Cancer in the Family

I’m fascinated by the impact our decisions create; some with major historical waves or most with barely noticeable little fluctuations in the air. Does anything really happen for a reason? My short history’s peppered with the lives of my mother and father and their parents. So here I investigate what my father gave me.

Everyone projects their life expectancy with an equation including a family history. Hoping to uncover relevant information, sifting through our historical data sometimes leaves golden nuggets in our miners pans. Some data insists on investigation although the output may never relate to an end result. Pun intended. I found a hand drawn family tree when sorting through my fathers personal notes a few weeks ago. My family going back to pre 1910 Russia, predating Stalin’s takeover and thus you’re reading my words now.

In 1941, my dad came into his life in a Brooklyn, NY posh Jewish walkup. My grandfather, Jack, born Jacob, one of four children, and the middle son of Russian Jewish immigrants. His father, Isaac after whom I am named, was a renowned Rabbinical Cantor who happened to die as the result of vehicular manslaughter committed by a Cuban National in the ‘50s. No breaking tire skid marks were found at the scene, said police, and the driver, a medical doctor, claimed he honked his horn from about a block away when he saw an old man crossing through the next intersection. This Cuban physician, although found preliminarily guilty by a Miami Beach judge and released for trial, was instead extradited and sent running 90 miles south from Miami to Havana.

Not so ironically, Jack had run rum from Cuba to New York during the Prohibition, which in turn led him to a very lucrative career as a purveyor of alcoholic beverages once liquor became a legal substance. Among Jews, four rabbinical groups were approved to purchase wine for services in the temples, which led to some competition for membership. The supervision of sacramental licenses could be used to secure donations to support a religious institution. There were known abuses in this system, with imposters or unauthorized agents using loopholes to purchase wine.

I try not to draw conclusions in the face of such coincidences. But no one ever saw Cantor Kaminsky’s music after he was killed. My grandfather left countless letters from pleading rabbis and cantors for access to the music so it may live on. Jack never relented and all that’s found is one Hanukkah liturgy, still sung today, still felt in the hallowed temples of Orthodox Jews.

His business partnership with his younger brother Morris: stores that sold alcoholism to at risk minority groups in demographically strategic locations around the five boroughs of New York. My grandparents smiled and dressed like movie stars – both good looking and expensively dressed in their photographs: at their cabana at the Fontainebleau pool, in the nightclubs of New York and Miami Beach, holding me as an infant later on in years.

My father took an entirely different approach to Cuba. Instead of capitalizing on the sugar cane fermented sweet rum, my grandfather’s wealth from such profiteering afforded his leftist son (my father was a southpaw as well as a communist) a five year run as a translator who spoke very little Spanish and a decent news caster disguised as a jazz disc jockey (or vice-versa)for Radio Free Cuba. The parallels tantalize even the worst imaginations to seek out commonality in difference. His father looked for any opportunity to show his only son his love and acceptance, while the son looked at these gifts as shadows of something he declared throughout his life as “not quite” what he needed and “never what he [I] really wanted”.

My grandmother, Lee, née Leah Fuchs, born also to Russian immigrant parents, attended high school in Brooklyn at PS 21, graduating in 1921. Leah, a popular and beautiful girl who, after her friends signed her senior autograph book, modeled hats for department stores before marrying Jack in the 1920s. By 1941 when Len, born Leonard arrived, she’d spent her adult life living through innumerable miscarriages and nearly died giving birth to my father.

Amazingly, my father never felt loved enough. Feeling short changed by parents who desperately wanted him, their beloved son experienced the best life could offer a Jewish boy in the 40s and 50s in New York City. A city he loved in return for its embrace of his defiance of his parents’ beliefs. My father became a divorced communist atheist by 1972.

Lee died when I was four years old, and photographs of her in the final years of her shortened life show her embracing me in custom little dresses she had made for me in posh Lincoln Road dressmaker shops. She had found her salvation through grandchild as daughter. I imagine the fact that I spoke full sentences by 6 months helped in allowing her to elevate my young ego and she spent little time without me. She had a radical mastectomy, chemical therapies and eventually died in the hospital and in severe pain, leaving my grandfather heartbroken.

My father eventually died of brain cancer at 71. His personality prior to the ordeal was altered significantly due to chemical changes in his brain. He became incapable of controlling his anger and cursing and mean behavior. The surgeon neglected to tell me what we might expect. Thank you modern medical professionals. Forgetting the closest people to the patient isn’t uncommon with brain surgery, either.

It’s hard not to take such outbursts personally- because it is. It is personal to the one on the receiving end. All of it. When my dad first woke up from his 28 hour brain surgery he cursed at me, yelled and sent me away. We were so close before that yet it took two years for us to repair our scarred relationship enough to have him book a trip out to California which he never got to make.

I used Hospice services with my dad, also with my best friend who died at 37 of HIV related illness. Same scenario for my maternal grandmother who died years before my father in the same loving facility and in the same exact dimly lit room. Ironically though they hated one another. Also hospice was there with my grandfather Jack at his Miami condo.

In the hospital environment for my best friend Allan and later my dad, they were helpful throughout the entire process including wishes for end of life and all the dirty shit for grieving people who do not have the emotional strength to pull it all together. It’s too much for anyone. They also offered me perspective at a time when I was angry for losing two people who meant nearly everything to me.

How can I go on – I go on. Now I’m angry for different reasons but it seems no one wants to deal with stage 4 cancer and a prolonged state of severe depression that’s taking such a toll on me I cannot keep my anger contained. I seriously don’t understand why C still cannot get out of his own way for a long enough time to give me the emotional or physical support I so desire. Then I remember he can’t help it. I feel ashamed for my lack of patience and the need to be here for him is making me resentful. Until something happens.

I know I’m angry with C for having hereditary depression. I hold out my hope like some stupid flag leading a parade of one. I seem to be the only one left in his life, since he isolated himself from everyone else. Yet he’s so much better and I’m still quite angry. Learning to drop the anger and pick up the baton of gratitude must not get lost as an objective if I’m to live a full and rich life.

You see my point. I am angry with all of them to some degree. I’ve spent too much time crying and not nearly enough time being grateful. You see, cancer takes its victims down into places so dark and ugly sometimes we even hate ourselves – we are not humans we become a cancer in a body of genetic tangles as we, the progeny walk towards the graves our greats and grandparents now and forever inhabit.

Yet we, as their hopes, fade in our dying bodies.

Childhood’s Psychic Wounds and Cancer: repression, PTSD, and my metastasis

During my two stints at Commonweal’s Cancer Help Program diving deep into the mysteries of my psyche, I stumbled into a littoral funhouse of morphed emotions. Buried deep, repressed beyond recognition were, of course my parents, old wounds of words and frightening events, memories at the depths of uncharted deep oceanic waters. Running long, those deep eddies carried pain, swirling and kicking up sand and with it the dis-ease of the mind. So, let’s agree to the mind/ body/ spirit connection baseline for the sake of brevity, and assume these are one and the same, each effecting the other in sickness and in health.

Must we look in the mirrors of our mind to see the perceptions of our pasts, looking larger or smaller or not looking at all like reality. But these memories represent reality to us. For me, a deep sharp knife to the gut looks something like me as a seven year old. I remember I stood silently watching my father leave us. Bearded and in a t-shirt and torn jeans in 1972 the 8mm reel in my head plays a film of my dad with a suitcase under each arm pulling my mother on his right ankle, dragging her across the wood floor of the foyer to the heavy three lock door to our high rise apartment in New York. She yelled, crying, “you can’t leave me alone with these two kids!” And with that he kicked her arms loose and slammed the door. I ran to find him – to go with him – but the elevator had whisked him away to his new life with another woman and her infant son.

Years later after my father died in 2013, I found saccharine love letters and poems to this woman. Her son, now who would be reared on and off by my father who, to hurt his own father, liked to date women of color. I will not quote the letters of my grandfather to him asking him to go home to his family and leave the other so and so woman behind him, all would be forgotten. But poppa, for all your work on our behalf, we remained as “those kids” with my mother. Well, sort of.

I unfortunately became the de facto cook, housekeeper, babysitter of my brother three years my junior, after my mother moved us to Florida about a year or so later. She sold off our possessions. She even gave away my dog without so much as a warning to her sister’s housekeeper. She took Peaches a curly blonde small poodle in her soft large brown hands and off went my pet. I never had a dog again. At least not one I got to keep. I’ve always had cats. I suppose it was my way of subverting my mother’s desire to not have a high maintenance pet. Like children were high maintenance to her. Things to jettison when something better finally came along.

My father would later confess he wasn’t planned and my father was content with one child. Me. The planned one. Although I wasn’t born male – I was supposed to do the right thing and come into the world as Isaac not Ilene. However my mother wouldn’t hear his need to rear a single person to adulthood. He had 102 degree fever when my brother was conceived, and he blamed my siblings lack of intellectual prowess on his “sick sperm.” I kid you not.

It did not take her long to find my stepfather who hadn’t enough room for both of us. At 13 my mother moved her things into his house about four long miles from where we lived at the time. I was to tell no one. When my grandmother called, I was to tell her mom would call right back and immediately call her at my stepfather’s house. She will then call whomever called and talk to them as though she was calling from our home. She wasn’t there clearly. This went on for about a year and I watched my brother cooked cleaned and try to go to school as best as I could. But at 14 years old it’s kind of hard to do those things as we are not trained yet. But I was expected to do those things since I was seven years old and so I had about amount of experience by then. Experience no kid should really help.

About a year later, she took my brother with her. She left me there in a house with three bedrooms and a kitchen or living room I don’t have room two bathrooms and very little money. She paid, I recall, about a quarter of the rent and told me to get a roommate and a job. It’s hard to get a job at 14, however, when you’re almost 6 feet tall you can say you’re 18 and everyone will believe you. There was no way to get to school every day and immediately I went from honors student to failure, overnight. No one took notice; I was from a broken home so I failed in those days as was to be expected.

These are the wounds that don’t heal. These are the ones that stay with us for life. These are the events that cause insecurity, worry, stress, give us pause when getting into relationships, grow into those daemons which possess us, the goblins that never, ever die. At least not until we ourselves expire.

Courses of cognitive behavioral therapy over years have improved my mental stability allowing me to succeed in my life. I swore that I would not be a failure. I swear that to myself at 14 or 18 and a 24. I swear that to myself when I said I would be the CEO of a company by the time I was 45. I swear that to myself when I graduated university against everybody’s expectations.

And I swore that to myself when I was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. I would not be an early statistic, I said to myself. I would be an outlier. I’m going on five years now. And I suppose I am an outlier in a lot of ways. No one expected me to be alive now, not even my oncologist. And no one expected me to succeed either. Not even my parents.

I still definitely have issues with insecurity and with loss. I have an exceedingly difficult time with the telephone. I hate making phone calls as a result of those years of calling my father on behalf of my mother, and calling my mother to let her know so and so called and to call them back. Oddly, my brother did not tell me when my mother died, and we’d repaired our broken relationship years ago. Still he worried something would surface of that painful time making him look badly in front of my relatives. If any of you are reading this, that’s why you did not see me at the funeral. My aunt, brother and stepsister had determined it unnecessary for some reason.

No closure. No way to say goodbye for either of us. I’ll go to my death with that pain, too. But burying it deep I’ll argue, helps drive the diseases we suffer from including cancer. Our cellular structure can only handle so much psychological poisoning. Do any of you reading with cancer also suffer such deep wounds?

During the cancer whole program we talked about those things those deep wounds those things that don’t heal and getting rid of them somehow someway or at least making peace with ourselves so that we can heal her body is by healing or minds in her spirits. I believe that I’ve healed to a certain degree but I don’t think we have a really truly do get over these things. They’re too difficult and too hurtful and too sad. I miss my parents though they were not perfect and they did not know what they were doing at 25 when they heard me, nor at 28 when my brother was born.

However they did have time to mature but unfortunately they did not have time to grow up. I believe that I have and why I have survived as long as I have with the cancer that will not leave my body. On treatments that I will continue for the rest of my life. And if there is a heaven and I’m fairly certain that there isn’t, but if there is and they’re around, I hope I get to get some closure with them.

The poem below you’ll see some reflections of this and I hope you enjoy it. It’s slightly sad (but don’t worry the kittens get saved. 😄)

The Litter

Dark blue visions cloak the fight
Pink cheeky girls awakened
yawning at alleyway screams.
Just a caterwauling stray, they whisper,
slipping comfortablyinto their black
silken dreams
between rose petal pink sheets
curled up like kittens
kneading blindly into biscuits
dreaming of jasmine tea.

Another innocent mother who
never knew what to do:
incessantly they mew and cry
feed me groom me love me
choose me.
With her tongue like a steak knife
she cuts fleas and mites
from their new sprouted down.
Soft mews steal the silence,
Feeling their shark tooth claws —
Then the motor and telescoping
headlight beams
shock and scatter her over
around a green, greedy lawn
finally hiding under my bungalow porch.

Victims all, we find relief
in our own reflections.
In ponds and puddles seeing
All the glitter of fool’s gold.
Plates of glass form our images
As ghostly creatures in the dark,
Lights obscure the windows
From a daytime world view into a
Nighttime curtained off.
Framed into a single clean
picture of a solitary face –
Outside…pressing.
Mother’s never return
if they’ve run.
Now I help but fear
like anyone of us
they find a home?

Do the coats we wear
cover our wealth
from the pickpockets and the poor.
All of us victims
Our own voices crying in prayer
for peace, for pacification
for food, for mothers, for the one.
Saving anyone.