heroes.
“They fed all four of us,” I continued, desperately scrambling to provide both solace as well as, I suppose, an impassioned case for a Purple Heart.
“Just you,” she corrected me, wiping at her eyes. Until then, I’d never known that I was the only one of my three brothers and sisters who had been breastfed. It seemed fitting right then, perhaps on some Freudian level, that I was the kid who seemed to be taking this all the hardest.
I have become aware that hospitals only do so much, and doctors only know so much. When my mother found the nickel-sized lump on her breast, she thought it was nothing; it felt like a marshmallow, soft, not hard like she’d always assumed a tumor would feel. But given the history of cancer in our family, she went to her doctor, who referred her to another doctor, who referred her to a general surgeon, who assured her that there was a 99 percent chance that the lump was just a “step off” from the breast tissue to the chest wall. “Just a ridge,” as the general surgeon called it, “nothing at all.” Looking at my mother lying in her hospital bed, two breasts and 14 lymph nodes gone (lymph nodes to which three the cancer had already spread) it seemed to me that a 1 percent chance had gone a long way. My mother, my sister and I were waiting for the nurse who had promised to bring a wheelchair right away— 45 minutes before. I’ve discovered that there are a lot of waiting and false assurances when it comes to hospitals— or at least the one my mother was in. Being that my mother is of the passive temperament, and I the same, we were lucky to have my sister on our side, all five foot eight fiery inches of her. Not much more than 24 hours after her surgery, the hospital was trying to send my mother home. My mother wasn’t ready to go home; she hadn’t even gotten out of bed yet, and the nurses at the hospital had done little in the way of providing assistance.
“She ain’t going nowhere until you people start doing your jobs,” my sister coolly informed the staff.
After that, they were a little more attentive. Although I wouldn’t have wanted to be on the receiving end of my sister’s scowl when she finally hunted down that wheelchair herself.
There are the delicate inquiries of my younger nieces, calling to ask how Grandma is doing, and then shyly moving on to The Question- the fear in their voices thinly veiled— asking about the results of the genetic testing. “Are we all fated for cancer?” is the underlying question the family quietly asks, not wanting to appear selfish for asking it, but asking it nonetheless.
There is the reality of the inevitable parent-child role reversal having finally arrived, like a change of drivers in a speeding car. One of the first nights home with my mother, she noted that it was about dinner time. We sat there for a few awkward moments, like two actors in a play who had forgotten their lines. But then, I remembered my new role.
“Hope you don’t mind chicken and macaroni and cheese,” I said, heading bravely for the kitchen, “because it’s about the only thing I know how to cook.” Another night, I realized that she was fighting her much-needed sleep to stay up late to talk to me. “Time to get your butt to bed,” I told her, half in jest, echoing the same call-to-bedtime she had used on me when I was little.
Being that we live 60 miles apart— myself in Chicago, and she in rural Illinois, where cell phone service is spotty— my mother, for the first time, began teaching herself to text message in the days following her delivery of the bad news. She learned fast and adorably. It seemed as though the texts appearing on my cell phone’s screen were coming from a teenage girl, instead of from a 65 year old woman. I began receiving “lol”s and “ttyl”s, “omg”s and “gtg”s. And, though I knew there was likely great pain behind them, there even appeared the occasional:
I’ve become aware that before cancer I had not been as close to my mother as I should have been. Sitting with her while she recovered from surgery, I opened up and talked to my mother— really talked to her—for the first time in a while, not so much like mother and son, but more like two friends. I talked to her about girls, about nights out with the boys, about the things that I feared most. Timidly, I asked her if she was afraid of death, mostly to see where she was, psychologically, but also secretly—and selfishly—to mentally file for myself an example; a point of reference for when the day came that I, too, found myself staring into the swirling inevitability. She’d been through so much up to that point, she told me, that the possibility of her own death stirred within her little fear. She answered so coolly, so matter-of-fact— as though I’d only asked what kind of dressing she preferred on her salad—that I knew she meant it, at least right then. In the face of it all, she stood courageous, and at that moment I was prouder of her than I’d ever been before.
The most miraculous thing I’ve become aware of is this: there is actually some good that can come from cancer. Lying in my bed the night before her surgery, after the tears had dried, a calmness settled over me, and I realized, in one of those beautiful epiphanies, that I didn’t have to be scared. If given the chance, the mind finds ways to cope with misfortune; its ability to find meaning amidst chaos is uncanny. The answer came to me that night, and I immediately texted Mom:
“Guess what I just realized? We’re going to be fine. We’re going to be closer than ever now, as close as we always should have been. We’re okay now, and we’ll always be okay. Nothing can change that, no matter what happens. If anyone is guaranteed to be healthy through this, paradoxically, it’s us. And I’m not scared anymore.”
The first reply came five minutes later:
Followed by a second, five minutes later:
“Now get your butt to bed :-)”
2 thoughts on “The Story of my Mother’s Breast Cancer Battle. And the True Birth of this Blog– Confession Time Starts (Please Read Opening– Important)”
This is such a powerful story. Thank you for sharing it.
Thank you so much Liz! I’ve been completely failing at noticing when people comment, hence not approving comments. I’m definitely going to change settings to “Don’t have to approve comments before they’re posted” because, well, fuck it. I’d rather have everyone’s comments see the light of day, even trolls, than to have 1 kind soul left feeling as though I just ignored them. Other news: check this site Friday afternoon/all weekend. I’ll be posting a piece I co-worked on for OVER A MONTH straight, with a much-bigger-deal of a blogger :). It’s my baby. Sorry if I just replied twice.