My brother met his untimely demise June 30. Two days after his wife’s birthday and ten days before his 57th birthday. Not that there is such a thing as a timely demise. I don’t even know where that idiom came from. But in light of all the supposedly joyful days surrounding the day of his death, I couldn’t think of a better word to describe it than untimely. He was handsome, quiet, and somewhat of a peacemaker. Some would argue that he was the most good-looking of the brothers, but there is no doubt that his siblings looked up to him although he was the shortest, literally, and the middle, not the eldest, child. Maybe because he was the youngest to have kids and get married and prove he could be a good family man, unlike the father they knew or hardly knew. The same man as the handsome, quiet dad who cooked arroz caldo for me and rubbed my back with Vicks when I got sick.
My brother’s death brought up memories of long steamy summer days spent at my grandfather’s place in Mandaluyong, a city east of Manila. For some strange reason my grandpa, or Apo as we lovingly called him, doted on me, the bastard child of his youngest son. Maybe it was to compensate for the fact that I was born out of wedlock, which back then was a real stigma. Maybe because he only saw me in the summertime, unlike the countless little grandkids running around his tiny wooden house day in and day out, forming clouds of dust on his dirt floor and crowding his sala as they watched Oras ng Ligaya on his 12 inch TV. Or maybe because I could sing Matt Monro’s “Born Free” on cue and with perfect pitch at 3 years old.
Ever since I can remember, I had looked forward to those summers to reunite with my cousins and friends and engage in unbridled play all day within the hollow blocked walls of the working class compound nestled beside the Pasig River. Such carefree innocent times playing jackstones at Elsa’s house. Lovely and meek Elsa, who died in her 40s of breast cancer. Her sister, Vic, following 10 years later. Also of breast cancer. Or playing pretend games at Benjie’s big house with the watermark on the cement walls, a reminder of a typhoon that caused the river to swell and flood their first floor.
I want to remember her now, Elsa. Soft voice, soft curls, soft… her laughter like short hesitant bursts of sunlight through feathery clouds. I visited her once as an adult and she seemed embarrassed, not as excited as I was to see her it seemed, more concerned about her messy room, messy hair. She had the same smiling eyes, but we were not the same. There was an air of sadness and defeat about her. As if she had given up already. There was no time to talk but I wish I had made time.
Then, her sister, Vic, so beautiful, so handsome, with her killer lashes and James Dean stare. Passing away 10 years later from the same malady. One out of eight women will develop invasive breast cancer, statistics say. Early detection is key to survival. But back home, not many have health insurance, and one goes to the doctor only when one feels sick. By then, it may be too late.
As I write this blog my fingers are tingling, my feet swelling, and when I close my eyes the pain is almost palpable. Ah, to be 50 and somewhat beautiful, yet having tennis elbow when I don’t even play tennis, not even badminton. Sharp pains on my pelvic bone. My knees creaking like bamboo floors with my every step down the stairs. Calcification in my breasts dotting my biannual mammograms. It is unfair to be wiser yet grow older, unable to apply lessons learned from a twisted ankle or a skinned knee. Tried trampoline for the first time in how many years at 53 and spent the next six weeks limping from a sprained ankle. Some peers scolded me, saying I should have known better; they who are in their 30s and 40s, still menstruating, ovaries still fertile, vulvas not needing lubricant.
Who knew. Ten days after Butch died I find out I have cancer cells in my left breast. How cruel. I dread the thought of losing my breast. It is one of the very few times that I felt helpless, no control at all of the outcome, like when we kept trying to have a baby and I would have those false positives, and I kept cheering myself up silently as I gave myself a subcutaneous shot of lupron on my thigh every morning.
When I told my childhood best friend, Ge, that I was going to have a biopsy to follow up an abnormal mammogram, she said, “You can’t get cancer. Only rich people get that.” We laughed, because back home, that’s the truth. I wondered if Vic and Elsa would be alive today if they had more money.
The doctor said I have DCIS — ductal carcinoma in situ. Cancer cells in place. Not moving, not roaming about infecting other cells, staying in one place like a “good wife”. This is supposed to be a blessing, a cause for a close friend to text “yahoo!!!” after I shared my non-benign biopsy result. Since when have cancer cells become good? Is it like good cholesterol? Not harming or causing damage? Just hanging out politely, lurking on the sidelines, not trying to clog arteries? Fish and olive oil versus red meat and barbecue grease? Is it like that?
I must admit, having cancer seemed a bit cinematic. Ali McGraw had leukemia in Love Story and my sister swooned no end as if romance meant “til cancer do us part.” Cancer was the kind of disease you wouldn’t wish upon your worst enemy because that would be too kind. You see, Hollywood would make you believe that cancer is glamorous and only good-looking people made up to look sick can have it. But I should know better. In fact the only thing good thing about getting news that you have cancer cells residing in your body is if you have health insurance to get the best treatment!
How am I to have a good sleep when I will see an oncologist tomorrow who will tell me the best treatment for this?
(To be continued)