I’m about to board a plane and travel home to see my family. That’s a simple sentence, but before cancer, it meant something entirely different than it does now. When I was in my 20s, going home meant being observed, and I didn’t want to be observed. I dreaded having to explain myself to my more rational relatives, because damn if I knew what I was spending my life doing or where I was going. I wanted fiercely to be a writer, but knew it would be unwise to say so. As the child of academics, I was going to be asked for evidence, and I would come up short, and then there’d be a day’s silence on the topic, and then, somewhere between Sunday dinner and the airport, I’d be asked gently when I was going to come to my senses and make a realistic plan for my life.
This went on for a couple of decades.
Oddly enough, it was cancer that gave me an ambition my whole family could get behind.
On a day in 2001, I left my parents a voice message, with apologies for giving bad news long distance. I told them a) I’d been diagnosed, and b) the doctor had given me a 50/50 chance of staying alive for five years.
An hour later, my phone rang. “I feel lucky,” my dad said. No preamble, no argument, no explication.
I smiled. “Me too.”
Just like that, we found a new groove. With few exceptions, we’ve stayed in it.
We live across the country from each other, so it wasn’t about face-to-face visits. Every time I went for chemo, my dad and stepmom would send gorgeous flowers. I don’t know if they instructed the florist, but never once did their arrangements include flowers whose fragrance gagged me after chemo. (Gardenias, I’m looking at you.)
Best of all, my dad sent me books. In particular, I loved Paris to the Moon, a wonderful memoir by the New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik, about raising his young family in Paris while writing for the magazine about French politics and culture.
My favorite chapter concerned an ever-expanding bedtime story Gopnik cooked up for his young son, Luke. Wanting to introduce his child to the American sport of baseball, Gopnik invented a character, known only as the Rookie, a pitching phenomenon whose skill was such that the New York Giants signed him for the 1908 season—despite the fact that the Rookie, like Luke, was three years old.
According to Gopnik, the story began when the Rookie was out walking with his mother one day and discovered that he had an “uncanny gift for throwing stones at things. He picked one up and threw it so hard that it knocked a robin off its perch a mile away, and then, after his mama chided him, he threw another one, just as far but so softly that it snuggled into the nest beside the bird without breaking an egg.”
Even through the miasma of chemo, I settled right into the story of the Rookie. It was delightful down to the smallest detail. It was also familiar. I remembered that, like Luke Gopnik, I was the child of a writer father who knew how to tell a whale of a bedtime story.
Memories began to unfold for me. In my dad’s case, the fabulous stories emanated from the pear tree in our otherwise brown back yard. We lived in Wichita Falls, Texas, where everything was sharp, even the grass under your feet. Somehow our yard contained a big pear tree. It was startling, plunked down right in the middle of the dirt, as though it had landed there by mistake. Maybe that’s what gave my dad the idea that the pear tree was a kind of portal to another world, where endless swashbuckling adventures happened to my little brother and me.
I was about Luke’s age when my dad started telling us his pear tree stories. I wholeheartedly believed that if you got a good running start, you would pass behind the pear tree and wake up chasing Visigoths, or flapping your wings to fly.
At four, I didn’t perceive these as stories. They happened to me.
One day my dad broke the news that the tree doctor had come, and the pear tree was rotten inside, and it would have to come down. I hid with my face to the wall as the chainsaws ripped and roared outside. I let myself be coaxed out afterward, because what else could I do, but I made myself a secret promise: I might live in a world without a pear tree, but I would never accept it.
It’s not like I lost my imagination in the years that followed. But wherever my creativity led, I seemed to collide with reality, often in the form of my dad. Now a professor of literature, he seemed to have become someone whose approval was out of reach. It seemed childish even to me, but I wanted to impress the guy.
Who knew that cancer would reset the stage for us?
After I finished my chemo and went back to work, my father subscribed to my magazine. Given our differences of opinion over the years, I knew that every page of every issue would contain something he’d feel at odds with. But he did it. And he never commented except to say, “My favorite part of your Q&A interviews is where you and your subject are bantering and there’s a parenthesis that says “Anne laughs.”
And so cancer gave my dad and me the chance to learn about each other. It gave us a window, and we both took the chance to look through.
We fended off the monster, and the pear tree stands again.
I’d love to hear your stories about living on beyond cancer. Please email me here, or at email@example.com.
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