Published on January 22nd, 2018 | by Kristen Forbes5
CUPCAKES AND CANCER
The day my daughter was born, I sent my parents on a mission. The plan was simple: while I was giving birth (an experience I would calmly navigate by harnessing the transformative power of breathing while visualizing myself smoothly opening like a flower as my husband gently pressed his hands on my back just so, per instructions from two cheerful birth enthusiasts who taught us amid an array of tea and homemade snacks over the course of six Sundays), they would visit the hospital’s vegan bistro-style cafeteria and pick up five cupcakes, preferably in an assortment of flavors.
Plans went off-kilter as soon as active labor began, when it became clear that the piercing scream so often heard in birth scenes in movies and television was not, as suggested by our two cheerful birth instructors, heightened for the drama but in fact the exact noise exiting my body times twelve. (“You convinced the woman next door to get an epidural,” my doctor later informed me.) I was so far from harnessing my breath that I required an oxygen mask. I did not gently blossom, unless you’ve ever seen a flower with stitches. The caress of my husband’s hands on my back caused me to vomit.
Then, our wriggling seven-pound baby was placed on my chest and the riptide of pain dissolved as quickly as it came on.
She gazed up at me. Ready to be loved. (Ready to be fed.) Our Greta.
When my parents entered the room soon after, two things became apparent. One: They did not bring cupcakes. And, unrelated, two: My love for my parents was never going to be the same.
Watching them gingerly cradle my baby, I felt a new tenderness toward them, as if they were as fragile as the baby in their arms. First there was this tiny person, someone I would worry about for the rest of my days. Someone I would do anything — anything — to protect, even if I’d only known her a few short hours. And then there were the two people who guided me through my life. I realized I would also worry about them, with an intensity I’d never known. It’s not that I’d never worried about them before: there was high blood pressure and a pre-diabetes diagnosis and a handful of scary medical moments scattered over the years. But they were hardy, they recovered. Now seeing them with Greta, everything took on a new urgency. A life was beginning. It reminded me there would be endings, too.
They need to be here, I thought, as my sleep-addled brain flashed through all the moments on the horizon: her first laugh and step and skinned knee and dance and report card and heartbreak. They need to be here. Everything they ever did for me — every sleepless night and all those times they rocked me while pacing the halls and the consoling and tuition and plane tickets and the yes, you can stay with us until you get your shit figured out, each hug and every encouragement and word of advice — it all became so clear as I watched them with my daughter, their granddaughter. Here were two people who did everything for me. Now, I needed them to be here for me to do everything; how could I without them?
Three of my grandparents lived into their nineties. Despite their graying hair and increased fragility toward the end of their lives, they remained forever in my mind the ages they were when I was a child, when they rose from couches with nimble knees and remembered all the ingredients in the Toll House chocolate chip cookie recipe and took long side-by-side walks by the river on their Colorado property. My parents, by turn, are still the parents of my childhood too: playing tennis daily, coaching me in soccer, burning the grilled cheese sandwiches every single time, and carting me around town while running errands prior to setting up for another pottery show. Never mind that neither the tennis racket nor the pottery wheel have been touched in years. Never mind my mom’s decision to stop dying her hair and my dad’s propensity for dozing while watching TV.
My parents married young (she was 22, he was 21) but still love each other. My mom is a practical, capable woman who balances their checkbooks and fixes whatever breaks with her hands, whether it’s a torn shirt or leaking toilet. My dad is the romantic one, always in the kitchen whipping up elaborate meals and referring to her in cards and social media as his best friend and the love of his life. They’ve been married 44 years.
They will also live until their nineties, and they will die peacefully in their sleep while holding each other’s hands. This is the only future I am willing to accept. I will be in my sixties then, as they were when their parents died, and I will follow the examples they set for me to work my way through the grief. It will be difficult but I will be retired and my daughter will be out of college and I will have enjoyed a long, full life with them. That’s what will happen, and it will always be far away.
“I think I have the opposite of postpartum depression,” I boasted to my doctor at my six-week check-up, delirious with the love I felt for my baby. I felt reckless for saying the words out loud. I was on a high but I felt the precipice of it, the time borrowed.
When my dad’s esophageal cancer diagnosis arrived on the heels of my daughter turning six months old, something about it felt inevitable.
The crash came hard. My dad isn’t one of those stereotypes, the dad who occasionally drifts through the room while the game he’s watching is on a commercial break. My dad is my everything. When instructed to bring something from nature that reminded them of their daughters for a daddy-daughter Brownies meeting, every single other dad brought a pretty flower and recited a trope about his daughter’s beauty. My dad brought a portable fan and likened me to an uncontainable wind. I acted humiliated because that’s what you do when you’re eight and your dad isn’t acting like the others. Inside, though, I knew: I was seen, I was loved for being myself.
Greta is an easy baby to have in a hard time. She’s figured out how to make me laugh (put my underwear on her head, take whatever food she doesn’t want and casually toss it over the side of her high chair, lay her head in my lap and pretend to fall asleep) and she giggle-squeals along with me whenever I start. Her personality seems so similar to mine (she quietly observes the other babies at playgroup with a hesitancy that feels achingly familiar) that it helps me to almost see it: what it must have been like for my parents to know this time, with me. How it was finite. How it must have felt.
I’ve often wondered about the first year of my life. My uncle, my mom’s brother, died of melanoma when I was nine months old. The year of my birth was also the worst year in my family’s history. Did she cry while nursing me? Did she pat my three-year-old sister’s back and tell her in a singsong voice that everything would be okay?
Here’s when I got the call. We had just returned from spending the day with my parents and were waiting to hear his test results, though based on comments from the doctor we already basically knew. When I walked in my front door, I realized a burner had been on all day and the smell of gas was overwhelming. I ran with Greta back out, stood by my car, looking at my phone, trying to figure out what to do next. I knew I needed to be an adult and a mom and call the gas company, but what I really wanted to do was call my parents, to hear them say, “This is what you need to do next.” When my phone rang and my dad was on the other end, we both knew why he was calling but I let him talk me through the gas situation first because he loves taking care of me and I love being his child.
The past few months have been a blur of chemo, radiation, and milestones like standing and saying Mama. Soon he’ll undergo surgery to have his esophagus removed (a new one will be fashioned from his stomach). Soon she’ll start walking and her babbles will become clear words.
This gentle giant of a man is currently reclined on the green La-Z-Boy in his living room while a feeding tube supplies his nutrients. Greta sits on his lap and makes him smile around the tube. He sometimes reaches for her hand and she pushes it away, as if it were a game. I try to brush away the twinge of anger this evokes in me: it should be a game, this grandfather and granddaughter playing together. All of this should be a game, but not on a timer.
I repeat it often, singing silently: He needs to be here. For this moment and all those to come, he needs to be here.