Time flies. It has now been two and a half years. According her doctors, my sister should have already died from the breast cancer that, after radiation, a double mastectomy, and five years of clean tests, metastasized throughout her body. In their professional opinion, even with aggressive chemotherapy, Leah only had three months left.
When I came to visit a few weeks after the big news, I stayed with my parents. My mom had been unable to stop crying since the diagnosis. “But she worked so hard,” she kept repeating, as if a productive career was protection from this fate. Meanwhile, my dad praised Leah’s toughness – “She hasn’t shed a tear.”
I found both of their responses baffling, but that’s par for the course. Literally. The only things my dad cares about are golf and real estate. At least, that’s the conclusion one would arrive at based on any and all conversations with him. On our last visit, my husband had run a little experiment by telling my dad something about me or us, and then observing how quickly my dad turned the conversation back to himself. After an entire dinner of this (my dad never clued in, or allowed the conversation to proceed in a direction that did not center upon him), I could only laugh, and cry. My husband told me, “It makes perfect sense. You grew up not believing you mattered because he only talks about himself.”
But on this trip, I was alone. My parents were obviously suffering. I hadn’t seen Leah yet, but we got a call that her husband had just taken her back to the hospital. Many things were bungled during her last operation, so now she had a punctured lung on top of everything else. A port used to drain excess lymph kept getting infected. Cancer and chemo were competing so see which could cause the most suffering.
Holding the phone between them so they could both hear Leah’s husband give the latest details on Leah’s misery, my mom listed like the Tower of Pisa. Her legs were still holding her up, but her upper body seemed like it was ready to give up and concede defeat to gravity. After hanging up the phone, my parents went downstairs to watch the news. Soon, I heard their voices rise.
“Just put it on the towel bar.”
“We don’t have a towel bar. I wanted a towel bar, but you said there wasn’t room.”
“So put it on the towel hook, then.”
“The towels never dry on the hook. They stay wet. We need a towel bar.”
“Goddamnit, Janet, there isn’t room for a towel bar!”
I had not flown a thousand miles to spend the last days of my sister’s life arguing about a towel rack. I went downstairs and insisted my parents stop. “This isn’t about the towel rack. Stop. Arguing.”
Mom blinked at me, tears running down her face. Dad continued yelling.
“You don’t know what I have to deal with! She has been pestering me about that towel rack for years! There isn’t room for a towel rack!”
“I know, Dad. I know she pushes your buttons, because she is hurting. You are hurting. Everyone is hurting. So stop. You need to stop. You’re making it worse.”
“How dare you come into my house and tell me what to do! You show up here at the last minute and pretend to know!” He gritted his teeth, narrowed his eyes, and pointed his finger in my face. “I have known Leah since 1970. You don’t have any idea what it is like.”
Although beside the point, it is necessary to explain why he’d declare how long he’d know Leah as if he’d won a contest: Leah is not my father’s biological daughter. He married my mom when she was a divorcee raising four girls under age 12 on her own. Neither my older brother or I existed in 1970, so while I could feel the full force of his pain and anger, it blew right past me without drawing blood. His world, the angry world that confined my childhood, isn’t mine anymore.
He stormed off. I went to bed, but didn’t sleep much, and left early the next morning for yoga. Beginning my practice, I took note of my breath. Ragged. Shallow. Powerless.
It feels almost too stupid to say, it is so obvious, but it’s the truth. In a shaky down dog, breathing enough to live but not enough to thrive, I realize “I have control over this.”
This breath. My breath. I can work with this. Focusing only on making my breath even and smooth, I finished my practice stronger than when I started.
I made dinner for my parents that night. As we ate, my dad told me I was never to speak to him that way again. My voice was calm as I told him, no, I am a person with ideas of her own and I would continue to speak my mind.
Something was moving at the edge of my vision. Oh, it was my fork. My fork was shaking, because my hand was shaking, because as an adult woman I had to explain to my father that I have a right to speak my mind, even if it doesn’t please him.
Mom stared, wide eyed, lips trembling.
Today my yoga teacher told our class about the illnesses members of her family are facing, including her father, and encouraged us to keep practicing, even if she can’t find someone to fill in for her. To remember it is our practice, and to be grateful for the love in our lives, because we never know when our time might be up.
It was a moving talk. Inspiring. But I found myself feeling guilty afterwards. The dictator I’ve internalized would have me believe that I’m a failure for not conforming to the party line. That it is disloyal to put my needs, even the needs of my mother and other family members, ahead of the needs of my father’s delicate, raging ego.
That is fucking insane.
It’s funny how the truth evaporates guilt, and scary how the truth can be completely obscured by fear. Dissent is patriotic. Don’t forget it.