By TINA V. CABRERA
Death is our friend...Life always says Yes and No simultaneously. Death (I implore you to believe) is the true Yea-sayer. It stands before eternity and says only: Yes.
This defense of death by Rilke still holds a strange power over me, with its aphoristic quality. Perhaps these words resonate--despite bordering on the cliché--because of their inevitability. Life will give you mixed signals, frustrate you with its ambivalence--yes, you can count on me for anything but just now I am in over my head. Yet like a loyal friend death offers an eternal bond, says yes and follows through. In the face of forever, Death reaches out to hold you by the hand. I would like to believe Rilke’s conviction and follow its lead un-fearfully. I try to resign myself to the eventuality of death but time and time again, I am haunted by its lengthy list of strategies.
My mother was diagnosed with uterine cancer in 1996. Her doctor described the type as "very rare" (only 5% of women diagnosed with uterine cancer get this aggressive kind). She died within two years of diagnosis. I was nearly 30 at the time, deep into adulthood, but felt like a child who loses her mother too early. She had often asked while she still had strength Why me? I’ve never smoked or drank. She wanted to see the turn of the century (2000) but would miss that and so many other things.
Into my mid-thirties, I was told that my sisters and I had a 50/50 chance of getting uterine cancer because it is often hereditary. My doctor offered a drastic option in the face of such a high risk: undergo a hysterectomy. Her advice sounded practical and sound: If I submitted to this surgery, then I would decrease my chances of getting uterine cancer down to zero. I didn’t want children anyway. But a hysterectomy seemed a drastic step for someone in her 30’s with healthy reproductive organs. So I set the idea aside for the time being.
Find me at age 45 with my current gynecologist proposing the same thing--a total hysterectomy leaving me with just my ovaries. She bases her recommendation on a pre-cancer screening that identifies my chances of acquiring cancers of all types. I’m given a computer-generated calculation of my risks in the form of percentages, mutation probabilities. Colorectal (AKA colon) cancer leads at a lifetime chance of 4%, followed by Endometrial (otherwise known as Uterine), which, at a lifetime chance of 4%, ranks second. Ovarian cancer shows up, but only at a miniscule .8%. Worry about that later.
The doctor circled these particular cancer risks in blue pen ink along with something called "Chen," the explanation of which escapes me. So with absolute conviction that I still didn’t want children, I submitted.
I felt justified in what seemed a drastic measure when my doctor found extensive Endometriosis in my uterus and the surrounding area. Some doctors claim that Endometriosis may lead to cancer of the uterus, or at least heighten the risk. Uterine cancer scratched off the list. Still, taking concrete action did not absolutely absolve my fears.
My family’s history with cancer is extensive: Several years ago my oldest brother acquired testicular cancer in his early 30’s, left with one testicle after surgery; two of my cousins currently have breast cancer, one of them having survived uterine cancer a few years before her breast cancer diagnosis. The most recent case does the most to dishearten, sadden, and daunt me.
My sister was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer last November and died the following February. She never smoked a cigarette in her life. Yet I did on and off for years. In fact, when she heard I had picked up the habit during my study abroad in Wales, she called our father and asked why I was smoking and pressured him to say something to get me to stop. What shocked me was not so much that my sister died of cancer, but the type of cancer she got and the age at which she died. She was 48, ten years younger than my mother was when she died.
It didn’t take long for me to remember, even though it was at least a decade ago. I remembered the spot on my lung the doctors had found accidentally. I had gone into the emergency room for severe cramping on my right side. When the ER doctor couldn’t find what was causing such intense pain, he ran a CT scan, which revealed a cyst had burst in my ovary. The scan also picked up a spot on my lung. When I was sent to a lung specialist, he measured the spot as very tiny, but advised me to come back in 5 months to measure any growth. I never did go back. In the interim, I had lost my insurance and simply forgot.
When my sister died from lung cancer, something told me--a whisper--that I was the one who deserved it. Not her. She never smoked and out of concern didn’t want me to either. I deserved it for my negligence and poor life choice. But I didn’t wish to die, whether by this means or another. So I complied with my new doctor’s orders to have x-rays done when I told her of my past. She said I ought to get my lungs checked, with the strong history of cancer, and with my sister’s death. The technician found nothing.
Death by other means. Colon cancer. For several months prior to my surgery, I suffered from increasing stomach troubles, sometimes up to six bowel movements in one day, so that I considered submitting to a second colonoscopy (I had one a decade ago which came out negative for cancer). I decided to hold off, maybe because my share of the cost would be hefty, maybe because I feared what they would tell me. Then I started having headaches two weeks after surgery on the back of my head, on the left. I researched the Internet. Headaches confined to one location could mean a brain tumor. Or a sign of hormone changes, fibromyalgia, or chewing too much gum. My sister had been suffering headaches, I learned from other family members, for something like five months before her terminal diagnosis. The frequency and intensity of her headaches worsened until they happened daily.
Soon after my hysterectomy, when I had fully awoken, the nurse took me for a walk. With the monitor still attached to my I.V., I couldn’t help but think of my sister doing the same exact thing, shuffling down the slick shiny floor of the I.C.U. with only part of her mind functioning. My father and I took the short walk with her. The doctors said she had over 30 cancerous lesions in her brain. My mind functioned just fine as I walked the hospital hallway. My mind, in fact, over-functions.
Here I am trying to trace my relationship with Death, the inevitable 'friend.' In order to do so, I need to reach into the past. Unfortunate, for I’d much rather let the past go. But to change the dynamic I have with Death, this conflicted dimension that has me in an anxious grip, I must understand our personal history, its hold.
Like everyone else, memories visit my mind either unannounced or by beckoning. I describe them the only way I know how--through narrative strategy. I try to create order out of the menagerie, tame them into a coherent story.
I’m five or six years old. I pause on my way to play our electric organ in the patio and see a powdery substance on the floor. I stoop forward, swipe some onto my fingers, and lick. The pale yellow powder tastes bitter, the way I imagine my mother’s musky perfume might taste. I cough, clutch my throat and wander back into the kitchen. I find myself in the living room instead, Mama and Papa lounging in their respective reclining chairs.
I tell them what happened. I swallowed something I found on the floor. Maybe straw candy sold at 7-11, the ones with different flavored powders you could shake onto your palm and lick up, or shake directly into your mouth. But no, what I tasted, tasted bitter, not at all sweet or tangy. Am I going to die?
Death had been this elusive ghostly thing in fairy tales and fables or cartoons on TV. Catch a glimpse--Sleeping Beauty looks dead, but she isn’t really, she’s only sleeping--and with one kiss, love rather than death becomes the wish. I imagine the logic behind the masking of death, the veneer: Childhood is fleeting and brief, so let the children savor those few years of security and tranquility. When I thought I might die from poisoning, death became nearly real. I realized that I could die, and if I could die so young, so could Mama and Papa, my mother and father. They were, after all, so old. I don’t remember them giving me a lecture on death, or answering my question will I die at all. Instead, all I remember is the tangible, not allusive words, that Mama gave me my favorite dessert, a Hostess Ding-Dong. Washed down with a tall glass of water. Death had turned real for this little girl. But having been fed doctrines of life after death in addition to cartoon heaven, I was still not fully cognizant of what death would really mean in its actuality. For the time being I put those fears behind me.
For a time, Death continued to exist the way the sun and moon did, or the ocean tide; each did its thing with or without my acknowledgment. It existed the way going to sleep at night and waking up at daylight was a habit that never demanded much thought or contemplation. I could see my future stretch forward like a never-ending road, with so many possibilities along the way. That quiet exuberance always present in my youth, bubbling over. Though I cannot remember with close detail all that I would like of those early childhood years, I relish the overall sense of excitement and wonder, how it kept me afloat even during the most difficult times.
My parents didn’t spank me when I was little, but they did spank my older siblings. My mother was the main disciplinarian. Her awful temper often led to her grabbing anything within reach--a vacuum piece or shoe, or belt--and whack it on the exposed leg or arm of my sisters. Then when alone in bed, I’d replay the scene in my head and imagine what it would be like to be spanked, crying so hard that I’d tremble and choke on my own tears. Then I’d stare blindly at the ceiling and imagine my own funeral, predicting who would attend, what they would be thinking, what they would say about me. All those who took me for granted would feel real sorry and it would be too late. I imagined the way in which my family and friends would react to seeing my body in the coffin, down to the detail of how I would be dressed. But if death was really the end, how would I be able to see all of this? Maybe I would still be around in some form or another to observe discreetly? Death just didn’t seem like the real end.
From the time my mother had been baptized as a Jehovah’s Witness, I had been taught that when you die you are truly dead, no longer able to think, to move, to live in this world. But death was not something to fear, for you had the promise of the resurrection, where you and all the faithful would arise again, in the same human form. Some would arise as spirits, but my destiny, I was told, was of the earthly kind.
As I grew older, death became more manifest. I’d catch glimpses on the television news that my parents would watch before dinner. They couldn’t forever hide from me the reality of people dying, church members and members of their extended family.
One time, in my teen years, when I hadn’t yet lost anyone close to me in death, the old fear returned to me--what if Mama or Papa were to die sometime soon, through some illness or accident? The proposition aroused a melancholic curiosity. What if Mama gets cancer, I wondered, like the series of people in our religion, mostly women, who had died of cancer. Blossom, the wife of one of the elders in our congregation; the Filipino mother of two young belligerent sons; another Filipino woman, whose daughter had run away when she got sick, then committed suicide not long after. Yes, by now I had been exposed to the fruits of death, though just by word of mouth. The word cancer took on the sound of a plague that one could catch.
In a kind of delirium, I imagined my mother’s funeral, not the color of the coffin or the dress she’d be wearing, but all the people who would be there, what they would say about her, what they would say to me. They’d feel sorry for me, losing my mother while so young. I’d be deeply grieving, yes. But what would it be like without Mama around to restrict me in her overbearing way? My conscience immediately kicked in when my imaginings took this turn, free form daydreaming reaching its limit, and I felt like a bad person for even considering the possibility. Yes, I wanted the burden of her possessiveness to end, but like this? I could not know at the time that this thought would be a kind of premonition, for a few years later she would be diagnosed with uterine cancer and die from it so quickly.
When the doctor said straight to her face while she sat limp in the wheelchair, "You will die from this," her mouth opened and her eyes filled with tears. I wish I could say what I felt the moment I witnessed this scene, but I can’t. Enraged at the doctor for his thoughtlessness? Complete lack of tact? Frustration? Numbness? Sometime later when I pondered on the reality of the situation, and how the doctor wouldn’t say this unless he really knew she couldn’t survive, I felt trapped between a nightmare and a daydream, part of me resisting the death sentence, another immersed in the future of tomorrow--life without my mother. And when she told me the day before she died, "Now you can party all you want," her words cut so deeply that I wished to be the one to die, for hadn’t I quietly imagined this scenario, hadn’t I practically wished something would happen to remove her restraints?
The little girl, dressed for school, reaches down and touches the dark brown goo on the carpet. When she sniffs her fingers, the odor makes her wince. Her eyes water from the stench. She stands dumbstruck as if participating in an impossible dream. Unthinkingly, she rubs her fingers together so that her hand is mired in the waste now. She walks toward the kitchen, its fluorescent light like a beacon in comparison to murkiness of the room she’s now in, which her family calls 'sala' in their native tongue, the living room. The walls are covered in dark brown panel, fashionable in the 70’s. The China Cabinet, imported from Japan, is also of a dark brown hue, as is the sundial clock hanging above it. The fireplace is decorated with gray stones, and the windows are heavily draped with maroon curtains, that are kept closed all night and rarely opened even during the day. The two crystal ball shaped lamps hanging from the ceiling on each end of the windows give off a dim orange light. Perhaps this atmosphere contributed to the little girl’s blindness to what the brown goo really was--the 'uht uht' (words again from her family’s native tongue), or poop of their hot dog shaped dog, what is his name? She hates this dog because of its nasty habit of licking her back in the summertime when she takes long afternoon naps.
Did the room really give off a hazy darkness, the dark-colored furniture combine to create this overbearing weight upon the little girl about to head to school? Or is this a fictional re-creation of a memory so old that filling in the blanks becomes necessary? The girl cries, and her mother promptly washes her sullied hand and she walks to her school barely in time for the morning bell.
The same little girl hangs onto the neck of her father she calls Papa, wearing a black and white cow printed coat. Her eyes are shut as together they whirl on Disneyland’s Pirate ride. She closes her ears to the echoes of a ghostly voice telling the story of the adventurous pirates, as they pass each installment. The boat goes slowly, but with her eyes closed, it feels like she is whirling. She whispers in Papa’s ear, "You’re the only man I’ve ever loved." But wait? She said this at some point her life, but did she really say it at this point in time? She feels her heart beat escalating, and her Papa squeezes her tighter saying, "It’s okay, baby." He calls her baby, even till today.
These memories are mine, and I remember them when searching for my feelings about death. Though she’s been dead now for almost 17 years, I miss my mother. I contemplate how close death is for my father, who is now 80 years old. Maybe I remember these particular moments because they captured my senses in powerful ways. And yet, I feel somewhat removed from the little girl who is the focus of these childhood memories. The stories of these memories are supposed to help explain me, my life, who I am and who I have become. Yet when I try to inhabit the form in the memory, I don’t completely succeed. The sense of my own grown self is here with me, and I cannot shrink in size enough to embody the little girl of my memories. And so, I write as if watching a child enact my past, and I follow her though the fog as closely as I can.
Perhaps I remember these instances in my childhood because they have to do with my fixations with touch, with taste. As an adult, I no longer have an infantile oral fixation, so how can I truly relate? I haven’t asked my sister or my parents what they remember--comparing memory notes. I see the Disneyland memory more vividly because of the photo in one of our family albums. I am indeed wearing a black and white cow print coat and holding on tight to Papa’s neck. My eyes are closed, his are not. When I first saw the photo, did I already securely possess the memory, the photo serving to ignite it in my mind? I close my eyes and try to remember what it was like in the dark, dank tunnel, and how it felt to hug my father as we whirled around on the ride. Embarrassed that I told him he was the only man I had ever loved. I fail to feel the moment fully. For me, it’s just a story. This is me because I’m told it is so, it looks like me, so I must believe.
Once in awhile in the flux and flow of everyday doings, I pause and a quiet panic sweeps over me. I think: my sister is dead. So young, she is truly gone. What did you think the moment you found out you were terminally ill? Did you panic, lose your breath? Did you want to shout, cry out and damn this world? Then the feeling dissipates, just like that, or the thought, and I go on with whatever it is I’m doing.
Death can bring you "into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here," moving you to live more fully, love others and give more freely. This is the gist, I think, of Rilke’s words. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to befriend Death to this extent. I’d like to start fresh, anew. The past is only useful in the form of memories by bringing us back to origins and the fragments that shape what we are. We mold these pieces into the shape of story. We explain our present by means of the past. And what about the future? Yes, even the future depends on our ability to create the world from scraps.
Tina V. Cabrera holds an MFA in Creative Writing, Fiction, from San Diego State University and works as a professional educator and editor in Austin, Texas. She has completed the required three years of coursework in the PhD program in English & Creative Nonfiction at the University of North Texas, but decided to forego the PhD path so she could concentrate on her writing career.