Teal Ribbons

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
Explains the affects of cancer on an already rocky family relationship.

Submitted: December 10, 2016

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Submitted: December 10, 2016

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The waiting room did not look like a waiting room; the leather couches, rich cherry wood floors, and distinct lack of medical magazines scattered on the coffee table, the room exuded a sort of elegance and immediately I wondered if I was in the right place. The unnaturally neon flowers I was carrying seemed garish in comparison to the steely modernity, and hesitantly I took a seat, feeling much more self-conscious than I had anticipated. A nurse came to lead me into another room, she gave me a sympathetic smile and said something that I’m sure was meant to be encouraging but I couldn’t so much as feign comprehension, I was too busy listening to the thoughts running through my mind. Entering the small room with only a small desk and an even  smaller bed I realized that there was nothing that anyone could have done to prepare me—there were no instructions, no amount of “helpful” advice from anyone that could have given to illustrate the difficulty of seeing someone you love unable to move or breathe of their own volition.
The first time the term ovarian cancer was introduced to me I was in middle school and much more immersed in my own world of self-concocted sixth grade drama than the severity of the diagnosis my Abuela had received one afternoon. Life seemed to continue on as normal for me, each time I visited her it seemed as though nothing had changed; she was still the same sharp-tongued, hard-headed, NPR obsessed woman I had grown up with. I looked past the pill bottles that stacked up near the kitchen sink and the hospital bracelet that never seemed to leave her wrist. I had convinced myself that cancer was something trivial—something that would eventually disappear if I pretended not to notice. I thought I must have pretended pretty well because within a few months I learned what remission meant; no more strained phone
conversations regarding hospital bills, no more foreign cancer talk. What I didn’t realize then was how much of a blessing those two cancer-free years really were because what no one ever explained to me was that remission was not a permanent thing, the cancer would never stop fighting back.
The day she shaved her head I realized this cancer was no longer something I could ignore, there it was blatantly staring me down each day I visited her. It was written all over people's’ faces whenever we went out in public, the blatant stares they gave us as their eyes wandered over her barely 100 pound frame and bald head as we took our seats on the bus. Their looks never bothered me as much as they did her, she took them as a sign of her own weakness and would not hesitate to ask them to stop staring. The compassion of relative strangers struck me as curious, there was an unspoken rule to never discuss the cancer openly within our own family and the willingness of complete strangers to express their sadness and get well wishes struck me as incredible for I had never so much as uttered an “I hope you get better”.
There is a public perception perpetuated by the entertainment industry that for some reason cancer will bring about a united family front, I’m here to say it did nothing to bring us closer; if anything it served only to make an already strained relationship even more so. There was no accompanying her to treatment visits or checking off the bucket list. It became easier to distance myself from her and the situation rather than surround myself with an environment where I clearly wasn’t welcomed. Mom had always chalked up our relationship to the fact that I reminded Abuela “too much of herself” and looking back I see the resemblance and even understand it, but in the moment all I saw was myself grasping at straws trying to relate to a woman with whom a close relationship should come naturally, but simply did not.
The third diagnosis was most difficult; the chemo turned to radiation, her naturally slim figure turned skeletal, the walker she kept hidden in her closet out of embarrassment became essential in her attempts to move about. Her whole life she had been independent almost to a fault; from denying a full-ride scholarship to the only well- known college in Colombia because she quote “did not accept charity” to refusing to stop riding her bike to work everyday even while going through treatment, I had never known her to sacrifice her independence for anything. The day she moved into our house and abandoned her own marked the first time I had seen her give in and at that point the cancer had made it clear that it was here to stay. It was no longer possible to avoid the situation seeing as it now surrounded me every morning, night, and in between.
It started out slow at first, misusing a word or two every other sentence or so—I disregarded it, thinking of it as nothing more than a side effect of old age. I tried hard not to dwell on it until I was woken up one morning at 4 am due to her mistaking my room for her own. It became increasingly apparent after that, forgetting basic things like how to use the microwave, where the bathroom was, even whether or not she had eaten. Help was not something she welcomed no matter how obvious it was that she needed it; becoming more compassionate was out of the question, instead all I felt was an overwhelming sense of frustration. Frustration with her and the situation and soon I became indifferent; when family friends would ask how I was handling things I would fake sadness making the discrepancy between how I felt and how everyone insinuated I should be feeling even larger.
I didn't cry at the funeral, which is not something I’m ashamed of because if anything its what she would have wanted. It would have been something she would tell me she was proud of me for and I clung to that hope of imaginary approval I had so desperately wanted when she was alive. She may have been gone but I still heard her voice in my ear telling me to put down the chocolate bar, stop wasting time chasing boys, and to never ever let anyone see me cry. I wasn’t wearing black that day; she had always told me black didn’t compliment my skin tone, I opted for a teal dress instead. I declined the offer to give a speech during the ceremony not because it was too difficult to speak about her but because I had no idea what to say. A priest gave a very general, very uplifting, eulogy describing her as kind and always smiling; this lie was definitely the better option but in no way did it bring me any kind of peace. I sat stone-faced in the church that day on an uncomfortable pew with stained blue upholstery listening to a stranger attest to my Abuela’s character, her life, and her struggle with cancer (which according to him seemed nothing like a struggle at all), wishing that I could be anywhere else.

At eighteen I may not be the same person I was three years ago but I still find myself carrying around the copy of Grimm's’ Fairy Tales she inscribed to me on my 10th birthday, as if a part of her could still be found throughout its worn out pages. I must have read that book a thousand times by now and while it definitely disturbed me more when I was younger, I am still surprised at the flood of frustrated tears that it seems to evoke from me each time I see her perfectly crafted cursive lettering inside the front cover and the carefully drawn owl that she always said reminded her of me. It doesn’t remind me of the cancer-ridden woman that became my Abuela those last few years, it reminds me of the independent, sharp-tongued, opinionated Abuela that helped shape who I am today and who I would give anything to have a second chance at a relationship with, or at least the gift of one more day with.

 


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