I just finished The Middle Place by Kelly Corrigan, and I am aching. Aching at the beauty of it, at her good humor, honesty, and vulnerability, at the awful fates that give a young mother of two stage 3 breast cancer, at the even worse fates that give that young mother’s beloved father his own grave cancer diagnosis just months after her own. I ache because the book is really beautiful; it’s a book that I wish that I had written- and that ache turns into a shudder because I was living half of the book’s premise at the same time she was.
Here is the beginning of a piece called The Cancer Siren that I wrote over the course of 2004 and 2005, as the storyline of my life as that time played out:
My father has the open moon face of Morgan Freeman. It is a face that shows its vulnerability in every collection of blotched pigment or skin tag. It is a face now crowned by cancer.
When my grandmother was diagnosed with skin cancer, my father and his brother took advantage of her deafness and did not tell her. I was horrified, curious as to how she could fight cancer when she didn’t know what she was fighting or even that she was fighting. But they insisted, her age considered a liability in handling the news.
And, now, years after their vow of silence, I am the cancer siren. I am the one who spots cancer, insists that the patient goes to the doctor, hears the results, and translates them to our family. And I am not as discrete with the information.
I thought I spotted my father’s cancer in the bleachers of a collegiate soccer game. Sitting behind him, we talked about work, the windows my parents were installing, the attic that needed organizing. At half-time, he removed his hat and stared across the field at my brother, the coach, preparing for half-time remarks.
Looking down at my dad, I noticed two black splotches, abysses of sickness, on his scalp. I remembered my grandmother’s melanoma.
“Dad, you have two moles on your head that you need to get checked out. Are you going to the doctor any time soon?” I held the metallic clang of terror away from my words.
“That’s nothing,” he said, unconcerned. “Check this out.”
He felt around his coiled curls, thick and unruly like mine, until his fingers settled on a bump like a small devil’s horn protruding from near his left forehead.
“Looks like you only earned half your horns, perhaps you should behave a little more poorly. You doing something about that?” I asked, less concerned about the horn than the moles.
“Yeah, I have a visit scheduled at the VA for Good Friday.”
It was September.
“Dad, are you kidding me? That’s not going to work. You have to get in there sooner– even if you don’t go through the VA. And you have to get those moles removed.”
Six weeks later, he went into the VA to have the horn and the moles removed and biopsied. A week later, I talked him into telling me the results, overpowering his desire to leave all of us in the dark like his mother years ago.
“I have lymphoma.”
I was prepared for melanoma, prepared for his skin to have conspired against him. I was not prepared for cancer to be in him– to be moving fluidly through his blood.
He had an appointment the next day with his general practitioner to discuss the possibilities outside the VA system. I was going home.
Off the phone, I ran to my husband, crawled into our bed, pushed my head against his chest.
“Papito has lymphoma.”
The salt water of my sadness washed over me, numbing my throat.
Driving home, I called my mother to see how she was doing, how my brother and sister were.
“We’re not telling Sonia.” Mamacita insisted.
As if they could hide cancer from a family member, but, of course, my parents thought they could.
“Mom, you have to tell Sonia.”
“But she isn’t like you; she can’t handle this.”
I had no idea that four hours later, I would be telling my sister that our beloved father had cancer.
For the rest of the drive, I thought about how this could be the ride that indicated never going back. The day that changed it all even though the cancer had been there before, trying to sneak past my family.
And here is how Corrigan begins her book:
The thing you need to know about me is that I am George Corrigan’s daughter, his only daughter…
I think people like him because his default setting is open delight. He’s prepared to be wowed- by your humor, your smarts, your white smile, even your handshake- guaranteed, something you do is going to thrill him… People walk away from him feeling like they’re on their game, evenn if they suspect that he put them there.
Back to me:
So, yeah, I am self-aware enough to know that part of the reason why I loved this book is because I cannot resist the storyline and my little intersection with some of it- that I am a girl who is her father’s daughter, that when he was diagnosed, I tried to boss that damn cancer out of him and walked the fine line of begging and demanding that his doctors understand the urgency of this particular situation since it was ours and all, that my brother called me Student Body President of the cancer and meant it not admiringly because I had a pad of ceaseless questions for the doctors and couldn’t summon up the lies to tell my mom that my dad wouldn’t lose his hair and all that other placating stuff. Yeah, I get that I can’t separate that part of me from the reading of this book. And it is why I almost didn’t read the book even after catching a lovely review of it somewhere. But then I ran across an even lovelier essay by Corrigan in a recent issue of O magazine and I couldn’t resist the book any longer. I went to the bookstore and searched it out. All that, and, yet I know, if I could be completely objective, I would still think this book was luminous. So pick it up. Break your heart open with it, and let Corrigan put it all back together with her and Greenie’s story.