on telling

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about telling.

Telling people I have cancer.
Saying those words, letting them fall onto others’ ears and into others’ inboxes. How weird it is to say, “I have breast cancer,” how strange those words sound as they roll around in my mouth.

There’s really no way to soften it. No way to tell it easier, to tell slowly, to only tell a little. At some point, you kind of just have to say “i have cancer,” and let what will happen.

Mostly people are insanely nice, so kind, so full of love and worry and concern. You guys offer to take me to lunch and to do whatever I need (though I don’t know what that is right now), and you give me your sleeping pills and say you’ll teach me how to smoke weed (I’ve never been very good at it or liked it very much) and you bring over ice cream and text like crazy and tell me we’ll get through this, and that we’ll just deal with what we have to deal with. The we is really good.

It’s still anxiety producing, though, telling. It breaks the surface chatter, silences the laughter about nothingness, produces black humor about cancer and death.

There’s not much to be done. The only thing I want to be done is for a fairy or a witch or a genie to appear and to make it go away, to wave a magic wand and be shaken awake from this nightmare. (certainly, soon enough there will be actual things I need, actual support people near by can provide, like after my surgery and during chemo). The nightmare feels like being stuck in the dark swimming pool waters of a big pool after the covers have been pulled. Truth be told, I don’t know what that feels like, but I imagine it feels like this. As a child, I used to be so afraid of getting stuck under there. Probably, that was just the fear instilled by endless coaches warning us not to play under the tarps, where it is dark and black and easy to get confused about which way is up, and hard to break the seal between water and tarp, and let air in.

Telling is like admitting someone got stuck under the tarp, we weren’t careful enough when we pulled it over the pool at nights end and there’s a feeling of horror and dread, knowing that someone (could have) gotten under the tarp, stuck there, overnight. That’s how I think it is for the people I tell. I’m the one under the tarp, the one no one wants to be, the one who didn’t kick fast enough or scream loud enough when the tarp was pulled.

I’ve told most people now. College friends. AMIGOS friends. PhD friends. “Home” friends. I only had to tell my Mom, and she told the rest of the family.

Now, those other people. The ones you run into at the grocery store or yoga, who ask, “how are you?” These everyday conversations do not have the capacity to handle “I have cancer.” There’s not enough room. What would you say, to someone who said that to you as you dropped something off at the postal office? Nothing, you can’t. There’s no room. Since there’s no room for “I have cancer,” I have to tell some other version of my reality. Everything else feels like a lie, but mostly, “I’m great, thanks!” feels like a big, giant, charade.

Then there’s the people who I see all the time, and who are in my lives for various reasons. Fellow young academics who wonder why I’m dropping out of the conference panel we were putting together, when I normally organize these things. Others who would never wonder, never imagine something so horrific, like professional contacts and the girl who paints my toenails and the hundreds of AMIGOS youth I’ve mentored over the years. Then there’s the people who will soon know, but who I’d rather not tell- academics at UBC, other students who I see around, yoga teachers who’s classes I frequent, the people in my building. They’ll all know at some point. Cancer is news, cancer is news that spreads. And soon enough, it will be wildly public. My bald head will be a public signifier. But until then, telling is such an odd way to be in relationship to other people, to the world, to myself.

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