Cancer in the family

(THE PICKET) –  I was driving to visit my parents in Arlington when they called me. They said I’d need to take a detour to the hospital – my cousin, John-Michael, had leukemia.

It had been a long time since I’d seen a family member in the hospital, not since my Granny Plitt died of a stroke in 2005. If there is any silver lining to be found in someone becoming gravely ill, it’s the opportunity to become closer, to further develop your relationship with family and friends.

As I walked through the sterile halls of the hospital to visit John-Michael I thought back to my visits with Granny Plitt. Back then I was a Christian; now I am an atheist, much has changed since then. I remember taking solace in religious teachings, the belief in a hereafter, the assumption that everything has meaning and purpose, a perfect world created and maintained by a perfect God. We bonded over faith, I recall reading her the Bible during my visits to the hospital, I wanted to go more often than I got the chance, it’s difficult being young and lacking the autonomy to go where you please.

The very first visit to the hospital I’d wanted to see her but my parents were concerned that the sight of her, a loved one sustained by machinery, and unresponsive, would be unsuitable for children. I’d still wanted to see her, but I wouldn’t get the chance until she’d recovered a bit.

The stroke had left her mostly paralyzed though she recovered a bit of functionality over time – eventually becoming capable of some limited movement on half of her body. I don’t recall which half.

The specifics of her condition would be more interesting to me now, with my current interest in biopsychology.

What I do remember, is how nice it was to finally see some expression on her face when we visited. After a few visits talking to someone whose mental state had no connection to her body, the proverbial brain in a vat, simply seeing a half-smile meant a great deal to those who loved her.

I loved my Granny Plitt dearly, but I suppose I didn’t realize just how much I cared for her until we realized she wouldn’t be around for much longer.

Granny Plitt was a strong woman, one of those rare individuals who hold high standards for themselves, while empathizing and caring for the less spirited around her. In World War II, she and her husband served as missionaries to China, the rest of her life was dedicated to volunteerism and her family.

By the time I was toddler, she was in her eighties, and had lived a full life. Still, she would play basketball on my Fisher-Price set, running around with an energetic toddler through a small condo. After a challenging life, working tirelessly to make the world a better place, she’d still take the time to connect with her young great grandchildren. She was never critical, looking at myself now I realize how truly spoiled I’ve been, but she was the type of person who took any hardship seriously: even the meager trials and tribulations of a spoiled young child.

She’s been gone for 10 years now. In the interim, I’ve grown into a different person than could be predicted by my Christian upbringing. I’ve spent a great deal of time considering the nature of happiness, death, and suffering—the works of Nietzsche, Camus, Sartre, H.H. the Dalai Lama, and Confucius are among the most beloved pieces adorning my bookshelf.

Now I had the chance to confront a family member’s illness in the absence of God, where any reference to a well-meaning deity would be insincere, as someone who can’t say “I’ll pray for you,” I wasn’t quite sure what I would say to him.

We entered the room and were greeted by my aunt and uncle. A young man from the company where John-Michael worked was there too. And John-Michael looked just the same as the last time I’d seen him however many years ago.

I’d expected the atmosphere to be a bit more solemn than it was, in truth everyone was in fairly high spirits: John-Michael hadn’t lost his sense of humor. After he finished talking to his friend and my dad, who works at the same company – Accenture, about work-related issues, we all sat down to talk.

Excepting a few brief discussions about chemo, the conversation was similar to any other family gathering. We talked and laughed for an hour or so.

The normality of the routine family discussion sharply contrasted with the sterile environment of the hospital. The walls were plain, the tile floors banal, and the furniture dull: a room made for no one in particular, ill-suited for anyone with personality and a pulse. And yet, the conversation was congenial, personalized, just as it would be in my grandparent’s house for a holiday get-together.

We caught up on each other’s lives, all the goings-on since last we met. There were jokes, a few obligatory nods to my deterministic atheist outlook (Jokingly asking me to say grace for holidays has almost become a family tradition), some funny comments by John-Michael, standard fare—forgettable conversations in which the company is more valued than the content. And then we left.

Over the next few weeks I tried to stay in touch, messaging John-Michael over Facebook whenever I found myself with some free time, or as an excuse to avoid work. I contacted his girlfriend, Hannah, as well to make sure she was doing okay, and to reach out.

Hannah and I had gone to the same school, at the same grade-level, but hardly knew each other save for our connection through John-Michael. We talked about philosophy briefly, and the importance of changing one’s mindset when circumstances cannot be improved: she noted that I have a lot in common with John-Michael, and thanked me for keeping in touch, saying it meant a lot to him.

In our conversations, John-Michael and I discussed philosophy and religion. I tried to remember the different philosophers I’d read who discuss happiness and suffering. We talked about the opportunities that suffering provides in developing a new perspective on life, strengthening relationships with friends and family, and building mental fortitude. Occasionally I’d ask how treatment was going. More often, I’d just share some funny videos if I found any online.

I asked John-Michael if he wouldn’t mind my publishing an article about his experiences, and my own, for the school paper. Sure, he said, under the conditions that I omit any embarrassing details of the treatments, and write that chemo has given him super powers, something like—cancer gave John-Michael super-powers, like Deadpool but better, he sneaks out of the hospital at night to mete out vigilante justice on the mean streets of Northern Virginia—is the best I can think of.

As I write this article I see that John-Michael is beginning his second round of chemo, a running list of motivational comments and links on his Facebook wall—lots of religious sayings, prayers, and comforting Bible passages—but that isn’t a part of my world now. I’ve found my own niche within a larger ecosystem of social supporters—a different role, under different circumstances, than the one I once held.

I was unsure what I’d say to John-Michael, but now I’m rethinking that question: I’ll never find the perfect words. I said the words that only I could have said. Others offered their own perspectives, religious or otherwise. Whether my own role was more or less helpful than the religious one, I can’t say, but no one can play me better than I can—I’ll leave the other roles to those better suited to it.

1 Comment Posted

  1. Ah, there’s a typo–Granny Plitt is my great grandmother, but I’d put grandchildren when referring to my relationship to her: it should be great-grandchildren, apologies

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