Did you know it was a thing? Airport cancer, I mean. It’s a thing. I’m in Salt Lake City, on a layover en route to San Diego. And I’ve met a total of three people because of/about/surrounding cancer.
First there was the lady. I parked myself at a restaurant bar and ordered what would turn out to be flavorless pasta and a glass of wine I couldn’t finish. As I flipped through my emails, I felt her hands on my back. You are beautiful. I want you to know you are stunning. Where are you in your treatment? She was in the know. I knew she knew in the visceral way only other people who have/had cancer know. I finished the chemo, and I have a mastectomy in two weeks. She nodded. And again. You are so beautiful. I had breast cancer. I did it all. You are going to be just fine. And then as soon as she appeared she was gone, though I felt her watchful eyes on my back until I finished my dinner, paid my bill, and turned to wave goodbye- and found her seat empty.
The bar was mostly empty. But this youngish white guy rolls in and picks the seat right next to me even though my suitcase that’s really too big to be a carry-on is taking up all the room between the two stools. He maneuvers around it. He makes small talk. He’s from San Diego. He was in Vancouver. We were on the earlier flight together and are on the flight to San Diego together, too. After twenty or so minutes of strangely persistent small-talk twists and turns, he tells me he’s a researcher. Another Ph.D.. One who works on hormone-sensitive cancers. Prostate. Ovarian. Breast. Bingo. Is that why he sat next to me? How strange we ended up sitting next to each other- I have breast cancer. Is it ER+ positive? Is it in your nodes? (It doesn’t feel invasive, this line of questioning, and I feel like I need to say that, because as I write it sounds invasive.) But he knew what he was talking about. You’re going to be fine. No markers in your blood, nothing in your nodes? Best case scenario. He likes my young breast cancer cultural politics research plan. He knows what #bcsm stands for. He’s so clearly in the know. When you’re that in the know, the questions are informative. When you’re that in the know, you know how to cut the bullshit, talk particulars, and be clear and hopeful about the outcome. We talk more. He tells me about a receptor-chemo he is working on for metastatic breast cancer, and about a trial to shut down and eliminate the ER receptors (or something like that). I am so relieved to know this person is working on breast cancer research behind the scenes.
Finally, I board the plane. There were no empty seats, so I am stuck in 22C even though I tried to play the cancer-card and get moved, as I did on the last flight, to an empty row or even better, an empty first class row. And as the last few people fill up the seats, a boy in his late teens approaches. Look, he says, I really want to sit with my girlfriend. Want to move to first class and take my seat? Who are you, I think silently, a lanky, pimply twenty year old with a first class seat? OK, I nod. I’ll do it. Wouldn’t you? The flight attendant moves my suitcase. I move up to the third row. Mr. Tall-Lanky-Pimply-Boy-In-First-Class left a note on the seat. You look like you need this seat more than me. What? This is so weird. But I do. And I have this seat now. So OK. Maybe he knew I had cancer. Maybe the note wasn’t even for me. Maybe it was a random act of kindness I suppose I could ask, but I kind of like it this way, not knowing, magical anonymity.
What is this dreamworld I’m living in? Oh, I forgot, it’s not a dream-world. It’s America (as my friend Ariana always calls the US). So this is what its like to have cancer in America. I didn’t know. This many people would have never spoken to me in Canada, even if I walked around bald. Even in yoga, the many strangers I practice work don’t say a word, even though they watch my eyebrows melt off and see me paint them back on after the grand sweat and stretch.
America. As soon as I cross the border, each and every time, it feels different. The city is irrelevant. Doesn’t matter if I fly into NYC or drive into Bellingham or land in Oakland or pass through Salt Lake City. It’s like a release of breath I didn’t know I was holding. It’s easier. The servings of onion rings are bigger. I can understand the second language around me- and it’s Spanish. More people wear flip flops. No one says sorry in that Canadian twang. It’s home.
But lately I’ve disavowed this place I’ve called home. I’ve announced I never want to return. I’ve proclaimed gratefulness at being treated in the Canadian system. I’ve waxed horror for my American young breast cancer afflicted peers. Tonight makes me think again.
Americans get right up in your face. The old lady put her hand on my back and didn’t take it off. The flight attendant inquired about the surgery date. The guy asked questions I felt I needed to defend for being invasive when they didn’t feel that way (have I become entirely aculturated, Canada?). Americans care in their abrasive way, and while in Canada people stare but stay silent about my baldness, here even a wig invites conversation, comraderie, questions. Certainly, it also invites too much curiousity at times, too much in your face grittiness, too much. But I gotta say, it’s a breath of fresh air, too. Or better articulated, it’s a release of breath I didn’t know I was holding.
I’ve learned lately, over and over and over again, that its always better to do something, say something, respond, try, ask, reach out and f*ck it up wildly than do nothing, retreat, be tentative for fear of f*cking it up. The person to whom you’re offering can always turn you down or simply not respond. That should be absolutely respected each and every time without question- it’s called consent. But that’s why you ASK. That’s why you REACH OUT. That’s why you DO SOMETHING. It’s an invitation, a provocation, a caring, a smile. It doesn’t have to be returned, accepted, responded to. I’d rather throw it all into the universe, shower the people I care about with feeling, and let them decide what threads to weave into our friendship. Better to offer a hundred different yarn colors than only blue or yellow or worse yet, none at all. And yet— that’s just what the tons of people have done. They’ve offered nothing. They’ve retreated, rolling up their ball of yarn and running.
I think it’s classed, cultural. The Canada I know is enmeshed with British reserve. There’s a upper class value haunting privacy. Privacy, keeping to oneself, discussing body-matters, health-matters, relationship-matters in whispered phone conversations and presenting a facade of collected presence- it’s something you perform to show you belong to the middle-upper or upper class. It’s proper. That plays out in Canada, in the vein of British reserve. And as soon as I cross the border to America, there’s a brashness, a willingness to engage, a rawness that can horribly wrong and that can be horribly endearing. I’m the first one, almost always, to tell you effed up the States can be. But man, tonight I was reminded, as I meandered through the very American Salt Lake City airport, that there’s something awesome about Americans, that there’s a reason I let out the held-breath when I arrive here, and a reason that I can identify with a wink of the eye as American. Maybe there is actually reason to be hopeful.
Oh America. You’re so weird.