The other day, about to enter the women’s locker room (a too-irregular occurrence), having dropped off my younger son at preschool, a sign caught my eye: “Coffee Talk” Support Group for Women with Cancer. I notice the sign each time I pass by its little corner. It is well placed: seemingly innocuous, yet quite prominent, as women, many elderly, many with young children, shift from workout room foyer to swimming-pool-scented changing area. I absorb the sign’s content—attend to it, I would say—almost unconsciously. And in my memory the sign calls specifically for women with breast cancer.
But I have not had breast cancer; in this respect, I need no support. Finally, it occurred to me to wonder why, then, I look at the announcement as though it holds information I should retain. As though I need it—like some creased post-it list in my pocket—to remind me of something. The memory dominoes tumbled, and rather quickly I saw the trail.
My father’s mother died of breast cancer the year before I was born. Obviously, I never met her. I make a point of noting this, because, it seems to me, there are people in our lives who take on special meaning, who enlarge themselves, especially because we have not met them. I am thinking mostly of family members, those who perhaps we should have met, had a life taken what we consider its natural course.
Already my brain has flitted to the little groove, a tender spot in the back, where I wonder about my own boys and how they will know, how they will make sense of, their missing Granddad’s death. Much as I might try to protect them, to eventually educate and explain, they will have to come to their own comprehension, will have to make their own sense of it. This pains me, in a way remarkably like the original loss. I don’t want them to know…to know what I have known, have had to see or think about (suicide is not a pretty business). And yet, eventually, they will need to gain an understanding of what happened to my father, and it will be, in large part, my task to bring them to an acceptable place with it. A place, this word is too trite, that will shift and shift again; probably when they least expect it. (As it is unexpectedly doing for me right now.)
But back to this other loss, my grandmother, a loss not directly experienced by me and so more a source of romantic curiosity almost, rather than direct pain. (Perhaps this is in fact how my children will experience my father’s absence; though, even so, I fear it is more fraught.) Hildie, around whom there was not so much mystery as silence and a hint of idolatry, always intrigued me. My father was estranged from his father. My sister and I met him only once or twice—a fact that still stuns me when I encounter it again. And so I struck up a sporadic correspondence with Grandpa Harry around age eight or nine. He had very quickly remarried after his wife’s death, a source of contention for some of his four children, my father one of them. For different reasons, mention of each of his parents brought about a certain gruffness in my father. His mother’s absence pained him. His father’s presence, also a sort of absence, pained him too.
At some point, I counted back from my birth to my grandmother’s death and realized that I must have been conceived within weeks, perhaps even days, of her passing. I’m not especially superstitious; I don’t believe in reincarnation—although any reader here will have noted my fondness for coincidence, for a chance congruence of events—and so I did feel some sort of chill, a tingling wonderment at this timing. My parents did not explicitly decide to have a child when Hilda died; but it occurs to me now that my father could, in part, have been influenced by his mother’s illness. In any case, I sometimes do feel that there must be some part of her in me, more related to her absence than the obvious facts of genetics or heredity. Some part of her, sometimes even evident in an expression—is it the eyes?—hers, my father’s, mine?—lives on, within me. Relatives have remarked on this too.
For a while during my college years and into my twenties, and perhaps even into my early thirties (this time now seems distant, coming as it did pre-children—here I am again trying to integrate some younger self into my current self, as in my earlier post), I felt that I would at some point have to deal with breast cancer. That my breasts, my body, held it in-waiting. I’ve read enough accounts by children of breast cancer sufferers to understand that I am not unique in this sense of contagion; though perhaps the additional generation inserted between makes the feeling of foreboding rarer. It must have been sometime during my first pregnancy that this feeling lifted; and if a fraction of it still lingers, it is pushed aside by the knowledge that I have my children—they cannot be withheld by disease—and also that I, like many suicide survivors (friends and family of—see my post on synchronicity for explanation of this confusing term), have some propensity to anticipate the possibility of ill-tidings, a habit which takes on different tones for different people. At different times. Now, I think I fear little for myself, but more for what could happen to those I love. And yet I am aware of what resilience we hold in the face of the impossible. When the impossible happens, it soon becomes what is; and life goes on. Life goes on.