Today would have been my friend Carol’s birthday and we would have taken a long walk together up at Inspiration Point and then parted. Always sadly for she was battling breast cancer. This piece was written during one of her remissions. At the time she shared it with me, I thought it too tainted by anger because I really didn’t understand. I still don’t but it’s so beautifully written, I thought in honor of her birthday, it should be shared.
WHEN I TOLD MY FAMILY I had cancer, my Aunt Laney was the only one who wasn’t shocked. I was the healthy one of the family, the one who cycled up mountains, went trekking in strange places and ate my fruits and vegetables. But my aunt had had a dream.
“What was it?” I asked. She hesitated, then pronounced the word sick—carefully, as if it saying it aloud might choke her, and making me understand that in her dream, I had died.
Well, I did not want to say the dastardly word aloud anymore than she did. So we moved on, away from the word death in the superstitious way that cancer teaches; bumbling, stumbling and blathering our way toward anything that might offer safer ground. I was a rank newbie but learning fast—sorting through the lore, myth, statistics, options, and attitudes—still believing that I was somehow going to take charge of the situation. And stay positive!
In the following months I learned more. Much more. I was taught to look upon the results of deforming surgery as “my health,” then sent on my merry way to the chemo lounge, where I learned what it feels like to be systemically and methodically poisoned for a period of four months. These were brutal experiences that rendered me, on most days, psychically, spiritually, mentally, emotionally and physically helpless. Incapable of normal conversation, I rarely spoke to anyone but my husband (who couldn’t talk either) and a few select family members. On one of my good days, my aunt called to say she had been to a Cancer Walk, and had lit a candle for me. I pictured something tall, tapered and elegant, shedding light in the darkened alcove of a church with stained glass windows. I was just beginning to smell the incense when she explained that the Cancer Walk had been held at the local high school stadium of her small rural town, and that instead of flickering in a quiet alcove, the candles had lined a quarter mile track normally used for sports. There were thousands of them, each one burning inside a paper bag with someone’s name handwritten on it. On one of those bags—one among the thousands—my aunt had written my name.
After that, her sister, an ex-nun, recruited a whole convent of Dominicans to pray masses for me.
“Thank you,” I said to my Aunt. “Thank you so much.” At least I think that’s what I said. My mouth was dry and my mind, slipping in and out of the purple-y-pink muck of Chemo Land. If my brain had been working better, I might have said that candles represent hope, and that I was lucky to have a whole convent of nuns on my side. But the thick-tongued “thank you” was all I could muster.
Eventually, my fog-swamped brain became curious about the practice of lighting candles in paper bags and I went online to find out more. More is a pathetically inadequate word for the plethora of Cancer Walk websites and ceremonies you can find online. They are as ubiquitous as blockbuster movies, replete with colorful pictures and bizarrely festive narratives. Here’s how a Cancer Walk works: First you have the Survivors, walking around the track as best they can—hatted, handkerchief’d, wigged, bald, lash-less, brow-less and lucky to be alive. Next come family members and friends, supporting and applauding the courage and stamina of their Survivors. The grand finale is a ceremony of candles, each one set aflame within the confines of a white paper bag. The paper bags struck me as weird—and a serious a fire hazard, but then I figured they probably had some special Cancer Fire Trucks parked nearby, and far be it from me to spoil the jolly times.
However, then I learned that paper bags are “remembrances” of “those who had lost the battle,” people who were “no longer surviving”—which is to say, dead—and the jolly times were over.
Did my aunt know something I didn’t? Something I refused to admit? Because anyone can see that at a Cancer Walk, there are always a lot more paper bags than walkers. So maybe those masses had been Requiem Masses, and I was … now wait a minute … From somewhere in the murk of my drug-riddled body, a weedy little voice began to wail: I am not dead. Not dead. Please do not let me be dead.
Couldn’t they see how hard I was working at all this? Hadn’t they noticed all the things I had bargained off, trading body parts and abilities for the mere possibility of regaining my health? And now you’re going to tell me that I died anyway, so messed up on drugs that I didn’t even notice? No. Because if that’s the way it is, I can chuck this positive attitude in a millisecond, baby, and get rip roaring mad— volcanically angry in a way heretofore unexpressed by person, animal, thing, inanimate, living, dead.
[From here she goes into a rant about the medical establishment which I’m happy to share. It’s well researched but written in anger.]
People who have cancer live in a different world than those who do not. It is a Little Shop of Horrors that none of us ever intended to visit; the kind of place that renders us helplessness with statistics we cannot change, and sucks us into depressing forms of logic. If 40,000 women must die of breast cancer this year, and I pray to get well, am I asking another to die in my place?
And we know that when we die, we must be shushed from the minds of Survivors and cancer innocents alike. Because thinking about all those dead people—perhaps even imagining over a half million bodies in one big pile, converging in some gigantic encampment like penguins flocking to the South Pole in a massive act of death instead of mating—is not something anyone can sustain for very long.
Recently, though, I had to thank my aunt again. Because now that I made it through the treatments, thereby immediately qualifying myself for promotion to the status of Survivor, I realize that the candle and the masses were indeed remembrances. The old me—that energetic person with the athletic body and the fearless mind—is dead. I have no choice now but to bury her, grieve her and try to move on, to whatever destiny has in store for this new Survivor-me. She is a woman I do not yet know, or believe in. But I will give her everything I possibly can, and do my best with whatever she can give me in return.
So thank you, Aunt, for the masses and the candle—I understand that I am but a humble glimmer, one among millions, all hoping for the chance to live a healthy life. And I understand that, while my own experiences were horrible, others suffer more. Their souls visit me as I fall asleep; so debilitated, or so dead, they can no longer speak for themselves. I wrote this for them.
19 thoughts on “Paper Bags and Masses”
I’m sorry for your loss, Janet, but thanks so much for sharing this. It’s piercingly real and touching. One of my sisters-in-law had lymphoma and has two different sorts of treatments, one of which was chemo. It appears now that the cancer is gone but she’ll have two more treatments and is working on getting her white blood cell count back up. Another friend has a sister whose stomach cancer necessitated an almost complete removal of her stomach, while an blogger I know has cancer (no updates recently.) The struggle is real.
Thanks Janet! Carol was a complicated person but a loyal friend.
Thank you, Jan. As you say, so beautifully written. I’m so sorry for your tremendous loss.
It’s a fine essay. I can tell that she was a wonderful person.
Thank you. I do miss her.
A bitter sweet account of what so many have to cope with. So sorry for your loss….stay well💜💜
So many indeed. Take care Willow!
You too J.🍁🍁
So we moved on, away from the word death in the superstitious way that cancer teaches…
Oh god, how relatable this is, you have no idea.
Thank you for sharing, Jan. We remember our loved ones best when we talk about them or try seeing the world through their eyes.
Every person I’ve known who’s had to fight cancer has reacted differently. There’s no wrong or right way.
I guess not.
Jan, your friend seems to have been a beautiful person and she certainly articulated her thoughts beautifully. I am sorry you lost her. Thank you for publishing this sobering piece.
She was one of those people who packed a lot of action into every second and so being slowed down by anything brought out the tiger in her.
Hi Jan, I wonder if my mom felt angry during her treatment? If she did, she never showed it. She had 2 lots of chemo, Red Devil and Paclitaxel, as well as 19 months of treatments for the HR2 gene. She was resilient and determined during this period despite being 76 at the time. She does get very wound up before her annual checkups (I think I do too).
I’m sure she wanted to protect you. Anger is a natural response. I hope she gets to the point where the annual checkups aren’t so stressful.
Difficult to read, Jan, but important because of its naked humanity. Very sorry for your loss.
What a powerful essay, especially now knowing what ultimately happened. It’s professional quality–did she write for a living? Either way she must have been quite a woman to be friends with. You’re so fortunate to have known her and been her friend, especially in her hours of need.
Yes, she was a technical writer and researched and wrote many articles on ecology, genetics and many other scientific topics.