The C-Word


Standing by the elevator smoking cigarettes; a twisted, potted snake plant doubling as an ashtray. Powder blue walls, shiny tile floor, nondescript still life of flowers in a vase. Pleasant colors. Everything smells like ammoniated disinfectant. I lit Mom’s cigarette before I lit my own. The elevator doors slide open; no one gets on or off. “What the hell is going on!” I ask.

Mom's face scrunches up; her eyes begin to moisten. Quietly, so the walls won’t overhear, she murmurs, “Lynne has cancer.”

I turn my head to look out the window so she won’t see me see her crying. Downtown New Brunswick is all lit up for Christmas; a halo surrounds the reflection of Mom’s silver hair. Three floors below, a commuter train speeds by.

I had known for weeks; no one had to tell me. I just needed to hear someone say the word. Why can’t anybody use the fucking C-word? The word isn’t going to kill you—no, not the word itself. Do you feel better now? Why must we say disease? She’s sick, disease throughout her abdomen. She had a fucking total hysterectomy. She’s thirty-four years old! What is this abstract disease that has robbed her of her womanhood?

SAY IT: Say fucking cancer.

Cancer Cancer Cancer Cancer Cancer!

The elevator door slides open; traffic on the Albany Street Bridge is backed up as usual. I had known for weeks; I just hadn’t admitted it to myself. Lynne assumed I knew. She wasn’t ready to talk about it—too doped up to talk coherently. She cried, and cried some more. She showed me her scar, nine inches long—staples, not stitches. Lynne was proud of her staples.

I avert my eyes, look up at the TV. There's no sound. No matter, I’ve already seen it. BJ and Hawkeye play practical jokes.

It was a week after surgery before anyone told Lynne she had cancer. Hard to talk through the morphine; hard to hear through the pain. What’s a little ovary; she wasn’t planning to have children anyway.

Dad hates hospitals. He paces, makes everyone nervous. His little girl lies silent in her opiated dream world. The nurse changes a bag on the IV; Dad leers at her solicitously. “Did you have any of the cookies I brought the other day?”

“You brought those? They were delicious.”

“I’ll pick up more on Thursday when I go to Harrison.”

The nurse takes Lynne’s pulse and temperature, meekly says good-bye.

Where’s Brian? He’s on the phone. Something about dinner, something about stopping at Jack’s. I can’t make out what Dad is saying above the swoosh of oxygen. Brian can’t stand the sight of blood. He makes cameo appearances, just long enough to let Lynne know he’s there.

We talk about basketball; we talk about the weather. Archie calls Edith a dingbat. Lynne moans in pain. Dad paces, jingles the change in his pocket. Why won’t anybody say the word? The C-word.

SAY IT: Say fucking cancer.

Cancer Cancer Cancer Cancer Cancer!

Lynne assumed I knew. She couldn’t tell her baby brother anyway. Everyone knew. No one knew. Mom didn’t know how to tell her boys. I confronted her by the elevator. Dad preferred stoicism. Lynne told Jim on the telephone. I don’t know how Brian found out.

When the nurse comes in to change Lynne’s dressing, Mom and I step into the hallway. I lit Mom’s cigarette before I lit my own.

Since 1988, PM KELLERMANN has been the editor and publisher of The Lost Peruke (currently on hiatus). His work has also appeared in Long Shot, Salon, Interesting!, and numerous alternative publications. He is studying for his MFA in creative nonfiction at Penn State, where he also teaches.