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Give InKind is honored to feature Johnny Brookbank from Lavender & Hammers. Johnny was successfully treated for testicular cancer at the age of 26. Here, he shares what is was like to tell his parents that their child had been diagnosed with cancer.
This is an excerpt from his book entitled Cancer? But I’m a Virgo.
Over the last few weeks I’ve left my parents in the dark because I didn’t want to put them through unnecessary Cancer worry, especially if the problem were going to simply solve itself. Which it didn’t. So now I have to work on The Big Reveal. And remember, as any good salesman will tell you, presentation is everything.
Jade pulls into a Walgreen’s parking lot to buy a Diet Coke and we sit on the sidewalk and call her mom. “It’s a lump. It’s cancer. They’re taking it, yes.” My mother-in-law asks to speak to me. She asks me how I’m doing. She asks me how I’m feeling. I tell her that it’s no big deal. I tell her that absolute very worst-case scenario is that I have to get a little chemotherapy, just some needle and I’ll feel like I’ve got the flu for a bit. I’ll get better. Whatever.
She says, “Wow.” She says, “You’re brave.” She says, “Stay strong.”
The truth is, I’m not brave. I’m being forced kicking and screaming through this scenario. I don’t want to be here, and I never would have volunteered. I don’t deserve this.
Deserve. That’s an awfully big word that gets thrown around a lot. Maybe I do deserve it. I try to examine my life from a higher perspective. I’ve lied, cheated, and stolen; said hurtful things to people intentionally; torn people down verbally with complete purpose; and talked shit about my friends and family behind their backs. Maybe I do deserve this.
We drive home and I take a seat in my backyard on our patio furniture. I lean back in the chair and let the sun, one of the only absolute constants in our lives, hit my face, warm me, comfort me.
A man walks through my alley pushing a shopping cart and shouting, “Tamale! Tamale! Tamale con queso!” and I think about him and all my neighbors and how, as far as I know, none of them have cancer. Just me. Just all of a sudden. Nobody knows about my balls. Nobody anywhere knows or cares about anything right now.
My mom wanders around her home 1,500 miles away, feeding her dogs, her healthy children somewhere in the back of her head. My dad fixes a computer, thoughts of gigabytes and RAM clouding his brain, the world a dull fuzz outside of his peripheral.
Everything is about to change for them. They are about to become Parents Of A Child With Cancer.
I pick up the phone and call my mom first. I let it ring six times before I hang up. I set the phone down and stare at it, wondering if maybe she’ll call right back. I stand up and start pacing, rubbing my thumb along the inside of my pinky, a nervous tick I have.
I pick up the phone again and try my dad. It rings twice before he answers in a distracted, gruffly voice. “This is Mike,” he says. “Hey, Daaaaaad. It’s me.” I sort of let the word play out like that because I have no idea how to get into this conversation, how to ease into it; I didn’t plan an opening act or monologue. “How’s it going?” I ask, and he begins to tell me about computer problems that I don’t and probably won’t ever understand. I listen, but only to be polite because I didn’t call to hear what he’s been up to. I didn’t call for any polite reason. I called with one intent and I’m just waiting for my selfish turn to speak.
“What’s new with you?” he asks. And there’s my window.
“Well,” I say, struggling for the words, hoping that they would find me if I just started talking but . . . no. I throw eloquence and pacing to the wind and just say, “I have cancer.”
There’s a long pause on the other end like he’s waiting for the punch line. The great joke this is bound to be. It doesn’t come. Trust me, I’m still waiting myself.
He says, “Oh . . . kay . . . . Did you tell your mom?” and I say, “No,” and he says, “You better let me tell her,” and I quickly say, “NO! No . . . I’d rather tell her myself,” and he says, “Oh . . . kay . . . . ” and I quickly fill in the blanks with, “There’s a good chance I’ll survive. I just . . . I have cancer . . . . ” There’s more silence. Loads of it. Then he says, “Your mom just got home. Why don’t you call her?” And I do.
“Yellow, John Boy! How ya’ doin’?” My mother is forever the chipper woman, her syllables bouncing up and down playfully. I feel bad that I have to destroy this. I say, “I’m doing good. I’m doing OK. Did Dad talk to you?” and she, with a hint of suspicion, says, “Nooo-ooooh. What’s going on?”
I take a deep breath and shut my eyes. In my head I think, I’m sorry, Mom. I’m sorry. I wish I didn’t have to tell you this. I wish I could just keep it from you and spare you and not drag you into it. I wish I didn’t have to damage you with this information, and I’m sorry for the pain I’m about to cause you. I feel sick to my stomach.
“I have cancer.”
Another long silence. I’ll get used to these. Like an old computer reading a large file, people need a chunk of time to process a sizable piece of information like that.
There are no tears. She doesn’t cry. Everything about this interaction is atypical. I tell her I should survive and she says, “OK.” I tell her I’ll keep her posted on everything and then, as she’s telling me goodbye, I hear her voice crack and I realize that she is first and foremost in shock, and second, trying to keep a straight face for my sake. I tell her goodbye and the moment I slam the phone closed I begin to cry, vicious sobs that wrench my body.
Moments later my phone rings, and I assume it’s my mom calling back, but no. It’s my brother-in-law, Jarod. I cover my eyes with the palm of my hand and wipe down, pushing the tears away. I look up at the sky, and I think about how there are people out there with real problems. People starving. People dying. Currently dying of cancer. Lung cancer. Heart cancer. Brain cancer. Get it together. I answer the phone, trying to sound cool but coming off like a mop. “Hey . . . . ”
Jarod, three years my senior, says, “Heeeey. So I just heard about . . . . How are you doing?” and this is the one person I’ve spoken to so far who I don’t want to cry in front of. This is my brother-in-law and the person I just want to shrug it off with and give an, “Eh, you know,” but for some reason, I can’t hold it back. Everything comes out. Everything I didn’t tell my mom. Everything I didn’t tell my dad. Everything I didn’t tell my mother-in-law. Everything I didn’t tell my wife. It comes out now.
“I’m so afraid. I’m so fucking afraid. I don’t know what happened. I don’t know how this happened. I don’t . . . I don’t fucking deserve this and . . . it’s so fucked up. I can’t have kids— I’m like some fucking . . . sterile . . . . I can’t fucking have kids! And they’re going to cut my nut off. I’m so afraid that I’m going to die. I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die.” And then I just cry into the phone and it feels so great and so terrible and Jarod says the absolute wisest thing he can.
He simply listens.
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