How To Cancer

My first idea was to write about women building for Habitat for Humanity. That fell through; no one got back to me. Then, I tried to get in touch with the Victoria Faulkner’s Women Centre to talk to about May being sexualized assault awareness month, but I was too last minute about it. I was on the hunt for a story about women, because May 7 is our “Women’s Issue”. Because this Sunday coming up is Mother’s Day. I didn’t want an obvious story.

When both stories fell through I was at a loss. Not a panic-y loss. I knew I could write something applicable. I’m a woman.

The question niggled in the back of my mind through a long reporting shift: What the hell am I going to write about?

I realized it was staring me in the face, too big to see.

Mine is the only Mother’s Day story in our Women’s Issue.

Last summer my family took over the city beach in Nelson, BC.

It was sweltering — a simmering, dry, proper summer day. The sand burned bare feet and we jumped in the frigid water every 15 minutes to stay cool.

Tim swam across the lake, my dad played guitar under an ancient walnut tree, my great aunt told my cousins and me stories about my grandma’s succession of crazy boyfriends, and my mom stuck her ice cream cone in her first grandson’s face when his mom wasn’t looking. Dave and Emmett obnoxiously passed a football over us all.

Looking back, it’s glaringly obvious that my mom was the only one not going in the water. Usually she’s the instigator, or stays in the longest. She’s always said a good dip is the perfect remedy for anything that ails. I didn’t notice at the time that she stayed on the shore.

A few days later I found out she had a cancerous tumor in her cervix. I saw my older brother cry. I had a pretty good feeling she was going to be fine, but I didn’t know if I was in delusion.

I’ve never pictured my mom dying. I’ve pictured my dad dying. He’s told me more than once that when he goes he wants us to chuck his body onto the manure pile. He doesn’t like funerals. But if we insist on getting together, he’s always said, there better be whisky. And you better play Hank Williams. Senior. And Neil Young. My dad has dominated the dying narrative.

But that’s how it goes. The beam of light gets cancer. She had to get six weeks of radiation and chemotherapy in Kelowna, which is about an hour and forty minutes from where my parents live.

My mom’s sister Barb lives on a slope above Okanagan Lake, in the heart of wine country, just outside of Kelowna. Her property includes a dock and boathouse on choppy, moody, mystical Okanagan Lake. My mom stayed with Barb occasionally during her treatment so my dad didn’t have to commute everyday.

At the outset of the treatment she said six weeks seemed long, she’d just have to put her head down and devote herself to it. “Besides,” she said, “Barb has stand-up paddleboards, and I’ve always wanted to try one.”

I cried when she said that. But quietly, into the phone.

My mom walked through the vineyards everyday she stayed over at Barb’s. She swam. She went to a different winery every so often. She bought a bottle or two.

She took them home with her on the weekends and stored her wine in the root cellar.

My dad watched it accumulate but he didn’t say anything. She couldn’t drink wine during her treatment.

He insisted my mom buy a ski pass. He didn’t know if she’d be able to use it, but he couldn’t imagine her without one. I know what he was doing. I’m glad he did it.

After the six weeks were up my mom was in the roughest shape she’s been in. The treatment was worse than the cancer. She looked like she had songbird bones. She couldn’t eat. She napped away the afternoons. But she beat the tumor.

At Christmas, we drank some of the wine. My mom called it her cancer wine.

By the time she came to visit in March, she said the wine was gone. “You killed it,” I said. “Yeah,” she said. “Just like the cancer.”

We simultaneously smiled and did double thumbs up. My dad shook his head and put his forehead in his hands.

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