In my family, cancer is a punch line. Life is treated as a silly inconvenience, something that gets in the way of having a good time. Drug and alcohol addictions are viewed as endearing and comical personality traits. Everyone laughs when Uncle Bill gets drunk and gropes his wife on Christmas Day. We chuckle at mental illness; Great Aunt Dorothy's hypochondria is the source of endless material for jokes, and my brother's frequent stays at rehab centers in Hollywood are related as if they were plotlines of a situational comedy. On holidays, my aunts and brother beg each other for Valium. I found out about my grandfather's prostate cancer in a casual off-handed way. We were gathered together for Thanksgiving dinner, and everyone was sitting at card tables getting ready to eat turkey that had been cooked in a bag, an idea someone had gotten from Reader's Digest. It was impossible to hear anything, or to keep one sister's voice separate from the others. My mother comes from a family of eight — three brothers and four sisters.
The sisters are as tight-knit as elementary school girls and just as immature. When they were young, they were all radiant and beautiful, despite their hand-me-down clothes. They knew how to "work it," and have all aged well into attractive women. They dress fashionably in a blue-collar, middle-aged way, mixing trendy tops from the mall with their ’80s stone-washed jeans.
On that particular Thanksgiving, Day, my mother laughed as the dog approached my grandfather. "Keep the dog away from Dad!" she cried. And Linda, Susie and Maureen immediately burst into laughter. My sister, cousin and I looked at each other in confusion. At these functions, we sat at our own table, making cynical and cruel observations of our elders while we secretly enjoyed their perverted outrageous personalities, the almost pleasing cacophony of their voices.
"Yeah, don't let Moses get near Papa!" my Aunt Susie said to my Aunt Maureen, leaning across the table to touch her arm. She laughed into her mashed potatoes, as her eyes began to tear.
"He's got radioactive balls!" Linda exclaimed. At this, the sisters doubled over in laughter, howling as they exchanged glances with one another. My grandfather seemed to think this was funny as well, and he laughed along with his daughters.
"You girls ..." he said, as he wiped gravy off his chin. My grandpa has an old Polish face, with a big misshapen nose and just a few tufts of white hair on the sides of his head. He has always seemed like a caricature to me, telling his inappropriate tasteless jokes, and forgetting our names each year. He is kind of like our own personal Rodney Dangerfield.
His wife spoke up, "Oh, no, no — it’s OK. The doctor said it’s OK to have him near small children and dogs again. It's been six months." She spoke in a serious tone, which made my aunts laugh even harder. She is their stepmother, my grandfather's second wife, and she has never fit in. She doesn't understand our humor.
Finally, my sister and I couldn't take it anymore.
"What the fuck are you guys talking about?" I asked.
Aunt Maureen turned to address us. She is the most conservative of the sisters, and the one with the biggest mouth. "Don't you know about Papa's cancer?"
"Cancer? What are you talking about?" I didn't feel sad or nervous; I just wanted to know what in the hell was going on.
"Last year Papa got prostate cancer, so they had to put ..." she started to laugh, "they had to put ..." My aunt was laughing so hard she was unable to continue.
Susie jumped in, "They had to put radioactive pellets in his balls!! To treat the cancer! So he couldn't have kids on his lap, or get too close to dogs!" And with that she threw her head back, laughing hysterically.
My sister, cousin and I looked at each other, trying desperately not to laugh. We had decided recently that we were tired of our family's incessant joking and immaturity. I looked at Jen and bit my lip. She looked at our cousin Nicole who was staring hard at her creamed corn. Jen spoke first.
"You guys are so fucked up! It's cancer, it's not funny," she spoke sternly, making a point of staring down my mother.
My mom tried to be serious, and she struggled to keep her face straight. But it was no use — they had the giggles and within seconds my mom broke out into laughter. "But the pellets ..." she insisted, and she looked at my sister with pleading eyes.
My sister rolled her eyes at me, as she bit her cheek to keep from laughing
"They are so stupid," my cousin said under her breath.
Each family gathering involves an entertaining performance, sometimes deliberate and sometimes not. For example, there was the time when my Aunt Linda passed out drunk. Well, actually, this happened several times, but on the particular occasion I'm referring to we captured her intoxication on film. In many families, the alcoholics are treated with caution. Sober relatives monitor their drinking, and sometimes they do interventions in an attempt to snap their drunken loved one back to reality. In contrast, my family's idea of an intervention is stopping a relative from drinking hard liquor after beer. We almost look forward to the alcoholic's inevitable inebriated performance, and we make bets on who will get the most fucked up. So, it should come as no surprise that on that particularly hot day in August, when my Aunt Linda passed out on the lawn chair after drinking a fifth of vodka and proceeded to burn the parts of her face not covered by her sunglasses, my other aunts seized this Kodak Moment. They carefully removed her Harley Davidson glasses, and moved in closely for the shot, as if they had been hired by National Geographic.
I can't remember when things were different. The most vivid memories from my youth include such moments as overhearing my Aunt Susie complain about her "Minute Man" husband, and seeing my Aunt Maureen lift up her shirt to reveal her enormous breasts, so that she could cup and shake them while she made machine-gun noises. They were always doing stuff like this, turning body parts into props and divorces into comic material. Nothing was sacred, or off-limits.
Except for the ones they had lost. My mom and her sisters didn't really talk about them, and they certainly didn't make any jokes. I learned about this rule when I was 8 years old.
That year, my mom and Aunt Susie took me to their gravesites for the first time. It was Mother's Day, and I had woken up early enough to tag along with them. It was hot and cloudless out, and it felt like noon at 7 in the morning. We stopped at a gas station to buy pink carnations, and my mom gave me a can of Faygo Red Pop. When we first entered the graveyard, I tried holding my breath as long as possible as we made our way toward the back. My mom parked the car and she and Aunt Susie got out without telling me what to do. I sat there for a while, in the hot stuffiness of our Buick, before I decided to try to find her. I could see them in the distance, kneeling down perfectly still like statues. When I got close, they didn't turn around. I stepped forward so that my shadow loomed over my mom's head, and I looked down at the three slabs of stone, each one labeled with the last name that my Papa had. I knew they had all died before I was born, but I had a hard time believing that my grandma was really buried under those stones, with her two youngest sons, my Uncle Jimmy and Uncle George. I also knew that they had all died within a few years of each other; Jimmy and George in separate car accidents when they were children, and my grandma from drinking too much after they were gone. I knew all this, but I didn't know what it meant. I just knew that I didn't like the flat, watery look in my mom's eyes.
It wasn't until last summer that I began to understand, until I felt how strongly their absences permeated through the family. On one particular mild evening, my mother and I were sitting on the upstairs patio of a restaurant downtown, having a late dinner. It was just the two of us, which significantly reduced the amount of joking. The weather was perfectly warm, and a gentle breeze occasionally moved through the ruffles of the patio umbrellas. We were both having margaritas, and after we finished our first drinks I could feel my mother relax back into her skin.
For the past few weeks I had been obsessively analyzing everything, because I was seeing a therapist for the first time in my life. After a few weeks of telling the doctor hilarious anecdotes, I realized that she wasn't looking for entertainment. She wanted to know how I felt about everything. She asked me questions about my family that had never occurred to me — why do you think they are so uncomfortable with being serious? Initially, the question sounded absurd and I could hear my Aunt Linda's voice mocking the therapist in my head: what's up her ass?
But the question had stuck, and on this evening I looked over at my mother and tried to gaze into her eyes, woman to woman — two friends having dinner and drinks.
"What? Do I have snot on my nose?" my mother finally said.
I laughed. "No, you're beautiful — perfect. I've just been thinking about something. Can I be serious for a moment?"
My mother looked frightened. "Sure ... You're not pregnant are you?"
"God! No!!" I said with a laugh. "C'mon Mom, you know if anyone gets pregnant it’s going to be Jen." My mother nodded and smiled in agreement. I paused, searching for a gentle way to broach the subject. I settled on the blunt approach: "What was it like when grandma and your brothers were still alive?"
My mother's eyes opened wide and after a moment she sat back into her chair. She lifted her eyes as if she was debating something in her head. She took a gulp of her margarita. When she spoke, her tone had noticeably softened. The words came out slowly.
"It was good. My mother didn't drink much back then, and I remember good times. We laughed a lot — she had a good sense of humor," she paused and smiled into the distance. She looked over the railing into the fading sunset, and the wind was gently blowing through her wispy hair. I could see that tears were forming in the corners of her eyes. She looked so young at that moment that it took my breath away.
She turned to look at me, and when her eyes met mine the tears started to run down her face. "I wish you could have met them, Emily. You would have loved my mother, and I know Uncle Jimmy and George would have been so good to you kids. They were both such sweet boys."
They had been born last, and they were adored and loved by five older sisters. "Tell me what happened when they died", I said. I spoke carefully, because I wasn't sure what this question would do to her, or if I should have even asked it.
She pursed her lips as she fought back from crying harder. I wanted to pet her soft hair, and take her into my arms. "I remember that the day before George died, I had just bought him this shirt from Sears. It wasn't his birthday or anything, I was just going to surprise him, later that week ..." her voice trailed off and she buried her face into her napkin.
I felt a sharp hiccup in my heart, and I regretted asking the questions. I realized that I had never before heard her or her sisters describe these deceased family members in any intimate detail, and that I had never cared enough to ask until now. Our family history was relayed through quick snippets and faded pictures, randomly revealed when you happened to catch one of them alone. Finally, I began to feel the weight of these three tragedies. I could see my mother as that young woman who kept losing the people closest to her. I could picture all of the sisters — all on the brink of becoming women, making the dangerous transition into adulthood — and I could see how the timing and seriousness of all these deaths must have seemed unreal to them.
They laughed about everything, because they probably feared that they would drown from the heavy weight of any silence. A silence that would be filled with sludge-like grief that was too deep and thick to be bearable. I looked at my mother, and I could see her fear, the way she clung to her family and their joking as if it were a machine keeping her alive. I felt my heart softly flutter in my chest. I reached across the table and put my hand over hers, and she pulled her head out of the napkin.
"Are you OK Mom? I didn't mean to upset you so much."
She looked at me and smiled. Her face was red and blotchy from crying, and her mascara was smudged underneath her eyes.
"I'm fine. It's OK. It's good to cry, right?" she said, wiping a tissue underneath her eyes. "Isn't that what your therapist tells you?" She smiled at me.
"Yeah, something like that." I smiled back.
My mom slowly shook her head back and forth. "God, I don't think I've cried this much since your father left me, that asshole."
I loved when she called him an asshole. I looked back at her with mock surprise, opening my eyes wide and letting my jaw drop dramatically. She fell into my trap, and a worried expression appeared on her face.
"You mean he's not coming back? I thought he was just going to get some milk," I said, and I leaned back in my chair with satisfaction as I watched my mom first gasp, and then immediately burst into laughter. Her eyes lit up and she slapped her hand down on the table, spilling her margarita as her whole body shook with tickled relief.