Monday, June 16, 2008

The C Word...Chris.

In March, by writing this post HERE, I tried to describe what it is like to hear the words,"You have cancer."

Apparently there is something that feels much, much worse.

The school where I have been subbing has a 'no cell phones' rule. You never see a teacher or an administrator talking on a cell phone. It is kind of cool. It gives the school an old-fashioned feel. I always bring my cell phone so that I have a clock. This way I can surreptitiously count down the minutes until I can say the most glorious words known to all substitute teachers across the world,"Children you may go to recess."

When my mother-in-law's name came up on my phone, I immediately felt an uneasiness. Chris always calls Steven's phone, not mine. They talk at least once a week. Thinking I would uphold the rules, and talk to her on a break, I didn't answer. When the phone lit up again seconds later, I excused myself from the first grade classroom.

I answered and Chris said,

"I have a brain tumor, I need to talk to Stevy but I don't know his number."

I spent the next three minutes insisting that she of course DID NOT have a brain tumor. I said that there was NO WAY she could have a brain tumor. She told me that her GP had given her an MRI and there was a tumor on it. I went on about GPs knowing NOTHING about MRIs, that of course it was a mistake, and what was this buffoon's number!? She gave me a number and asked me to call Steven and have him call her. I told her to calm down. I assured her that this was a mistake, that we would work this out and get to the bottom of this egregious error. I told her not to worry.

For a couple of weeks leading up to this day, Chris had been calling Steven. They are very close, but these calls were more frequent. Steven and I were convinced that Chris was a bit stressed out. Her symptoms (forgetting things, making mistakes at work) pointed, in our opinion, to stress. We even stayed up late the night before this call compiling a list of things we felt were contributing to her stress and anxiety. Steven planned to send this list via e-mail to reassure her that with a couple days off , she would be right as rain. He didn't send it that morning because he wanted to confirm with me that he had included all the reasons we had come up with.

After I talked to Chris that morning, I still thought that she was just stressed out. I turned the doorknob to go back into the classroom and discovered that the first grade had locked me out of the room. I pounded on the door,"Please LET ME IN!!!!" I pounded some more. Shit, I thought, how am I going to explain this to the administration? I was in the hallway, on my cell phone. I left twenty, seven year old children ALONE in a room. Luckily, a kind-hearted first grader sheepishly unlocked the door and let me in.

Something came over me.

You know when you have the flu and you are about to throw up? It was like that but without the temperature change your body gets. There was no chill, no heat flash. I felt like the life was just draining out of me through the soles of my feet.

Just then, at that moment, the fire alarm went off. Twenty first graders went berserk. Two of them seemed to be in mid air, as if they sprouted a trampoline beneath them. Two boys tried furiously to open the sliding glass doors that led to the garden and then to the street. Kids were running to three different exits, "Miss Julie! Miss Julie! We have to exit HERE!" "No HERE!" " No HERE!" I loudly request that everyone calm the hell down, and line up at the main door to the classroom. Laura yells, (Did I mention that she sounds exactly like Carol Channing?) "MISS JULIE WE NEED THE EMERGENCY PACK!" I asked her to get it.

Remarkably, we all file out. We walk in an orderly fashion to the parking lot. There of course was no fire. Each school has a required number of fire drills to conduct before the end of the year. School is out this coming Friday, so I assume they were, just like a cop at the end of the month, filling their 'quota'. The principal comes around and asks me if every student is accounted for. I say, "Yes, I think so." I am ashen and shaky. Laura says, "Everyone but JAMES!!" My shoulders fall and I am seconds away from tears. " Everyone but James,"I say defeated. "He is just absent today," Laura says. Luckily, he is just absent today, not lost in the non-fire.

On my break I went home. I told Steven about the phone call. I give him the number of the doctor who clearly doesn't know his ass from his elbow, and I go back to school.

I come home again while the kids have Japanese. I see Steven on the phone, a pen in his hand.

He has written on a Post-it....

Brain tumor.

He leaves for the airport. I go back to school.

"Miss Julie is crying."
"It's because her Grandma is sick."
"No, it's her mom!"
"NOOOO, it's her mom-in law."

(Are you starting to see why Miss Julie is not the best choice to lead a room full of children?)

School ends. I go home.

I diligently read about brain tumors. There are all sorts of brain tumors. Many are harmless. I read and read, and then I read some more. I remember the story of this actor. He had a brain tumor and he is fine! Still a great actor! I am encouraged. I read some more.

Oh God, just don't let it be this one thing. If it is this one thing, then we are in trouble.

Monday morning my husband's mother has a biopsy of her brain. It is confirmed to be the one thing it could not be. That is what it is. Incidence is approximately two to three new cases per 100,000 people, per year. Steven reminds me of what my doctor said to me about my biopsy, "98% of the time it is nothing." Why is it it that we keep falling into this category?

There is something much much worse than learning that you have cancer. It is learning that someone you love does.When that person is at least fifty percent responsible for creating the person you love most in the world, well what is there left to say?

I feel an anger now that is so intense it scares me. I have never felt this angry.

What do we do for Chris? Why is this happening? What will we do? How do we manage?

Is it that we have to experience this loss to understand our future children's losses?

Fuck that.

Steven lost his father already. We are empathetic and we are educated. We can figure out how to help them without this. This is not something we need.

This is instead something that I fear will cause us to crumble. All of us.

We Scramble.

We Cry.

We Hold On.

We Hope.

We Falter.

I Am Angry.

I Don't Know What to Do.


  1. Oh, Julie. Reading your posts about Chris has been heartbreaking. I haven't even known what to say to you, but I am thinking of you guys right now. She sounds like an amazing woman and I hope that somehow, there are better times for all of you in the future. If love alone could cure a person, you would have healed her already.

  2. Courage, strength and peace your way... and healing for Chris.

  3. I have too been really saddened when I read your posts about Chris. I wish there were words adequate to comment with. But, I know there aren't and you don't even really know me, so I don't want to come off fake and ridiculous.

    I'm not a terribly religious person, but just know, I'm going to say prayers for you guys and I'm sending you and your family good energy through the air between us.


  4. Your writing about this is incredibly powerful and moving. I hope that the inexplicable, undeserved, horrendous trend of being in the statistical fringe starts working in your favor and your mother in law is at least one of the 1 in 5000.

  5. Ugh. This is horrible. I am so so sorry. It totally totally sucks - no two ways about it.

    My dad died of a super-rare cancer, and I still ask why and it still doesn't make sense.

    You are in my thoughts and prayers.

  6. Your posts have been heartbreaking. I am so sorry that you are having to deal with this. I am hoping and praying that Chris is the 1 in all the statistics. She sounds like an amazing woman and I pray you find peace in all of this craziness.

  7. Ugh. This post just makes it so real. There are no words to make it better, I know. I'm praying.

  8. This is a crazy story and I am so sorry it is happening to you and your family. *hugs*

  9. I don't know you - I found your site on the adoption yahoo group - I love the title and wanted to see read about the person or people who thought of such an amazing title. I am so very sorry for your heartbreak. Your writing is very pure. I will keep you and your family in my thoughts. I wish all of you some moments of peace in the midst of the insanity.


  10. I wish I could make a majic cup of Coffee Bean wth whip cream crack to make this all go away...there must be a silver lining somewhere...I hope you find it soon!!

  11. i am so very sorry. my thoughts are with you guys.

  12. Julie... I 2nd Heathers comment. If love could heal her, it is without question the tumor would be gone. It is so obvious that your families closeness goes beyond the norm.
    Thank you for sharing. Chris and your entire family is being thought of and prayed for.

  13. This is such a moving post. I'm so sorry for you guys, and I really do feel the hurt, and the anger, and the bewilderment. I'm glad you can express it.

    I just DON'T KNOW WHY, either, why do we have to hurt so much, why is there so much pain in the world. Is there really a grand plan, a REASON for it all? Do we really come out on the other side of tragedy as stronger and better people?

    Anyway, nothing I can say to help, except to send you all the virtual support I can.

    Btw, I subbed for a year, too, after teaching for a year in the public school. It was quite the experience! Your story really brings it back.

  14. My thoughts are with you your husband and his sweet mother....


  15. Hi Julie,

    You've been on my mind a lot lately, and i wish there was something that I could do or say that would magically make this all go away. It fucking sucks. And you have every right to be angry (and sad and scared and every other emotion in the universe, sometimes all at once).

    Thank you for sharing your story with such candor. If anything positive can emerge from tragedy, it's the commonality of human experience.

    Wishing you peace and positivity.

  16. My father died from a brain tumor (Glialblastoma) 11 years ago. It sucked the life right out of me. You can and you will get through this. There is a lot of support out there, but it is not an easy ride. Cancer never is.

  17. I am so sorry for you both, the pain is excruciating.
    Your writing is beautiful, thanks for sharing with us.
    Peaceful thoughts sent your way...

    ps. i would totally trust you with a full classroom. And I have been pushing for japanese over german for a while now :)