December 17, 2004
My understanding of classic literature and religious teaching tells me that purgatory is a place where the newly dead go to atone for their sins before being allowed to enter heaven. While my personal spiritual belief system doesn’t include the concept of sin or even heaven for that matter, I find myself in a living purgatory currently. Wednesday my father called me to say that my mother has been diagnosed with lung cancer. It has already spread far enough (i.e., both lungs) that cure is no longer a possibility. The treatment will only control and attempt to contain its spread. Put bluntly, my mother will in all likelihood die from lung cancer.
I have always known that my parents would eventually die, and that I would have to deal with the aftermath of those events. And in the past few years I have become acutely aware that as they both approached age eighty, that they were also approaching the end of their lives. Intellectually understanding this concept and emotionally incorporating it are two very different things. When my father said mom had cancer, and that cure was out of the question, all the intellectual preparation went out the window. This is now real. In an attempt at black humor, “This is not a drill.”
I spoke briefly with my mom Wednesday evening. She is currently in the hospital to expedite the initial round of tests that will determine the type and extend of cancer she has. Once that determination is complete she will start chemotherapy and radiation treatment. Physically, other than shortness of breath caused by a blockage in one lung (the tumor), she isn’t sick. That will rapidly change as her body suffers the ravages of the chemicals and radiation used to contain this disease.
Even now, after knowing about her cancer for a couple of days, it is still surreal to me. I hear the words, and I know they carry an awful importance with them. But the meaning hasn’t truly registered yet. It isn’t that I don’t understand what cancer can do to a person, or the impact of it on a family, it is that I don’t want to face this particular process yet again. My sister died of leukemia, my niece was born with neuroblastoma (which, thankfully was fully removed in time to save her life), my mother has had 3 rounds with breast cancer, my cousin has Lymphoma (treatments are going very well), and now my mom has lung cancer. To say that I have an intimate knowledge of, and hatred for, cancer would be putting it mildly.
I’m sure that the coming days and weeks will bring with them the entire spectrum of emotions and fears, hopes and realities. What I am not sure about is how I am going to cope with this on top of everything else current in my life. Purgatory exists right here on Earth.