Left Short of Words: When Cancer Hits Home Away from Home

25 Aug

My mom and I

I’ve written about the many struggles that I have faced in my two years in South America. Whether it was setting up a bank account in Ecuador, my bus getting hijacked in the middle of the night, dealing with death overseas, or trying to get dual citizenship, it obviously hasn’t been a completely easy ride. Unfortunately, I now have another hurdle to add to the mix, only this one won’t go away any time soon, and by comparison all of the others are just faint complaints next to a real problem.

Yesterday at work I got a short and cryptic email from my dad saying, “We need to Skype tonight.” Even though he was avoiding trying to say it through an email, the less-than-subtle delivery immediately alerted me to the fact that something was wrong. My brain dug through possibilities faster than I could will it, and like white hot light I knew what it was. My mom had gone for a biopsy a couple of weeks ago, and this had to somehow be related. My heart rate quickened, palms became moist, and my breathing heavy and laborious. I thought about what I could do, but with two hours left until the end of the day, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to focus on a single thing until I knew.

I never call the United States, so most of the numbers I once knew are now forgotten. I tried my dad’s cell phone and as usual he didn’t pick up, so next I tried my sister but got my friend’s voicemail. I tried another number and got my sister, who was surprised to hear from me. I’ve never called her from South America, though we talk through the Internet. I asked her and she hadn’t heard anything, which put me a bit more at ease. But a few minutes later I got simultaneous emails from her and my dad, both essentially confirming that yes, my mom had been diagnosed with breast cancer.

I put my head in my hands for a moment as I felt my face flush. My hands were shaking uncontrollably and I was sweating through my undershirt and thick button down. I got up to the bathroom to throw some water on my face, then walked downstairs for a couple of minutes to get air. There was nothing I could do, so far away from home and in the position that I’m in. It’s such a surreal feeling that I don’t exactly know what to do. Cancer is all around, and on a long enough time line something like 1/3 of people are probably likely to get it in some form. My sister had Leukemia when she was a kid, and other family members have had it. But I don’t remember my sister having it because I was just a baby, and something about it being my mother just makes it so much more of a shock than an older great uncle. I feel like I could handle it better if it were me, rather than her. She’s the last person who deserves this awful illness.

Walking home quickly to jump on the computer, I wanted to push anyone who got in my way on the sidewalk. I was in no mood to talk to the doorman, who I usually chat with for a couple of minutes before heading up. I was surprised at how relatively calm my parents seemed, and if there’s a silver lining in this it’s that they caught it early. She’ll have surgery in a couple of weeks, get radiation treatment for a little over a month, and then take some pill for five years. And hopefully that will be the end of it.

I’ve written before about a friend of mine who’s brother died from Swine Flu. She had been with me in Ecuador, and I wondered how it would affect the retrospective on time spent abroad to know that you were missing out on time with loved ones. I hope it doesn’t come to that, but I do feel horribly out of place here and useless suddenly. I can’t do much at home since I’m far from a doctor, not to mention I’m out of vacation time and a round trip flight to the U.S. isn’t really in my budget at the moment. Just making it to the end of the month is a struggle. And it makes me feel like a horrible son for being so far away, and for every fight we’ve ever had or for any email I never responded to, or for missing out on a Sunday night Skype call. And for not being able to hug her right now.

Today was another tough day where I could barely focus on my tasks and everything else was just background noise. Maybe what makes it worse is that there’s been no one for me to really talk about it with, and only towards the end of the day after prodding from my co-worker, I told him what was up. But as my mom told me last night, she wants me to keep doing what I’m doing, eating, drinking, and being merry. Life has to go on. Considering all she’s wanted since Day 1 was for me to come home, I’ll take that as a sign that things should go on normally. And hopefully in a few weeks there will be better news to give.

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2 Responses to “Left Short of Words: When Cancer Hits Home Away from Home”

  1. Adam August 27, 2010 at 1:03 pm #

    Oh wow, Toni, sorry to hear this news. I wish you and your family the best.

    • Jon August 27, 2010 at 8:21 pm #

      Thanks Adam. It’s been a tough week but I’m doing better. We’ll talk soon.

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