Pairs of Two
Two has always been my favorite number. It’s even, prime, and wonderfully simple. Even so, my favorite thing about the number is that it’s perfectly predictable. So many things come in pairs of twos; I have two eyes, two ears, two hands and feet. I have two bookshelves in my room holding my favorite books, most of which have a prequel and sequel. Every day I burn two candles on my desk, after I complete my two way trip to school. I thought I was prepared for every harmonious pair presented to me, but I was wrong. I was not prepared for cancer.
2020 was going to be my year. After all, it’s a decade of twos! How could it go wrong? I maintained this positive, naive mindset until early April, when I began to worry. My parents started disappearing multiple times a week, and I was sure I knew exactly what was wrong; they were getting a divorce. These secretive outings spanned for hours at a time, and often my parents snuck in late at night, teary eyed. I thought I had read the writing on the wall; although it made no sense to me how two of the most loving people in the world could part, I was completely convinced. So convinced that, when they finally sat me down and said “Ava, we need to talk,” I immediately blurted out, “You’re divorcing, aren’t you?”
They burst into laughter, and unbeknownst to me, this was one of the last times we would laugh together for a very long time.
My mom had two breasts – cancer found them both. My parents explained this to me calmly, so calmly that it didn’t seem real. How could they be so calm when I felt like my world was crumbling around me? I would come to bitterly learn that this was because everything said about cancer is an understatement. I was told she would lose a bit of hair, be a little sick for a while, and then everything would be better. This didn’t stop the tears from suddenly rushing to my eyes, nor did it lessen the pain when this bandaid was ripped off and I discovered how harrowing cancer treatment actually is. It’s not just losing hair and feeling sick – it’s losing your life without dying.
My dad had two kidneys – thankfully for him, cancer only found one. After my mom’s initial diagnosis, my dad began having severe anxiety induced stomach pains. It got so bad that his abdomen was scanned and, while they found nothing wrong with his stomach, they did discover tiny tumors in his kidney. Despite the diagnosis, he is considered incredibly lucky; most people do not discover renal cell carcinoma until it is far too late to be treated. This always baffled me – he was diagnosed with deadly cancer and still considered lucky. I would also come to learn that nothing about cancer makes sense.
Even so, one of the worst things about cancer is that it is persistent. You think the diagnoses are the worst of it, that the initial shock and anger and sadness can’t get worse, but it’s not even the tip of the iceberg. Many people experience cancer in an indirect, detached way; you may hear about a distant relative or friend getting cancer through the phone. You may send your condolences, maybe even a card or small gift. You’ll think about them occasionally, and hope they’re doing well. But living in a home with cancer eats away at you. You feel its presence haunting the hallways and lingering between the walls. You feel it in the silence, in the ticking of the clock in the living room that you never heard before cancer muted your world. You feel it in your gut and behind your breasts – some of us literally. You try to escape it by going out with friends, taking walks, drowning yourself in work, yet at the end of the day when you make your journey to bed, you feel it there too, sleeping beside you, whispering in your ear to keep you wide awake. You feel it as you cry silently in your bed, after you’ve brushed your teeth twice, checked in on two parents, lived two lives.
I felt the effects of cancer in tangible ways too. I felt it at the empty dinner table full of food our friends delivered us, none of which my mom could stomach. None of us truly could. Twenty two bouquets of flowers blanketed our house, and I felt it as the sickly sweet smell turned into a pungent rot as they slowly wilted away. My mom loves flowers, but had no strength to take care of them. It always seemed that no matter how much I watered, groomed, and fertilized, they always slipped away from me into withering decay. Often at night, I could hear my little sister crying in her room across the hallway, and I felt it when I could not console her because, well, what was there left to say?
For far too long, cancer robbed me of my words. They got stuck in my throat and jammed between choked sobs. It’s hard for me to describe the pain, the anger, and the boredom of it, and the long awaited joy I felt the day both my parents were finally cancer free. I will never forget the look of triumph and exhaustion on my mom’s face the day of her last treatment. Witnessing recovery filled me with hope for my own future, and showed me just how resilient cancer survivors are. I hope to learn from and carry this kind of resilience with me throughout my life, and I know that as I face many hardships, I am lucky to have two of the strongest people I know right by my side.