By Francie Arenson Dickman
One look at the dog and I knew that my surgery had been upstaged.
This was going to be like any other road trip home from Wisconsin to pick up stuffed animals that had been accidentally left on the camp bus, except that on this one, I needed to tell my kids I had cancer. I’d been stewing on what I’d say for sometime, and being a writer, a fan if there ever was one of controlling the narrative, I had my presentation scripted. I’d kick off with, “This is going to sound worse than it is.” I’d wrap up with something like, “It’s no big deal.” In the middle, I’d drop the phrases, “a little bit of breast cancer” and “a little bit of surgery.” I’d be breezy. I’d be calm. And I’d be acting. Isn’t that so much of what mothers do? Spin-doctoring is not in the basic job description. But it should be. All mothers, at some point or another, will pretend the new hair-do isn’t hideous. Or the bloody gash is just a little scrape. Or the bi-lateral mastectomy and reconstruction will, for her kids, be just another day, only without their mother. I suppose these maternal charades fall into the category of the little, white lie. We mean well. We’re out to either make our kids feel better or ourselves look better so that in some therapist’s office somewhere down the line we’re not catching the blame for something.
My own mother, for example, in effort to introduce healthy foods, once tried to pass off fish as veal. She disguised the fish in breading so that it resembled her familiar veal cutlets. “Tonight’s veal is going to be delicious,” she told us gesturing, without pause, to the baking sheet on the counter. But then she put the “veal” in the oven, and the house began to stink. Like fish. Her cover was blown. We ended up at McDonald’s.
But where would we end up aside from a therapist’s office if my own cover was blown, if my daughters had to digest the full story of my bout with breast cancer, including the risks of surgery and my own fear? And so, I went to great lengths to ensure that during the weeks of my surgery and subsequent recovery, our house would run so smoothly that my girls, both 14, would barely know I was gone. There wouldn’t be a wrinkle in their routines, let alone their psyches. I arranged for dinners. I typed out schedules. I even sent the dog away to a sitter. As anyone who’s ever had a dog knows, if you are attempting to control a narrative, a dog in the picture is the last thing you need.
I went into the hospital. I came out. All with little issue, fanfare or expression from my daughters, which at the time—right up until the dog was in a fire at the dog sitter’s—I took as a sign of their strength, that they’d bought into my campaign of “It’s no big deal.” It didn’t cross my mind until, as I mentioned, the dog got stuck in a fire, that the absence of their questions and their stoic sweeping of floors while their mother sat motionless on the couch was, in fact, a charade, as well. They didn’t know how to handle the situation, I’m sure they’ll be telling their therapists, because their mother, who was plugged into Netflix, binging on Friday Night Lights and Norco, wasn’t giving them the words or the tools or the permission. In fact, they’ll tell their therapists, their mother was beginning to enjoy herself.
This was true. While a six-hour operation does seem like a ways to go for a little time off, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that a part of me wasn’t enjoying the role-reversal. “There are many positives that come from cancer,” people all along my journey had told me. All along, I’d added the words, “assuming you survive,” in my head. But now, with the surgery behind me and drugs in my system, I was beginning to buy into this narrative, too. “It’s a blessing in disguise,” I told my husband. I was getting rest and our kids, who lacked in household skills, were gaining experience. “It’s a win-win,” I said from the couch as my children took in the mail and boiled the noodles.
Soon after I convinced myself of this, the house began to smell. Not like fish but like smoke. The dog hadn’t been burned, but he’d inhaled smoke for hours on end. My husband had collected him from the sitter’s while my kids and I, exhausted from pretending that everything was no big deal, were still asleep. When we awoke, there it was—a furry hole in my narrative—another patient on the couch. This one couldn’t open his eyes. Or wag his tail. Not only couldn’t he move, but he couldn’t breathe either. My first reaction was, of course, to curse the situation. One look at the dog and I knew that my surgery had been upstaged. Next to him, the beloved dog, I became as I’d been wanting to be seen: no big deal. Forget the research I’d done on how to talk to your kids about cancer, I was now scrambling to explain the term hyperbaric chamber, which is where the dog spent the next four days at a hospital in the hinterlands with my children and my husband at his side. So long to the mother being mothered. So long to the round-the-clock care. So long to the drugs, even, as I now needed to be lucid to care for myself. So long, too, to my charade. Our house turned to chaos. My own mother, who I’d forgiven for the “veal” incident, came over. She did the laundry and brought me food, while I murmured, “Be careful what you wish for.”
Only after the fact, after the vigils were held for the dog, the tears over the dog dried, the worry about the dog’s prognosis died down, could I see that the dog did us a favor. The dog himself had wagged the dog. He’d made me seem in relatively good shape, but more than that he was, as he always is, a diversion. He vomits on the car keys as we’re rushing to leave. He pulls the last piece of steak off the dinner table. He lightens the mood, relieves tension and makes us forget our concern of the moment, which on that day at that time, I know, was me. At least that’s the story I’m telling myself now.
Francie Arenson Dickman is a contributing blogger to Brain, Child. Her essays have also appeared in The Examined Life, A University of Iowa Literary Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, and Literary Mama. She lives outside of Chicago with her husband and twin daughters and is currently completing her first novel.