To My Future Self,
I hope you are reading this some time in the future. I am 16 now, and there are some important things I need to tell you that I don’t want you to forget.
We studied the human brain today in school. I learned how your memory is not a neat film strip of events, but a reconstruction of unorganized pieces that are scraped together by your brain. It is influenced by your own opinions, and can have added shapes or changed colors produced by your own imagination. Most importantly, a considerable part of your recollections will dwindle away. Sometimes, I focus really hard, and strain to try and remember what her voice sounded like. Or the way she held me on her lap brushing my hair, and kissed my forehead with a smile. But I can’t, because I was so young the memory has either vanished or become barely graspable, and it is the most debilitating feeling to lose the mental picture of the one person you want to clutch on to more than life. I am scared of how my memory has ebbed away, and of how the mental chalk picture I have of her is being rained on by time. Staring at a still photo in a wooden frame and not being able to recall the person in it is one of the most unsatisfying and devastating feelings I have ever felt. Lifeless pictures can’t fill the gap in my memory or my heart. How can I have so little left of my mom?
My teacher said that your brain can purposefully blot out recollections of stress you want to forget, or accurately remember traumatic experiences. I only get vague and blurry images scattered around, a doorknob that I was assigned to sanitize to keep mom healthy, or the sherbet ice cream the hospice gave me when I visited. All of them are objects and not her, except for the day she passed away which is engrained in my head and as vivid as reality.
It was just over 8 months after my mom had been diagnosed with cancer, and the middle of November, when we prepared for a birthday gathering in the hospice for my mom. Seven years ago I spent that sunny morning at my friend’s house, and we cut out dozens of bright red paper links that each guest could sign to join into a chain for her room. I arrived at the hospice excited to celebrate but my mom lay frail and very still, breathing heavily in a bed surrounded by humming machines. The party was cancelled. I knew, everyone knew, that this was it, that this birthday candle was beginning to flicker and dim. I was asked to go stand by her bed and talk to her, and was told that though she could not respond, she could hear my voice. There is no way to prepare for the last words you can say to your mom. I was an awkward and confused third grader, and there was nowhere to begin the final things I could let her know, of how much I loved her and would miss her, and how we would be okay. I don’t remember if I said anything at all, but oh how my heart screams every time I think of the endless words that would flow out of me like rain now. I sat on a couch in her room with my family and waited an agonizing wait of watching her slip from me, until she passed away. We wept and wept, huddled together, and I gripped on to them to try and fight the loneliness that overcame me. Watching her body wheeled out was the last time I would see her, I would never get to feel that kiss on my forehead or that stroke of her hand again. It was as if someone had come in uninvited, given you little to no warning, ripped away a chunk of your heart, and then sent you back to reality. The world unbelievably was the same, but I now had an empty and hollow wound burdening me, making me wonder how life could keep going when I felt so injured. Everywhere I only saw where she used to be, and I cried for days.
What I want you to know though, are the lessons that come with cancer.
I know that there is a grave fear of being different from those around you, and of not having a “normal” life. Let me tell you that not one other person in my elementary school class had lost a parent, or even understood the meaning and complexity of the word cancer. I remember that about a week after my mom died, my well-intended teacher had everyone in my class of 60 kids write me a letter saying they were sorry for my loss, that would later be delivered in a woven basket to my door. I took one look at the crayon colored cards and broke into hysterical tears. I wanted more than anything to go back to a sense of normality and be a regular student, and each letter of condolences only reminded me of how I was different. I was so frustrated that people treated me with a sense of pity and sadness, when I was still a child, wanting to look forward to recess like everyone else. After so much chaos, I needed a schedule, a routine, a lunch time, and some, dare I say it, homework. But wanting life to be normal wasn’t enough, and the fact was that life wasn’t the same. Rather, I learned that part of living is things changing, becoming different, and that it will always be okay. Remember that when things seem in chaos, that your new “regular” schedule will form, you will accept yourself for who you become, and the sun will keep rising, however impossible it seems.
There is usually only one reaction to “My mom died of cancer”. It involves a muffled apology, a blushing “sorry for your loss”, and an awkward change of subject. I remember the first and only time I actually had a friend ask me about what happened. We were sitting in a restaurant when I first told of her of my mom, and she calmly picked up a French fry and asked me about my experience. I think I did a double take in surprise. I was honestly so stunned that I didn’t know what to say, being directly confronted by the ominous subject that is usually never brought up. It was at that moment of eating a hamburger when I realized that I wanted to talk to someone, I wanted to confide in someone, and I wanted to let someone in. People assume that I am depressed, angry, and defensive about cancer. And I am, but that ignores that I might also be lost, confused, and alone, and don’t want to talk. It’s like a hole inside of me that everyone felt too awkward to try and fill, though if they did it would help smooth and sooth my heart. Why is cancer unintentionally awkward, when it effects so many of us? I think people really give the word cancer a more fearful and destructive meaning by not want to talk about it, a he-who-must-not-be-named in Harry Potter type thing. I learned the difference between being polite and being a friend. You should strive to not avoid awkward topics, but instead to be open to talking to people about how they feel, so you can get to know them better. Not ignoring an aspect of someone’s person and being able to talk to and understand that part of their life is a skill you can use to help others around you, as well as yourself.
Cancer is something that is telling you to shut down. It’s a hurricane; it throws your world around a little, puts in some 180 degree spins, and levels it out for you to face the destruction. It was so easy to feel lonely. One year, I spent a week staying with my neighbors. My brothers were at college and my dad was on a business trip, so I was living alone at home by day and sleeping at my kind, yet slightly dysfunctional neighbors by night. This particular night was the anniversary of my mom’s death, and I was awake at midnight on a lumpy futon in a foreign house. My neighbors didn’t understand that day’s meaning to me, my friends didn’t know of it, my family was all miles away, and I felt desperately alone. I missed my mom so much that day that it hurt and it ached; I felt as if my heart had caved in to leave a vacant void that would never be filled by her, but only the empty misery of her absence. I was in an unfamiliar house, trying to be quiet as I sobbed, planning to run away back home, and I truthfully needed some help. So I made a conscious decision to pick up my phone and call my best friend. Granted she was awake, and after hearing me pour my emotions out, got me feeling alive again in minutes. I realized then that I couldn’t always wait for people to come help me people don’t know if I’m struggling unless I tell them and let them in. It was difficult to show someone that maybe I was not as strong as I thought, but I know it took courage. You need to know that you have to make an effort to welcome love, and to open up to people for support. Life isn’t mean to be fought alone, and if life is telling you to close off and run away, I am telling you to go call a friend.
Though memories fade, I know in my mind somewhere there is a bank of knowledge. Every time someone tells me a detail about my mom, or I read a little snippet about her from an old letter, I collect and file it into a large cabinet I have up in my brain, which I treasure with all my heart. My recollection of her is weak, but she is not gone. She raised me to be how I am now, and due to her and the experiences I have had after her death, I know I am a better person. I think of her everyday, and know she is with me and part of every action and decision I make, and the ones you are making too. Remember these things, hold on to them, and cherish them, as they are part of you as well as me.
To My Future Self,