On a Thursday not too long ago, I was pulling into the parking lot at my eye doctor and my phone rang. Usually I ignore calls that come in close to an appointment, but this one I took. When I heard who was calling me, I knew why. You have melanoma. You’ll need surgery immediately. Your surgeon will talk to you about next steps. Cancer.
I knew about melanoma, had suspected for months that the spot just below my ankle at the bony place on the side of my heel was melanoma, but to hear the words out loud was another matter. Melanoma kills people.
That night I Skype-messaged my son Nathaniel. We haven’t talked by webcam for a long time. Can we set that up tomorrow? You and Serena?
I had to tell them face to face, or as face to face as I can get from 3000 miles away. I needed them to see my face. I needed to see theirs.
Nathaniel and Serena gathered the next day, squeezing in together and elbowing each other a bit. Serena made goofy faces for the camera and I saw her new glasses for the first time, red frames over golden brown eyes. Nathaniel panned the camera around the room and showed me the changes he had made to the furniture since the last time I had seen it.
I wanted to put it off, to keep them in a bubble suspended by time or possibility. But I had to tell them. Growing up, I was always the last to know about important things going on in the family (Your mother and I are getting divorced) and I knew I couldn’t do that to my own kids. Even from 3000 miles away, I needed to include them in my experience, whatever that was.
So I told them. I have cancer. I told them what melanoma was, what the three types of skin cancer are and what the possibilities were. I told them what I knew of to expect (furious researching the day before told me I faced surgery at the very least, a lymph node biopsy, and possibly some treatments that nobody seemed to agree on except to say the side effects are unpleasant and not always effective) and how I felt. I let them ask questions. My daughter’s only previous brush with cancer was of the mom in a school family from her kindergarten year. A mom who died. I had to lay her fears at rest. Are you going to die? No. I could justify the no because if it came to that we’d be talking about it long before it happened.
Then we hung up. And then I cried.
Since then, we’ve talked many times. Serena, 10, always asks if I’m feeling better. In her world, this stuff goes away like a cold or sore throat. But we talked before the surgery and after. We have talked about possibilities and how they feel.
And life goes back to normal. Life-with-cancer isn’t that much different, at least for them. They don’t see the machine hooked up to the 3-inch wide hole in my foot so it can heal enough to take a skin graft. They don’t see the little pharmacy that has grown atop my kitchen counter. They don’t see me walking with a cane. They don’t see the pain.
But we are closer, even with the miles apart. One life is finite. Here is where I give them every part of me, even at a distance. They walk this road with me, and we all grow because of it. Cancer is no big deal in the grand scheme of the universe. One life is very much a big deal. And to my children, I am a constant structure, part of their eternal landscape. We’ll walk through this, and on to the other side.
[Photo: Karen Murphy, 2008]