~This essay was previously published in The Journal (2007).
About a month ago I had a tumor excised from my left breast. The tumor was 3.3 cm in diameter, roughly the size of a ping pong ball, and was located under my left nipple. When it first appeared a year and a half ago, I told it, “You can stay so long as you respect the balance.” But in its last months it had spurned the balance and grown, rising to the surface so that it was visible: an alien marking out its territory. It started to develop what felt like appendages. It began to pull my nipple back into my breast, so that the skin around it puckered and collapsed.
I’d been told in the beginning by doctors that the tumor was not particularly worrisome. It appeared to be a fibroadenoma, a benign mass that often appears in women under thirty years old. When the tumor was discovered, measuring in at around 2 cm, I was told that surgery could end up doing more damage than leaving it—there would be damaged nerves, damaged milk ducts, scar tissue, and possibly a crater-like caving-in effect given the size and location. Surgery itself increased the risk of cancer later. I decided to leave it there, but remained always aware of it: sometimes it hurt, and sometimes it itched. Sometimes it shrank, but mostly it grew.
By the beginning of the school year it had gotten so big you could see it from a distance. Not only when I was naked, studying it in the mirror, but through t-shirts. When I met the doctor who would later perform the surgery, he spent several minutes feeling around it. I lay there, left arm above my head, discreetly avoiding eye contact. Since he had to feel my other breast to assess symmetry, I offered to lie there bare down to my jeans, without the bother of the crinkly paper gown, but the surgeon insisted I keep it on. It was strangely demeaning to be forced to pretend the paper gown meant something, that it was the gown that conferred his hands on my breasts with their disinterested professionalism. It reminded me vaguely of my first job interview after college, when I wore my first suit, with pumps and a necklace, and was overtaken by a wild sort of horror as I talked to the human resources manager: not because I thought she could see through my act, but because I suddenly realized that she too was playing a part. I wondered who was watching.
We were silent in the doctor’s office as he touched my breasts. The paper gown ripped when I sat up, but we both politely ignored the noise. When I was covered, he looked me in the eye and began to talk. He talked about the risks of surgery, which he felt were minimal. He talked about the scar, and the pain, and the chance that the tumor could have some cancer in it. He urged me to have it taken out. After he left the room, the nurse practitioner muttered, “I don’t know why he took so long, feeling you here and feeling you there: I could see that thing from all the way across the room!”
I’d found the tumor in the summer of 2005. I was living in Korea with my family in a house my parents had rented. My father had had his last chemotherapy treatment the first week my brother and I arrived. We’d accompanied him there, and watched as he climbed into the small hospital bed next to the other cancer patients. They talked loudly across the room about what kinds of cancers they had, how far they’d developed. They were a lively, rowdy bunch, except for a man who looked thin and tired, whose wife silently massaged his legs and ate her lunch next to him while he slept. I was surprised at how energetic everyone was, how expansive they were to each other. One man confessed he drank his own urine. The others laughed, but they leaned forward in their beds and asked if it worked.
Outside, a family was weeping in the hallway. The door was open, and a teenage boy sat hunched against the wall, his face buried in his hands. At intervals he would cry out in a squalling voice and writhe, trying to smother the noise. What shocked me then was how terribly alone he was in the hallway, among all his quietly weeping family. I wanted to go out there and say something to him, maybe hold his hand, but I didn’t know what words to speak, and I was afraid. In the room, everyone ignored the noises coming from the hallway. No one mentioned it once. When we left, the patients called out encouragement to each other, promised to keep in touch. I wonder what happened to all those people, and how many are still alive.
That was the day we learned my father’s cancer wasn’t shrinking. That was the day my father screamed on the examination table when the doctor touched the place in his liver where the tumor had doubled in size. My father started laughing before he even finished screaming, and we laughed with him. It was easier to pretend that he had overreacted, that things were under control. My father sat up and announced that this would be his last round of chemo. He thanked the doctor for all he had done and asked if he could take him out to dinner. The doctor looked uncomfortable and said it was his policy not to socialize with his patients. I remember wanting to beg the doctor to reconsider, to have this one meal with my father. To tell him how important a man he was. I remember not looking at my father because I was afraid of what the denial meant.
On the ride home we didn’t talk about the implications of my father’s decision to stop chemotherapy. We all agreed it was the best choice: he was so strong then, he could still hike up the mountain every day, and we had heard of so many people who survived on alternative treatments.
After that, we drove into Seoul once a week for my father’s acupuncture treatments. Every day we prepared his special foods and juices, and he took his pills. Sometimes my brother swallowed them too—yeast and green powder and carrot juice and Chinese herbs—out of solidarity. Each morning and each evening my whole family gathered in one room, or on the porch. Together we did deep breathing exercises. My father was a master of these techniques, and in his illness he led us through warm ups and exercises, and then we positioned ourselves in various poses and breathed together. We had not done this since I was very young, but I had seen pictures of my father in his youth, balanced on his head, his legs spread out or folded above him, his arms bent at precise angles. My father could have gone even further in his training, my mother told me later, but after we moved to America there was no one advanced enough to teach him.
After meals, my father had visitors. Outside there was a garden, a pond specially stocked with fish, a river, and endless green mountains. Almost every day, we took our visitors on hikes into the mountains. The owner of the resort where we were staying had shown us a secret entrance to bypass the tourist entrance, and we always went that way. My father loved being part of a special group, the privileged one with access to secrets. We thought of the mountain as my father’s mountain, the trees as his trees. My father’s friends told us stories as we went up, and always my father led the way. He walked faster when we were with guests: it was the kind of bravado that cheered everyone up.
The mountains hadn’t been so green when my parents were growing up. All the trees had been cut down or burned during the Japanese occupation and during the Korean War. The hearts of the mountains had been driven through with stakes by the Japanese, to kill their sacred spirits. But the mountains were healing, covered in the trees my parents’ generation had planted. I told myself this was a sign: we were living in the midst of healing mountains. When we passed the rice paddies, there were flocks of white cranes picking their way through the water, or perched precariously atop trees, and I thought these too were signs of luck and longevity.
On these walks our visitors told us how jealous they were of this house in the country and what they called our “vacation.” They talked about how well my father looked. He’d lost some weight, and most of his hair, but he still walked with more energy than anyone else around him, and no one who looked at him could believe what the doctors had told us for months: that my father was dying of cancer. No one believed it. Not my mother, or my brother, not my relatives, or his friends, and not my father. Everyone said if anyone could beat his prognosis, it was my father. We repeated it like a mantra. My father was special: we invoked all the old stories of his stubbornness and strength, we told the story of his life as if it was proof that the trend of beating insurmountable odds would continue. “When were you ever not in the top 1% of any group you were part of?” I asked, when a foremost stomach cancer oncologist admitted less than 1% of stage 4 stomach cancer patients survived more than 5 years, and none whom he had ever treated. I said, “When have you ever been like everyone else?”
I was on my stomach making paper cranes when I felt it for the first time. My father was having a bad day; he was in the room next to mine, taking a nap. We were alone together: my mother had returned to America on a brief trip to sell our house, and my brother was exploring the city. I was responsible for cooking all the meals and preparing the special juices, and making sure my father took all his medicines on time. The pressure and maybe the isolation had made me irritable. I had picked several fights with my father, and I hated myself for it. The night before, I’d prayed for cancer. In the dark, I’d offered to take the burden upon myself. I’d been embarrassed even as I said the words.
At the same time I believed in the connection between the mind and the body. I’d read that visualization helped cancer patients: every day when I woke up, when we meditated, and before I went to sleep, I imagined the internal maze of my father’s body, the landscape of his organs, the pathways between them. I knew where the tumors were; he had made me feel them once. “Can you feel it?” he’d asked, his hand over my hand on his abdomen. “It’s getting larger.”
Frightened, I’d answered truthfully I could not. But I didn’t know what it should have felt like there. When I closed my eyes I imagined the tumor under his skin, imagined it disappearing, being washed away, eaten by sharks, or dolphins, or whales. I imagined killer t-cells going to battle in armor. I imagined maids coming in with vacuum cleaners to clean up the mess.
I was making a blue paper crane when I felt a sharp pain in my breast. I thought something had bitten me. I dropped the paper crane into a pile and sat up, stripped off my shirt, and touched the spot where it hurt. It felt tender, swollen. Underneath the skin, there was something hard as a rubber ball. A brief panic overcame me. I hedged. I was afraid to commit myself. As I bargained my way down from my offer of the previous night, I reasoned my father wouldn’t want me to have cancer in his place or otherwise. But then, as now, the knowledge did not lessen the betrayal.
When I returned to America in the fall for school and work, my father was still healthy. A few days before I left Korea, my father and I exercised together at the top of a hill, doing all our stretches, our jumping jacks, our breathing. He was tired, but knew I was leaving, and got through the whole routine. It comforted me: we all had our own measures of how my father was doing, and this was mine. I believed in his strength, his resilience, his ability to endure. I told him repeatedly that I’d be back in about a month. I wanted him to know I’d be back, and that things would stay the same.
But so many things can happen in a month. A few days after I left, he had a seizure, and they discovered a tumor had spread to his brain. He recovered after high-tech gamma ray surgery, but he became increasingly sleepless until one day he found he couldn’t get out of bed. I returned a month and a half later on a scheduled visit during my fall break. It was a few days after my father had been hospitalized.
The doctor stood in the hallway, berating my mother for wanting to give my father food, for wanting to let him exercise, and to heal the sores that had burst open from the swelling in his legs and feet. “What do you mean you want to make him more comfortable?” the doctor asked, so loudly that everyone could hear him. “He is dying. Do you understand? There is nothing we can do for him.”
When I entered the room, I had to help my father up out of his seat, where he sat swaddled in blankets and pillows. He teetered on his swollen feet. When he hugged me, he whispered, “They think I am in bad shape, but I’m doing fine.” It was difficult for him to move his mouth. His lips were so dry they got stuck over his teeth. I looked at the scars in his forehead from the gamma knife brain surgery, at his gaunt yellow skin and protruding teeth. His eyes were enormous in his suddenly diminished face. I could see all his bones through his skin. I thought, this is my father’s face. These are my father’s eyes. I said, “You don’t look so bad, daddy.”
He pulled his lips back into a laugh. We were in league together. We were a team. “I’m perfectly fine,” he said. He laughed again. I can’t describe how happy I was when he did. I don’t think, even now, that either of us was lying. We sat down, and he held my hand up. “What a pretty hand,” he said.
“It’s yours,” I said. “See?” I turned his hand over. My fingers were short and stubby like his, as opposed to my mother and brother’s long graceful ones. Sometimes we’d compare our hands, my father and I, and laugh about the ugliness of them.
When I was young I thought my father was made of magic. He could put a chopstick through one ear, and pull it out the other. He could wave his hands in front of a glass of water, and make it change colors. He could pull things out of thin air. He showed me how litmus paper would change colors depending on the pH of a liquid, and made me a baking soda and vinegar volcano in our kitchen. I used to draw on the floor next to his desk when he was working, just to be near him.
Growing up complicated our relationship, but it didn’t change his magic. When my family met him for lunch or after work he would always run the last block towards us, laughing. After a fight we had the week when we were alone that summer, when my mother was away, I watched my father walk out to the river that ran next to our house. He stood looking at the water. His back was so straight. Everything about my father was deliberate. Everything about the way he stood told you who he was: his hands in his pockets, his head to the side, considering.
When I went in to get my tumor removed, it was the first time I’d set foot in a hospital since my father died. I was shaken by the familiarity of the place, the same smell, the same bustle and noise, the same crowdedness of a place full of people who looked at each other from the corners of their eyes, trying to assess who was in for what. Trying to separate the people who’d survive from those marked for death.
While I waited for sedation and surgery, I wondered where the cancer ward was in this building, the frail patients dragging their IVs through the halls when they were lucky, moaning in their beds when they were not. I wondered if they let families sleep in those rooms, like my family did, on little cots beside my father’s bed each night. As his illness progressed, my father wanted us with him at all times, so we slept next to him during his sleepless nights, stumbling over each other in the dark to talk to him, or rub his legs, or take him for a walk through the dimly lit hospital halls.
His legs were so swollen that they were too heavy for him to lift. We had to pull him up to his feet, and support him from behind when he wanted to walk. Those walks were incredibly exhausting, for him as well as us, but we were all giddy with excitement whenever he wanted to go. We stopped at the windows and looked out into the world, talked about what we would do when he got out. We counted the steps he took, the minutes we walked. They were proof that my father was still alive.
I can’t remember the number of people who died while we were there. Next door, and all around us, people were dying every day. We were in the wing of desperate cases. A woman screamed every night. Each time she breathed out, she moaned a tremulous, sobbing wail which rose and fell like waves. A nurse told me in my father’s hearing that one day my father would scream to be touched; scream to breathe. Other things we had been told to expect came to pass: his lower body swelled up: his stomach grew taut and round like a melon. The rest of him was emaciated. He had to turn himself in his bed by gripping the safety bars and pulling. But for the most part, he remained in good spirits. He smiled, he joked, he told stories. He was himself. It was impossible to forget how lucky we were for that. We’d be there in our room, talking, laughing, or trying to ease my father’s pain, and suddenly someone would shriek or moan in a different register. We always knew what it meant, and we never paused to acknowledge it.
Hospitals are such strange places because the most intimate things happen in the least private of settings. Everything is talked about. Everything is seen. I was prepped for my surgery in a little space made for me with moveable curtains on wheels. Through the curtains, I could hear everything going on in the next room. The woman next to me was forty five. It was her sixth operation. She described her hysterectomy. She was used to the pain, she told her nurse. She had just gained back all the weight she’d lost, and now she’d have to go through everything again.
What did she have, I wondered. Cervical cancer? Uterine?
I didn’t hear her doctor go in, but I heard his voice, deep and authoritative, a little amused. “Look,” he said, “I don’t want you to go all spastic when you hear what I have to say, but I’d like you to consider a spinal.” He went on to explain how her recovery time would be much less with an epidural, and how all procedures had risks, and to him, this was a “no brainer.”
“Of course if you have a mental block about these things, we’ll just have to go with general anesthesia,” he said. “The point is to get the bad stuff out.”
I found myself seething on my side of the curtain. Spastic? No brainer? The bad stuff? This was her sixth operation. Surely her doctor could tell her the risks of the procedure he recommended without bullying.
Then my nurse came in to get me ready, and my own situation, minor though it was, took over. When she said, “Don’t look,” I looked. The needle she’d put in was too large. I could see it bulging through the top of my hand, blood leaking out around it. She returned with a smaller needle, and looked for a larger vein. When she got the IV running, cold fluid threaded up my arm. I remembered my father’s hatred of needles, how in those final months he bore his pain with patience and humor, but screamed at the sight of a needle. And there were so many needles, and so many mistakes. A few times a day, blood would back up and start moving up the tube in the wrong direction, pushing back whatever was being fed into him. We’d try to distract him as we called the nurse, but as we talked all of us would be watching that dark red stream work its way out of his body and through the plastic tube.
The next shot the nurse gave me was Innohep, a blood-thinner my father had taken twice a day when he was first diagnosed, to help with the blood clot he’d developed in his leg. When he complained, I thought it was because he’d always been paranoid about needles. I discovered it wasn’t the needle that hurt, but the substance itself. The injection in my stomach burned as she pushed it through, and kept burning for many minutes after. Later, I’d have an enormous bruise where it had gone in, black and shiny, like the shell of a beetle.
Sitting next to my father each day, I’d blocked out thinking about how he must have felt, what he must have thought about. We had ignored his cries and moans, or tried to distract him from them as if they were our own nausea, something to grit your teeth against and get through. As I gritted my teeth against the burn in my stomach, I regretted my insistence that the shots weren’t so bad, my insistence that he was always fine. I understood now the effort it must have taken to shake off the pain, to ignore the disease laying waste to his body, to forget the needle tugging at his skin.
Once my father’s doctor stood in the hallway and yelled at us while my father brushed his teeth in the bathroom. The doctor announced my father shouldn’t be able to walk. With his blood pressure measurement of the morning, he should have been in a coma. He shouldn’t have been able to get up, much less stand and brush his teeth. This doctor was offended by my father’s resilience; he was in the habit of telling us what he was physically incapable of. “That man should be in a coma,” the doctor said. “He should be unconscious.” He was never impressed by my father’s strength of will, or his desire to be self sufficient. He was always touchy when my father spoke to him, as if my father should already be dead.
When the jaundiced whites of my father’s eyes turned clear, and he developed an appetite, the doctor shook his head as if my father was someone he couldn’t quite trust. He told us the improvement was misleading. He wanted us to understand that my father was still dying. He had announced the last day of my father’s life had come six times in the four weeks we spent in the hospital: I think he found my father irresponsible for continuing to live.
When my father was in the most pain, he would catch me looking at him, and he would start to laugh. I’d laugh with him. At the time it seemed impossible that things were really wrong: in retrospect this seems impossible to believe. My father had always been afraid of pain, but when the time came, he didn’t want any morphine. He had tried it a couple of times, but it clouded his mind. The first day my brother arrived, my father began to write a note to us when we couldn’t understand him. His lips were too dry for him to articulate. I don’t remember what he wrote, only that he got stuck on a word and wrote the same letter over and over, stopped, read what he had written and tried again. He kept getting stuck, kept repeating letters in his small, precise handwriting.
I took the sheet away from him, and never looked at it again. He went off morphine of his own volition the next day.
The doctors insisted that he take it, that we administer it against his will. They said his reasoning had been affected, that he had passed the point when he knew what he wanted. They told us there were no side effects whatsoever, reassured us it was perfectly safe. But my father confided that he didn’t trust the drugs or the doctors, and though we encouraged him to take the morphine when his pain seemed unbearable, he always refused. One morning, my father asked if there was anything they could do for the pain in his feet. His doctor stood above my father’s head. Silently, he pushed the button to the machine which injected morphine directly into my father’s spine. The machine whirred and gurgled. We stood over him, watching. My father’s eyes widened in surprise, but he said nothing.
What did my father think when that happened, I wonder. Did he think we were all in league against him? Why didn’t we stop the doctor? Part of me hoped the morphine would work, and there would be no side effects, and things would just be better. Part of me marked it as the moment when we stopped letting my father make the decisions himself.
The next day my father’s breathing grew labored, and a doctor from the pain clinic told us morphine had compromised his breathing. He decreased the dosage on the machine. The next day they brought my father an oxygen mask. He had stopped speaking by then, stopped moving, except to take the mask off whenever he had the energy to do so. His doctor said this motion was a physical reflex, nothing more, but we knew what it meant. I sat next to my father begging him to leave the mask on. I was sure when the morphine had passed through his system he would be able to breathe again. Sometimes he listened to me, silent but watching, his hand paused mid-air. Sometimes he pulled it off, his hand dropping away emphatically, as if to say here is my decision: do not oppose it. I apologized every time I put it back.
Even that last day, when my father lay dying in his bed, I waited for a miracle. Even now, I dream my father is still alive. I dig him out of the ground with my own fingers, and there he is, blinking at me. “I only went to sleep,” he says. Nothing has changed; he is thin, he is ill, but alive.
When I remember last summer, I think of blue skies overtaken by monsoons that swept the roads away. I remember a tree frog, tiny and fluorescent, who found his way into our house during a storm and hopped from corner to corner. I remember when I finally captured him between my hands, and felt the pulse of his heart thread against my fingers. I remember a stubborn red flower that opened on the parched ground next to our garden, the sound of the river as we sat on our porch, practicing our breathing.
We’d found a miraculous place, I thought. Miracles could happen here. We took daily walks around the pond and watched the fish, eating little bags of cranberries and almonds. One evening we sat on a dock and watched hundreds of small silver fish jump out of the water and flip in the last rays of the sinking sun. They glowed silver in the air and then fell silently in. When he meditated, my father said later, he saw fish swimming to the surface of our pond. He saw them leaping like acrobats into the air.
My father died the same day we put him on oxygen, two days after the doctor pushed the button on the morphine machine. He only moved to take the oxygen mask off his face, but he followed us with his eyes. He refused to drink, but when I asked him to, he opened his mouth. In the afternoon, he choked on some water I poured into his mouth with a spoon. I was all alone, and I tried to pull him up to help him cough it up, but it didn’t work. He made awful strangling sounds, staring at me with frightened, watering eyes.
I turned him sideways, but I was clumsy and his arm shot out, grabbing for something to brace himself against. He looked terrified. His coughing stopped, and when I got him settled on his back again, my mom and aunt came in from lunch. When I told them what had happened, my mother berated me for not being more careful. She went to sit in a corner. My aunt sat on the other side of the bed: I thought he was still breathing wrong, but my aunt reassured me he was fine. I watched him carefully. My aunt went to sit with my mother. They both told me to stop worrying when I asked them to come and watch. My father’s breaths got slower and deeper. They started to grate. Then they stopped. I called to my aunt and mother, and they peered at him, astonished. My aunt said, “Did he just die?”
And at that moment, he took another breath. My aunt ran to get a nurse, who came in and looked at my father. The nurse put her arm around my mother, and said something into her ear. She told my mother he was dying. I knew it from the way my mother’s legs crumpled beneath her. When my mother came towards me, with her hands outstretched, I would not let her touch me. I did not want to hear it. I was furious at her for having made me feel like a murderer, for having sat in the corner while I watched my father breathe. I was furious at my aunt for having said everything was fine.
I curled up next to my father, half on the bed, half off. I whispered in his ear. I told him I was sorry if I had killed him. I told him I was sorry I hadn’t helped. The nurses set up a heart monitor, and something to monitor his breaths. They secured the oxygen mask around his mouth and nose. We called my brother, who had returned to the States the week before, and told him to talk to my father. We held the phone to my father’s ear.
As we waited, the room began to fill up with relatives and guests. I wanted them gone. I buried my face close to my father’s head, so I could see only him, and over him, my mother. My father had always said he didn’t want anything done to prolong his life if it didn’t also improve its quality. In a minute, I told my father, I am going to take the mask off. I waited the minute, watching the clock, and when the time came, I reached up and took the mask off his face. Someone, maybe it was my uncle, maybe it was a nurse, cried out and stepped forward to put it back. But my mother said, from somewhere that seemed far away, to let it be.
I lay there, holding my father’s hand, which was turning purple. I rested my chin against his shoulder. I sang him a little song as we lay there; I told him he was the best dad in the world. I told him I would take care of my mother, that I would write him letters, that I would make him proud. Your hand is my hand, I said.
On the monitor, the line that was my father’s heartbeat flattened and became a long unending beep. He stopped breathing. The doctor made his entrance and announced my father was dead. He looked at the monitors and tapped them once. “It’s all over now,” he said.
My mother asked him to give us an hour and a half to pray. In Buddhism, you must help prepare the dying person for his death in specific ways. You must sit with the body for a time and pray, you must remain calm. You must help the person depart this life as lovingly as possible. We started to pray then, chanting the Buddha’s name. I straightened his hand and smoothed it. The purple tinge had left and his skin looked healthy again. Perhaps it had only been a moment since the doctor had come in, but suddenly my father’s heartbeat came back on the monitor and started climbing. It climbed to 60 beats per second. His chest rose and fell. He was breathing again.
His heartbeat held strong for at least a minute before it began to slow down again. We continued to pray. His heartbeat slowed to 20 beats per minute, and then surged up again. It was my father’s last magic trick, his last gift. We watched the monitor mesmerized. Everyone in the room laughed out loud the second time it hit 60 beats. It stopped suddenly soon after, and then it was over, but I think when he died, he heard us laughing.
After my surgery, a friend sat by the bed as I slept. He said I sang the entire time. I woke up shivering to discover my surgeon had left after the procedure without a word to my friend or a message to me. I had slept so long that the nurses had changed shifts: no one seemed to know what to do with me. After I woke up, none of the nurses could find my surgeon. His disappearance made me nervous. I wondered why he hadn’t left word that everything was fine.
In the last few months I had become increasingly anxious that something might actually be wrong. The tumor was behaving so strangely, so against type. I remembered the promise I’d made more than a year ago to some unknown authority while my father and I were alone in our magic house. The deal I’d tried to make, and failed to pursue. I wondered if it was punishment for my hesitation, my cowardice. I wondered who was meting out the penalty. And I also felt that I had been playing with something dangerous in making the offer: I understood that negotiations with the gods are difficult. The sacrifice must be made before the reward can be given. The sacrifice must be made willingly, knowing the reward may never come.
I was afraid of what my breast would look like afterwards; I imagined myself deformed and deflated. When I removed the gauze on my breast, it stuck to the site, its bloody fibers clinging to my skin and the embedded stitches. I couldn’t see anything but white cotton tufts tinged black, and the dark blue bruise that had overtaken everything. I stood in the bathroom shaking, unable to clean the gauze off, terrified of what was underneath the mess. I vomited once, put my nightshirt on, and went back to bed without trying any further.
When I went back for an appointment a week and a half later, the pathology report confirmed that my tumor had been a fibroadenoma, but with surprising complications. It had incorporated a blood vessel into itself; it had grown so rapidly it began to hemorrhage, blocking another blood vessel as parts of it began to die off. My doctor told me that when this happens, it is almost always cancer. She told me that my surgeon had probably avoided me after the excision because he didn’t want to say anything either way. So there it was. I had called into being a tumor that mimicked cancer. It was rare enough to make the medical conference circuit: slices of it preserved in formalin, photos of it contributing to the feel-good story of the cancerous-looking mass that turned out to be a false alarm.
It is difficult to admit that I missed the tumor when it was gone. From a medical standpoint, there was no question the thing needed to go. It was not behaving; it was causing problems. I had tried to make deals with it; I had talked to it, and it had refused to negotiate. Despite all this, I wondered what would happen to it after its removal. I did not want it discarded into an anonymous biohazard bin. It was part of me, and if it had to come out I wanted it buried. I had touched it a lot: constantly, in fact, to the point of indecency. I had marked its growth and changing perimeters. I knew its moods, and mistook the tenderness it caused as its own.
All of this built a sort of beleaguered loyalty in me, a kind of misguided protectiveness. The lump had come into being during that free-fall summer after my father had quit chemotherapy, before he became ill. After my father died, it pressed in on a nerve which shot pain through my breast that I could feel in my fingers. I found the concreteness of the physical pain somehow comforting: the asymmetry of it seemed accurate and true. My tumor had come into my body during a time when I thought my father could get better through the strength of his will; it had grown while I still believed that faith was enough to keep him safe. I held it faithfully, for as long as I could.
THE STORY BEHIND THE ESSAY
I was teaching an essay writing course at Cornell the year I wrote this. My father had passed away the previous year, and I hadn’t written since his death. Everything had gone silent, it seemed, when he died. I was certain I’d never write about it, because I couldn’t imagine how, until one day in class we workshopped a student’s essay in class.
She’d written a piece listing all the scars she’d acquired over the years on her body, and in the end, it wasn’t successful. We were discussing why her piece didn’t work in our class--how the scars had to be an entry point into something that mattered--how a list of scars that pointed neither inward nor outward didn’t make an essay. As we talked about my student’s scars, I thought of a scar still healing on my own body, from a surgery I’d had in the first weeks of class. And as I sat there working through my student’s piece—the places it could take her to—I saw suddenly my own story stretching out before me. I saw how the story of my surgery and that scar led back to the story of my father’s illness—and I saw right then how I could get at something I hadn’t dared approach from another angle, without having to tackle it straight on.
And so I tried it. I couldn’t help myself, because I was curious about the structure of the story, and because the problem was a technical one, it felt safe to engage. It was a relief and a sorrow to write this piece, because eventually, of course, it led me into the territory that I’d been avoiding. There was so much bewilderment and grief that I’d surrounded with silence, and this piece led me straight to its core.
ABOUT CATHERINE CHUNG
Catherine Chung is the author of Forgotten Country which was an Honorable Mention for the 2013 PEN/Hemingway Award, and named one of Booklist’s Top 10 Debut Novels of 2012 as well as a Bookpage Best Book of 2012. She has published essays and short stories in The New York Times, The Rumpus, and Granta Online, and is a fiction editor at Guernica Magazine. She currently teaches creative writing at Adelphi University, and lives in New York City.
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