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Telling the Children About Cancer

The Family Gathers Around Martha

Martha Blowen, my partner in life and in work, died on August 18, 2008,  from metastasized breast cancer. The following is from collated excerpts of journals we both kept at the time.  (Before she passed away, she gave me permission to share her entries.)

The memoir is called My Eye Fell Into the Soup, after a dream in which one of her eyes fell into a cauldron. She later interpreted this to mean she was not paying attention to her health. (This is written about elsewhere.) As with most people, I suppose, the cancer diagnosis was a shock. The italicized excerpts are hers: the others, mine.

The first excerpt, “A Cancer Diagnosis”, is available here, the second, “Will We Find Cancer There, Too?” here, the third, “Coping With Chemo—Again” here.

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I drove into Lewiston alone to fetch Zoé. Martha stayed at the house to nap rather than drive into town. It had been a long day for her and she wanted to be rested for when Zoé came.

Anxious waiting

It was dark at the bus station on Oak Street. The late November evenings had grown quite cold. As I waited for the bus, I walked back and forth in front of the station. It is a new space on one corner of the first floor of a large two-story parking building. When I was a child, there were many little stores here housed in wood buildings. The downtown was more extensive then. Much of it was torn down in the late 1950s and early 1960s for urban “renewal,” and the rest of what had been the downtown had been abandoned to lax zoning. As I nervously distracted myself with what once was, a Vermont Lines bus rounded the corner. I said to myself, “Our retreat time alone is over.” Even as I felt the loss of this intimacy with Martha, I was also excited to have Zoé here to help shoulder the huge emotional burden. She will pitch in. She is so much like Martha.

Zoé arrives

As I waited for the bus to stop and for the passengers to disembark, I had an image of myself as a young man coming to visit my parents. Long black hair, beard. I would have hitchhiked to a point in town and then called my father to pick me up. My father always seemed mildly surprised to discover once again who I had become. I sensed he was living my experiences vicariously, living some youth he had missed. He has been dead many years. Now, I am the father, but I do not live Zoé’s life vicariously. I have had my own life—and I am still having my own life. In its difficult way, this is it—cancer and all. I have no other life.

When she disembarked, we hugged. Then, I placed her things in the car and she got in.

The ride home

“How is she?” she asked immediately.

“You’ll be surprised at how much she has changed. It has been hard,” I said as Zoé and I headed back to Lisbon Falls. The cab of the Hyundai Accent seemed small. I could feel her uneasy presence next to me. This was difficult for her—and for me, too. It was the first time I had spoken of the recent past to someone for whom it really matters, for whom Martha’s death would be a shattering experience. “You’ll find that she has little energy. She seems wan to me.”

“This is all so quick!”

“Yes. She has changed so much in the last eight days. It’s like the cancer, now that it is diagnosed, has stepped forward and has made its claim. Or, perhaps it’s the analgesic drugs that are already exhausting her. They are strong and they upset her stomach.

“I can’t believe what’s happening,” she said. “I’ve been thinking of this all week since Mama called. I can’t wait to see her!”

It is good to have Zoé here. She and Maxim are the family Martha and I have devoted much of our adult lives to creating and sustaining.

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