Running Away from Cancer

Cancer scares the shit out of me.

I’ve joked before that I’m already beyond my midlife crisis stage because my life expectancy is, at best, 65. I grew up with the general impression that cancer, especially on my dad’s side, stalked the family, attacking this one or that one and, depending on its mood, killing amazingly fast or siphoning away life over the course of painful years. It didn’t matter if they were drunks or smokers or didn’t take care of themselves. In fact, in a few of the cases that stand out for me, the victims led clean lives. My grandmother’s sister didn’t drink, didn’t smoke and ate food so bland it was considered a joke in an place like South Louisiana. Her oldest son contracted some form of cancer and was dead before 50.

Bad genes is what it seemed to me. Of course, I tend to forget that a lot of other folks in the family — even on that side of the family — lived long enough lives, sometimes despite their best efforts to drink or smoke themselves to death.

But cancer still looms large in my mind, and that’s mostly because it took Mawmaw. Mawmaw was daddy’s mama. She died when I was, I think twelve, but I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say she might have been the most important person in my life. Those who’ve read The First Annual Grand Prairie Rabbit Festival may have noticed it’s dedicated to her. So powerful was her rule over the clan that the mere mention of “Mawmaw” in the dedication was enough to make my aunt get teary-eyed all these years later.

Obviously, quite a bit of the book — quite a bit of Father Steve — is autobiographical. But Mawmaw gets scant mention. One day, when I’m up to it, I’ll write about her. I’ve tried before but I don’t think I’m skilled enough yet to take on the woman. She was a tough old bird. She didn’t let us into the house as long as the sun was up. Sent us out to the chicken yard in odd-sized shoes. She let us play with matches and fireworks and shovels and hammers — as long as we were within yelling range. Within the sound of her voice she seemed to have a certain omniscience. To the grandchildren she was more powerful than God. Indeed, she was so godlike, I remember how surprised I was when I learned she couldn’t ride a bike.

She helped my grandfather run a grocery store. She worried about all of her grandchildren, but when confronted with one of them returned home early from the Scout-o-Rama because he’d opened his new pocket knife and cut himself, she said, “See. God don’t punish with a stick.” But she did. She had a switch from a crepe-myrtle tree. It’s name was Henry. She gave my cousin Christine and me the worst beating of our lives.

And cancer killed her. Took that woman and put her through a world of pain. I don’t know how long it took, but it felt like an eternity. And when she went, the family sort of drifted apart without her there to hold the center.

So when it came time to write The First Annual Grand Prairie Rabbit Festival, I gave her a different death. Something quick. Something while she was out in the front yard fussing with her plants. I wrote that scene back during the earliest draft of the book. I was sitting in The Tea Lounge, a coffee shop on Seventh Avenue in Brooklyn. I remember the weird little notebook I was using at the time. I changed a lot of the book, but that scene remained almost completely in tact. It was so clear in my mind, the young Father Steve (me, in this case), sitting on the porch in the summer, the sky almost white it was so hot, reading a book and sweating. Hell, the scene became so real to me that sometimes I feel like she did die that way, instead of in a hospital bed in Lafayette.

But she did die in a hospital bed in Lafayette. Of cancer. I don’t even know what kind it was. At that stage, it’s usually just cancer of everything.

It wasn’t leukemia or lymphoma. I know that much. Still, when some coworkers got together to join The Leukemia & Lymphoma society’s Team in Training to raise money to kick cancer’s ass, I decided to drag myself off the couch and sign up. I’ll be running the Hamptons Half Marathon in October. I had plenty of reasons — to get in shape, to socialize, to spend some of my free time somewhere other than in a bar drowning other sorrows.

And there’s Mawmaw. Obviously, there’s no going back in time to cure her. And if she were alive, she probably wouldn’t let me live in New York or run a stupid race. (She might have let us run around like savages in her yard, but she was extremely overprotective when we were off the premises).

And raising $2,800 while running a race might not seem a hell of a lot to contribute to two specific types of cancer. But it’s something. And something is better than nothing.

So, for once I’m not going to ask you to buy my book or come to a reading or shill for me. But, if you want to contribute to the cause, you can go here and donate. I’m not going to turn down huge sums of money, but I will say that I was extremely impressed with the $10 texting effort the Red Cross ran for Haiti. Every little bit counts. Even if it’s only five bucks, it’s something. And again, something is better than nothing.

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4 responses to “Running Away from Cancer

  1. Thank you for writing this post, Ken. I can relate to it all too well because my Mom has cancer, and I still don’t know if her latest battle with it will be successful.

    This is my first time reading your blog, and you’ve caught my interest with your writing. I plan to check out your book, too.

    Thanks again,
    Dieter

    D.A. Schweiss (@QuietRumbling)

  2. Sharon Pickett Johnson

    I enjoyed reading your post. It brought back a lot of memories for me. Your Mawmaw was a second Mom to me and I will never ever forget her. She treated me just like one of her own. She would cook these huge amounts of awesome food and would always make everyone refill their plates again and again. It didn’t matter how much we ate–she always would say we didn’t eat much. She was the kind of person you could never forget. I quote her all the time. Her famous “God don’t whip with a whip” still rings in my ears till today. After eating one of her awesome meals, we’d be sitting there telling her how good everything was and her reply was “it’ll make a turd”!!! I actually said that to my husband a few days ago. I sent your Aunt Sandra a copy of your post because she never has time to get on facebook but she does check her e-mail. She wrote right back and said she enjoyed reading what you wrote. I loved your Maw maw so much and miss her so much. Enjoyed your book and look forward to the next. When you’re ready to do the “Lorine” book–let Aunt Sandra and I know–we’ve got a lot of memories to share. Love You–Nanny Sharon

  3. Great post Ken! Your words are a great tool for fighting cancer by giving it a real face, story and connection. When money’s tight with so many people it’s hard to make charitable giving a priority. You’ve already done some great work here. That money will help not only to combat the disease but also help families struggling to care for their loved ones who are sick. Thanks!

  4. Beautiful, Ken.

    Evan’s mom died of colon cancer at 47. It was her second bout after beating it at 39. Her mother (his grandmother) died of colon cancer in her forties as well.

    Needless to say, it’s hard not to be scared as he approaches forty.

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