When I read, I immerse myself in the words. Reading has always been an escape for me. I would used to sit for hours in my mother’s house reading - no, devouring - books, using them to escape from the world around me. I loved the fantasy books best, with their worlds of magic and dragons, knights and villains.
I learned terrible habits about reading too. I wanted so much to be a fast reader that my brain learned to identify passages that were “just description.” I’ve never really gotten what people mean when they say “I saw the book in my mind.” Visualization has never come easily to me, and I think in part it’s because I never really read the descriptions.
But this is a weird contradiction. I wanted to escape into these books, but I skimmed the details, the little essences? I don’t know. But I find myself still doing it. I have to consciously slow myself down in order to not skip them. I notice my eyes jump, and then recognize that I didn’t actually read that last paragraph.
Part of my Fairhaven graduation requirement was the advanced seminar class. In that class, we all read the book Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala. In it, she recounts her experience of being swept up in the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka. She lost her whole family in an instant. Her husband, two sons; both her parents. She also writes about the aftermath in her life, of how she eventually is able to move on and heal. It is a vivid book, and not one that I likely would have sought out on my own.
Reading Wave was a different experience for me than most books. I didn’t want to escape into it. If anything, I wanted the opposite, to help Sonali escape from the life of torment that she relates to us. I have lost people in my life. My grandfather, more than a decade ago. A childhood friend who I’d fallen out of touch with who took his own life. More recently my grandmother; not dead, but lost to us through Alzheimers. But it feels… not right to try and compare these to Sonali’s loss. Not just because I wasn’t as close to these people as she was to her family, though this is true. But because my experience of those losses was so different, so much more distant.
There is a one point in her story that I can relate to. Towards the middle, when she says “But there are those I see time and again , have drinks with, share jokes, and even they don’t know.” She talks about feeling like a fraud. That not telling people she is “cut loose, adrift, hazy about [her] identity.” This I feel I know something about.
It started out that I would take just one quarter off. Fall of 2012, I signed up for classes, and then I simply couldn’t face it. In retrospect, it was amazingly fortuitous. Almost like I knew, deep down what was going to happen. Instead of school, I decided to try and find work as a programmer. To validate for myself whether finishing up my degree was really necessary. This was hard. I learned many hard lessons that fall. About managing my time, about the kinds of jobs I did not want to do. About the kind of clients to avoid. Then, the week after Thanksgiving, my mother was diagnosed with brain cancer.
It started with her having trouble walking. I noticed while strolling through the autumnal Arboretum in Seattle near her house. Her right foot kept dragging. I asked her about it, and she said it felt very odd. On Monday she’d make an appointment with her doctor to see what was going on. But two days later she couldn’t move her leg at all.
Everything after that was a blur. Frantic calls to the doctor, eventually rushing off to the hospital. So many of her close friends clustered around, I felt lost in the confusion and chaos. In the midst of this, I had just started negotiating with a potential new client. I kept talking to them, worried enough about my finances that it didn’t really sink how serious the situation with my mother really was.
I imagine what would have happened if I had tried to take classes that fall. I would have gone home over Thanksgiving, much as I actually did. Then, when my mother was spending her first couple days in the hospital, getting a biopsy of her brain, I would have been in the midst of dead week. Before we really knew what was wrong with her, I would have been immersed in preparing for finals. While she was trying to reacclimatize to her own home, I might have been taking finals.
Or else, I would have dropped it all. An entire quarter’s worth of time and effort made meaningless in the space of a phone call. I’m honestly not sure what I would have done, how things would have gone.
The months that followed were also a whirl. The madness of trying to reorganize her home so that she could live there. Starting chemotherapy and radiation treatments. I could smell the poison in the chemo pills. The smell of their residue in her urine permeated the bathroom. This didn’t seem like healing. I saw my mother, the strongest person that I know, utterly defeated and humiliated.
But all of this was in Seattle. To my friends in Bellingham, I simply disappeared. I only personally told three or four people. Many more have heard either from my loving girlfriend or through the proverbial grapevine. It was agonizing revealing this massive thing to a few close friends. The thought of telling everyone was overwhelming. I wanted people to know but not to have to tell them. That made it awkward. Most people don’t just bring something like that up.
At a time when I most needed my friends physical presence and support, everyone seemed determined to let me have my space. But I couldn’t reach out to them, to tell them that wasn’t what I needed. I didn’t know what I needed.
The first time I told someone not close to me was an old roommate of mine. I ran into her in the grocery store in Bellingham. We chatted for a moment, this and that. Then she asked what I was up to. I said living in Seattle, and she asked “Why?” “Because my mother has brain cancer.” I responded. That pretty much ended the conversation. I felt sad. I hadn’t meant to drop that weight on her; as Sonali says, “it’s too horrifying, too huge.” But I didn’t know how to reveal it any other way.
Gradually I learned how to be more circumspect. “My mother is very ill.” My therapist suggested that. She helped me brainstorm. Helped me navigate between the feelings of deceit for hiding it and not being able to tell. I also grew more comfortable with the weight of it. I no longer needed to try and lay it down so abruptly, the way one drops a heavy stone. I grew stronger, and marveled at my own strength.
So one quarter turned into two, then three. Suddenly a year had passed. Eventually, our lives calmed and settled enough that I sought an internship at a local tech company. I stayed there for six months. I found stability in the day-to-day routine of working nine to five. Or more accurately, ten to six.
Now, more than two years later, my mother is doing quite well. It’s strange to be back in Bellingham, and to still have friends who don’t know what has happened. She is responding to treatment so well, it seems like the emergency has been put on hold. But in another way, we are all still waiting for the other shoe to drop. But we have to stop waiting at some point.