Coming Home to Family

Last weekend marked the two-month anniversary of my double mastectomy AND the 135th running of the Kentucky Derby. So, of course, I went to Louisville, to my parents’ house, the house of my adolescence, and the first place that comes to mind when I think of Home. 

Coming home to my family is almost as daunting as coming home to myself. Something about being surrounded by family is both comforting and excruciating. Maybe because, under the lens of their loving scrutiny, there is no place to hide. I eventually relax into their collective embrace but it takes awhile. And, while the end point is freeing, getting there is exhausting.

As the sole homo in a very hetero group, I’ve always felt a bit like the family oddball. Now, I’m not just the homo in the room–I’m the homo with cancer. Great.

I arrive just in time for the annual Derby party. It’s a contained but boisterous gathering of familiar faces, and I’m seduced by the group’s revelry. Wanting to join the fray, I sit in an overstuffed chair next to the television. In less than five minutes I’m back in the kitchen gasping for air. A few minutes later I try again, but this time I stay on the outskirts of the room, near the door. I feel like a child hovering at the edge of a pool, one who wants to join the fun but is deathly afraid of the water. So I skirt the edge, dipping my toe in and yanking it back out, shocked by the intensity of the cold and the potential for drowning.

Of course, my behavior isn’t that unusual. Like I said, I’m a bit of an oddball, and in a crowd, even a familiar one, I’m easily overstimulated and quick to retreat into myself, like a box turtle at a kids birthday party. My immediate family is comfortable with my awkwardness. And they know that my illness has intensified my skittish nature. They help me lick my wounds without ripping things wide open and, for that, I am grateful.

My extended family—god love’em—is a different story. Overflowing with good intentions, they march right up to  my rawness and begin the debridement. I’m not twenty seconds in the door before I’m ushered front and center, told a feel-good-breast-cancer story, and presented with a pink-ribbon-styled lapel pin. Staring at the trinket in my palm, I can’t help but wonder if this trip was a bad idea. “Too vulnerable to exist” is how Audre Lorde described feeling after her mastectomy and I can relate.

Indeed, I have several of you to thank for suggesting I read The Cancer Journals by Audre Lorde. Her reflections upon breast cancer and her mastectomy have resonated deeply with me, including her experience of homecoming:

Going home to the very people and places that I loved most, at the same time as it was welcome and so desirable, also felt intolerable, like there was an unbearable demand about to be made upon me that I would have to meet. And it was to be made by people whom I loved, and to whom I would have to respond. Now I was going to have to begin feeling, dealing, not only with the results of the amputation, the physical effects of the surgery, but also with examining and making my own, the demands and changes inside of me and my life.

Eight weeks post-op and I’ve only begun to feel the traumatic impact of cancer on my mind and body. On a physical level, my chest is slowly thawing. The right side has more sensation than the left, partially because the left was assaulted a second time and partly because the lymph nodes were taken from under the left arm, creating a heavy, thick numbness. I’m still disturbed by the sheer boniness of my chest and its lack of contour, how the outline of every rib is laid bare, and how the distortion of my left rib cage, caused by the curve of my spine, protrudes so that, when I’m wearing certain clothes, I’ll catch a glimpse of it and think it is the rise of my breast. The flash of reality that follows, the sharp pain of loss, is one of the hardest parts of my so-called recovery.

I say so-called because I don’t know what it means to “recover” from cancer. One recovers from the flu or a bad head cold. Recovery implies a sense of normalcy that feels beyond my grasp. But, then again, a certain sense of normalcy has always felt beyond my reach, so maybe this is just to be expected.

6 Responses

  1. Clare C. says:

    Wow. This was so wonderfully written, Catherine. You strongly evoke my feelings when I am home or part of a family gathering: a sense of “home” and yet not belonging entirely; of being part of something larger and yet not quite fitting in. My circumstances are different, yet I empathize with the feelings you experience. I have no words of advice to offer, but thank you … and isn’t cool that a 50:1 longshot one? Clare

  2. Clare C. says:

    Wow. This was so wonderfully written, Catherine. You strongly evoke my feelings when I am home or part of a family gathering: a sense of “home” and yet not belonging entirely; of being part of something larger and yet not quite fitting in. My circumstances are different, yet I empathize with the feelings you experience. I have no words of advice to offer, but thank you … and isn’t cool that a 50:1 longshot won? Clare

  3. Beth says:

    I’m just sorry I wasn’t there to escape with you to Heine Brother’s or North End.

  4. kim says:

    I hear you. There’s nothing like a family gathering to make me feel utterly alone with my sanity.

  5. Anne Ehrman Monell says:

    Sorry I missed your visit to Louisville, but I would probably have been one of those people who assaulted you with good intentions and overstimulation. But you’ve always known I’m a bit high energy!

    Perhaps you’re not in “recovery” but some sort of evolution or metamorphosis. Whatever it is, you can certainly attest that life is not a straight line.
    Thank you for sharing your experiences so eloquently.

  6. Claire (of Jon) says:

    Wow I am so impressed by the way you write. How you write about what is going on for you is so clearly good for your sanity but even better for hanging onto your sense of self. And its damn hard I reckon to put up with being a cancer person… its a bit of a public burden. I don’t know if this resonates but people are always telling me how ‘brave’ I am… sigh. Its total bollocks they should live inside my uncharitable, angry, jealous, self-pitying brain, and they should have to put up with all the grousing and moaning and whining that my brain and Jon have to deal with!

    I too have been on the ‘outside’ for most of my life and then suddenly to be thrust on the ‘outside’ of the outside… well that can be a touch of alienation too far can’t it. So when I read your blog and see how honest you attempt to be I can’t help be a bit impressed and I can’t help thinking: how brave you are. (Grin) And I feel wised up too.

    By the way I used describe the feel of the obligatory visit to my Dad and his new family as ‘family lag’, as in jet lag, because going back home afterward meant upacking my mental bits from their various psychic hiding places and reassembling them to some kind of ‘normal’ me shaped thing.

    Anyway sending more positive waves your way…

    By the way there is lots of yummy vegan chocolate around ( like you don’t know this already)

    Claire Swallowxxxx

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