Cancer and A Big Date Make For Strange Bedfellows

News of a parent's breast cancer and a big date make for strange bedfellows.

(Illustration by Verónica Grech)

(Illustration by Verónica Grech)

The day the dermatologist told my mother that the funny mark under her arm was actually breast cancer; I went straight to the Bloomingdale’s counter and got my makeup done. To be fair, I’d already had an appointment but didn’t want something like cancer to get in the way. I was attending a charity event that night with a date and was planning on wearing a Zac Posen dress in blue.

“Sorry about my puffy eyes,” I tell the makeup artist and then lie, “late night.”

“Sounds like fun,” she says contouring my cheeks.

She asks if I want smoky eyes. I tell her to just make me look pretty. When she’s through, I’m worried I’ll mess up my face with tears but it’ll give me a good reason not to cry. I buy my mother a red lipstick, to show her on this hellish day, I won’t give up on her.

I text my date about this unexpected situation and he calls to let me know we can reschedule. I thank him for his consideration but it’s not like the cancer won’t be around next week. I ask him if he’s afraid of me now, and he says no, that this is real life. I don’t believe him.

We’ve only been out a few times and share a mutual love of animals. I enjoy making out with him and he’s great at oral. He’s got a broad chest and wears cashmere sweaters so it feels nice to hug him, but I’m not in the cuddling mood. I feel a hollow recklessness.

That night I sit through a meal of speeches and reflexive applause. I go to the bathroom to catch my breath. My vibrant mother’s diagnosis was so unforeseen. I leave the mirrored room behind only to pose for a
Patrick McMullan photo.

I end up in my date’s bed. He pulls my dress overhead. I take off my knee-high stiletto boots. He fondles and sucks my breasts. I unbuckle his belt—and think of my mother and her beautiful face.

If I can feel this much pain, I think to myself, maybe I can feel an equal amount of pleasure. My back arches. His tongue feels good between my legs. His hands move up and down my thighs.

How will my life change? I will take her to chemo. I will hold back what’s left of her hair when she pukes over the toilet. I will bathe
her. I will be strong and get my shit together. I will do everything for her and give her all of myself.

I end up in my date’s bed. He pulls my dress overhead. I take off my knee-high stiletto boots. He fondles and sucks my breasts. I unbuckle his belt—and think of my mother and her beautiful face.


“Don’t think the worst,” my date had said earlier at dinner, “wait until you get the facts.”

“You’re so right,” I had said, “it could all just be one big mistake.”

He flips me over. I try to escape into the wet warmth of his mouth.

And all I see is my mother.

I think of how her hand shook when she wrote down the words Metastatic Adenocarcinoma and how she said things into the phone like, “oh dear,” and, “that’s not good.”

I give my date a blowjob and think that if there is a God, he can go fuck himself.

He snores. Normally, I would be more patient, but my mother may very well be riddled with cancer so I shake him. He apologizes, admits it’s a problem, and kindly offers to sleep in his guest bedroom. I am left alone in his king-sized bed, relieved.

That was Thursday night. We won’t get answers until Monday and the weekend is long and my anger is bottomless. It’s directed toward the innocent, such as friends with healthy mothers, happy people in general. My girlfriends don’t fair much better by me. They either give me too much space or not enough. The truth is none of them can get it right because there is no getting right. My friend Ellie’s mother has been struggling with ovarian cancer for years and she tells me you just get used to having a sick parent. “But,” I ask her, “what about a dead parent?”

As a child I sat by my mother’s feet and played dolls while she painted. I’d watch her step back and forth to gain perspective on her work. I was always desperate for her attention, but old resentments no longer seem relevant. The truth is I need her more than ever.

That’s when I am bombarded with the most uncomfortable of realizations. My home foundation is brittle and snapping and I’ve been blind to it. I have a newfound urgency to be further along in life, to have a husband I can turn to and for my mother to know my future child. I am further struck that although I currently live with my parents for financial reasons, they have become my primary relationship. I have retreated into the comfort of their loft, shielding myself from authentic romantic relationships.

I wander around in a state of paralysis waiting for her results. My father tells off a telemarketer. I update my younger brother every 20 minutes or so with texts like, “no news yet.”

The scans come back clear. They can’t find cancer anywhere in her body except for the small tumor under her arm. The doctors are befuddled. Weeks later, when they take out the tumor, they’ll find it was the primary source, a cancer connected to the breast tissue under the arm. It’s containable, curable.

I keep looking for this big “Aha!” moment, a spiritual epiphany. Instead, the whole thing proved exhausting and the disturbing feelings can’t be unfelt. They have faded for sure, but it made me see how fragile it all is and how unexpectedly one’s world can change. I kiss my mother and stroke the hair she now won’t lose. Underneath all the fear is a tremendous love and I am grateful to have been reminded of it. As shitty as this cancer scare was, I’ve been shocked into a greater appreciation for life and have been given a good kick in the ass to move forward with my own.

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