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Here is an essay that appeared on the LoveInshallah blog yesterday. It’s about an expereince I had soon after my son was diagnosed with cancer. It’s now been seven months since my son finished his treatment, and . He’s healthy and happy. I’ve never been more grateful. Thanks for reading.
Tonight the rains flooded the parkway, turning my twenty-five minute commute into an hour and a half. Butterscotch, our year-old puppy, greets me at the door, belly up. I give him his ritual tummy rub and call out to my son, “I’m home.” Ali comes out of his room, kisses me hello, and says, “I gotta go.” He runs back to his computer to continue world domination and sling-shooting birds at pigs.
I’m tired, wet, hungry and so grateful.
This time last year I spent many nights stuck in traffic. Only I wasn’t driving home to my son.
Ali was in the back seat, hooked up to bags of saline so his body would stay hydrated and the chemo levels would come down before there could be damage done to his kidneys.
Remembering that, takes me back:
My kid has cancer. That’s what I tell the highway patrolman when he pulls me over on my drive from New York City to Rochester. I was three hours and thirty- four “’tis-the-season-to-be-jolly” songs into the six-hour drive, and it had just started to snow when the red lights swirled in my rearview mirror. I wasn’t even supposed to be making this trip until morning, but my son, Ali, is with his dad tonight, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep anyway.
It’s past midnight, and my car is the only car on the road. I wasn’t speeding. I am sure of this. Speeding takes more focus than I had in me at that hour.
“Do you know why I pulled you over Ma’am?”
“No,” I say, without making eye contact. I don’t act like I usually do when in the face of authority, well, authority carrying an unconcealed weapon, that is. I wasn’t jumpy and apologetic, admitting to anything or lying about something, just so I would be let go. Sent on my way.
No, officer, I didn’t see the light turn red, I thought it was still yellow…Eighty? Was I doing eighty? That’s impossible. I thought I was doing sixty-five. My speedometer must be broken officer.
I wasn’t intimidated. I was just numb. Fed up. Sick and so very tired. Still, wanting to know from God, from science, from doctors—specialists and surgeons—from anyone or anything how Ali, my son—an enthusiastic, precocious (aka, royal pain in the butt) sixth grader, could possibly have cancer. Just a little pain, a twinge, in his arm, he said. Nothing that would get in the way of him walking a puppy if he was to wake up Christmas morning and find one barking under the tree.
I wanted someone or something to explain how a child as relentless as Ali, would soon join the ranks of the smiling, bald children on those donate-to-cancer-research commercials who look like they need so much more than you could ever possibly give. Ali? My son? The same kid who knew the meaning of sarcasm when he was three and walked around all day practicing. “Mommy, does this sound sarcastic? How about this?” Sarcastic kids with dry senses of humor aren’t supposed to get diseases like cancer. They get hit in the face with baseballs, soccer balls, and dodge balls because they can’t catch. They can hook up the wireless-internet at four years old, but can’t tie their shoes until they’re ten. The ironies of life are what a kid like Ali is supposed to struggle with. Not cancer. Where’s the irony in cancer?
“License and registration,” he says, tipping his hat back, and still not telling me why I was pulled over.
I hand him my license.
But my damn registration isn’t in the glove compartment or tucked in the visor as my father always insist I do, but don’t. Oh, maybe it’s on the floor? Or under the seat? No and no. I still don’t know why I was pulled over, but with no registration, now I’m pretty sure I’m getting a ticket.
I knew this girl who once let a female cop fondle her breasts. One more point and her license would have been suspended. I’ve never gone to those lengths, but I certainly didn’t judge her for doing what she thought she had to do. I could even understand it. Maybe because it was a female cop it didn’t sound as disgusting and violating as it would have sounded to me had it been a male cop, but that’s my own sexist shit to work out. Right then, with a bank balance that just that morning squeaked by to cover the $9.95 monthly Netflix bill (I haven’t even used our Netflix in six-months), I was in no fiscal shape to cover a traffic violation, but I didn’t give a fuck. Not even enough to show one boob. Actually, if I smart-mouth him, I can get myself arrested, I think.
Time away, alone to think, and maybe to finally feel what I haven’t been able to feel since my son’s pediatrician, on the back of the A&P receipt I shoved in front of her, wrote down the four possibilities she thought the pain in my son’s arm could be. She resisted at first. She didn’t want to worry me until all the tests were done and they knew for sure what we were dealing with. She wanted to spare me the hours she knew I’d spend, frantic, on Internet searches, but I needed to know.
“Tell,” I insisted. “You have to.”
Yes, there are people who would rather not know. Who would rather wait until all the tests are done, and facts are in. People who have no interest in speculation.
I am not one of those people. I need to know all the possibilities, remote or otherwise. I need to spend hours searching on the Internet. Yes, it can, and often does, cause great anxiety, but that’s what generic anti-anxiety meds are for. I need to be prepared for the worst and pray for the best.
She wrote down four possibilities —listed in the order of bad to worse. Infection was our best option, but the most unlikely. The second best option—leukemia. Ever since my best friend in seventh grade died from it, that word unnerves me, freaks me out, and almost breaks me down. Now, leukemia is very treatable, especially in children. And pretty non-aggressive, with no surgery or limb salvage required. Then there were the last two on the list—the aggressive cancers. Cancers that hit fast and grow fast. Osteosarcoma and Ewingsarcoma. Osteosarcoma is the lesser of two evils. Both require chemotherapy and limb salvage surgery, but Ewings often spreads to the lungs and radiation is part of the protocol—the treatment plan. And the stats, well, with Ewings, the long-term survivor rates aren’t as high as they are with Osteosarcoma.
X-ray, MRI, a visit to see an oncologist in the city, more X-rays, blood tests, another MRI, biopsy and I can’t get that damn nursery rhyme out off my head –there was an old lady who swallowed a fly. I don’t know why she swallowed the fly… each test leads to another test, which is worse than the one before. A bone scan–radioactive material is injected into my son’s skin. “For twenty-four hours avoid contact with pregnant woman and children,” warn both the nurse and technician. Isn’t my kid a child? Eleven-years-old and on the precept of puberty, but still a child. My child. My baby. A child who has to avoid other children? So is this where the irony begins? I don’t know why she swallowed the fly, I guess she’ll die….
“Where you coming from?” the officer asks leaning far enough into my window to see that the dashboard is clear– no open bottle of whiskey, no lit crack pipe, no cell phone displaying a text message in progress.
“New York City.”
“You from there?”
“My son has cancer,” I say for the first time out loud.
“Osteosarcoma,” said the surgeon. The oncologist had already told us this with the social worker at her side, for moral support for us and maybe for her too. Still, we were relieved to hear this news again. One week earlier this would have been devastating, but we had researched all the possibilities and this cancer, though aggressive, is treatable, curable, and thank God, localized in Ali’s right arm.
I almost want to laugh when I think about all the people who over the years lectured his father and me on how we should force him to use his right hand. “We live in a right-handed world, scissors and guitars and tools made for the right-handed,” people would say. We would always respond, “but lefties are creative.” Still, we worried when we watched our son, who knew his alphabet before he was a year old and could count to a 1000 by 2 years old, struggle to cut a piece of paper with his child-safe scissor made for right handed preschoolers. And a part of us secretly hoped he would be right-handed. We wanted as few obstacles as possible for our son to overcome in life, and now he faces an obstacle that is greater than either of us ever imagined. Now, we know, if the surgery doesn’t go as we hope and pray it will, and he is to lose mobility in his right arm, it’s not the dominant side, the side that matters most. And we are grateful for our son’s dominant left hand. Yes, it is these facts that I cling to for solace on the drive from NYC to Rochester.
I think about all those self-help books I read over the years which say positive thinking and living in the moment will bring happiness, and I want to burn them all. The book I want to read that’s not on my shelf or the self-help shelves at Barnes and Noble is Smelling the Roses Gets Thorns Stuck Up Your Nose, and this would be placed in the “LIFE SUCKS” section of all bookstores.
“Oh, well, the left is for passing only and you were riding in it for some time…” he pauses and holds his breath. I’m now looking at him, but he’s looking down at his pad. His pen is drawn, ready to make a move, but he lets out his breath and looks at me, “I did see that you were moving into the right lane when I pulled you over, so I’m going to let you go. But stay to the right.”
For one split second my impulse is to scream, “I don’t want your fucking pity!” Then I hear Ali’s voice, “Ma, are you crazy? Don’t get the ticket! Use the money to buy me an Xbox 360 for Christmas!”
“Thank you, officer,” I say, now we are both looking directly at each other, and he smiles. It’s forced, but it’s still a smile.
As I drive off into the snowy night, to the tune of Jingle Bell Rock playing on the radio, I know exactly what I’m getting Ali for Christmas, and it’s not an Xbox 360. It’s the only gift one would get an 11 year-old boy just diagnosed with cancer—a damn puppy. But cancer or no cancer, that kid is walking the dog.
So, now, after a long day at work and long ride in the rain home, I sit on the couch, and I thank God. After surgery, eight months of treatment, and lots of love and support from so many people, Ali is well. He is cancer-free and walking the dog every morning before school. And every night before bed, well, when I remind him–”Ali walk the dog!”
So, my friends, I welcome you to my blog, where I will continue to rant, rave, and reveal. I hope you will join in the fun.
By the way, until a few minutes ago I didn’t know that the phrase “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears,” was from a speech by Mark Antony in Shakespear’s Julius Caesar. And I call myself I writer? Well, once again, I’m reminded that as much as I think I know about writing and as much as I think I’ve read, there is so much more I don’t know. This reminds me of two more reasons why I write– to explore the wonders of the world and, of course, to make up stuff. It’s not the stories you tell that matter, but how you tell them. Did Shakespear write that one too?
So, this is a day where I’m feeling great about being a writer. I had an essay, “Love At Third Sight” published in a beautiful and gusty Anthology Love, Inshallah The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women. This is my week to be profiled on their website LoveInshallah.com . Thanks to the work of the editors Ayesha Mattu and Nura Maznavi and the contributors, the anthology is selling well. Really well. And how many publishers and agents I’ve I heard say, “There’s no market for antholgies. They just don’t sell!”
I never thought of my love life as secret. I’m pretty open and out there with my stuff often to the discomfort of those I’m being “out there” with.
Still, when your writing about love it’s hard. It’s hard not to be sappy of course. It’s also hard to be vunerable on the page. I’m wondering now if I had not heard so many publishers and agents say, “Anthologies, just don’t sell,” if I would have had the guts to submit my essay. If I had, I know I would have spent many hours worrying about what people were going to say.
It’s not often that I feel grateful to the “traditional” “conventional” publishing world, but today I am very grateful!
The stories that are included in this anthology are amazing. The writers and their stories are brilliant, brave, bold, and beautiful, and I’m running out of B words, but you get the point. And it seems that the New York Times agrees with me. Cut and paste the URL below and see what they have to say –http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/24/books/in-love-inshallah-american-muslim-women-reveal-lives.html?_r=2
Love InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women, Valentine’s Day 2012 – available for pre-order on Amazon now!
Why the heck does she write?: My intention and my first chapter: A lot has happened in this past year. Enough for it’s own book, before we move on to that book and the new year, I want to share with you th…
A lot has happened in this past year. Enough for it’s own book, before we move on to that book and the new year, I want to share with you the first chapter of the book I worked on this past year–Rebels by Accident. My great agent and friend, Alexandra Soiseth, has it under submission right now. I hope if you like what you read, you will want to read more when its right home is found.
Happy New Year, Happy Writing and Happy Reading~
Rebels by Accident
This isn’t my first visit to Mayflower police station. The last time, Mom took me with her to register a complaint about a pothole. It was, like, the size of a quarter, but Mom insisted it was dangerous to drive over and she had a child in her car. I was thirteen.
This time, I’m at the Mayflower police station as a criminal. Sixteen (well, almost sixteen), and I’m behind bars. Okay, maybe I’m being a bit dramatic. It’s not like we’re locked up with serial killers or slashers, but we are in a cell. Deanna’s with me, along with about thirty other underage girls who were at the party and didn’t manage to run away in time or convince the police to let them go. As we were piled into squad cars, I watched these girls (and even a few guys) put on all the moves to get out of the arrest—crying, flirting, screaming, fainting, and even begging—but none of it worked.
I have to say that Deanna gave it her best. Not being able to crack a smile really worked to her advantage. I could see that she wasn’t kidding when she told me she was a great litigator like her mom. When the cop found me hiding in the bathtub with the shower curtain drawn (Could I have picked a more obvious place?) and dragged me downstairs to line up with the rest of crowd, there was Deanna telling the police that we shouldn’t be responsible for the actions of some stupid guys who brought beer to the party. She almost had one cop convinced to let us go when good old Karen, the bane of my existence, stepped forward and threw up on his shoes.
All through grammar school and middle school, Karen and her butt-kisser Beth talked shit about my family and me. Their favorite insults were that my dad was in Al-Qaida and my mom was only one of his many wives. And Karen didn’t stop with the name-calling. Right in the middle of the entire school cafeteria, she shouted, “Hey, towel head, you forget something.” When I turned to her she blew her nose into a napkin and stuck it on my head. Well, at least she’s not in our cell. They put her and all the other vomiting kids in a separate cell—with buckets.
Still, it stinks in here. I stick my nose through the cell bars, trying to breathe air that doesn’t smell like puke, beer, or raw fish. Who has an open sushi bar at a high school party? Then again, what would I know about parties? Yes, tonight was also my first party since first grade.
“Come on, Mar. It’s not that bad.” Deanna pushes against my shoulder. I don’t budge. I don’t say anything.
“Funny how we started tonight wanting to get on the inside, and now we’re hoping to get out.” Deanna stands closer to me. She’s trying hard to make me feel better, but it’s not working. I can’t even look at her now; I know if do, I’ll start to cry. Like I’m not already the biggest freak at school.
“Look, I know you’re freakin’ out here, but I’m sure everything will be okay.”
“Are you kidding me?” I turn to her. I lower my voice. “I’m in jail. Do you know how happy this is going to make my parents?”
“Now they can feel totally justified when they never let me leave the house again.”
Relax! We’ve just been arrested! And are now in a holding cell with girls who have picked on me—or, worse yet, ignored me—since kindergarten. On top of that, my parents are going to kill me! Why did I let Deanna talk me into going to this party?
* * *
Okay, the truth: she didn’t have to talk me into anything. I wanted to go. I would’ve done anything, even lie to my parents, to crash a party, even though I knew I wasn’t wanted, that I would probably be kicked out on my ass as soon as I was seen there. But forcibly removed—by the police? That I didn’t expect. Still, I shouldn’t blame Deanna for helping me get what I wanted. But I do. It was amazing tonight—music and dancing—yes, I was dancing; three guys asked me to dance, and I said yes. And nobody made jokes about my dad being a towelhead or my uncle being Bin Laden.
Ever since those people tried to build their mosque near Ground Zero and there was all that controversy, my life has been worse than ever. The kids at school treat me like I’m one of “those people.” But I’m not. Yes, my family is Muslim, but I don’t think they should be building a mosque so close to Ground Zero, either. I mean, I believe in freedom of religion and all, and I know that Muslims died at Ground Zero, too, but why would they want to be where they’re not wanted? I don’t get it. If it’s causing so much trouble, why not just build their mosque somewhere else? It’s just selfish to cause so many problems.
But tonight I was dancing and laughing. I wasn’t a freak or a weirdo; I was just another girl having fun.
* * *
“Actually,” I say, turning to Deanna, “thanks.”
“You’re thanking me?” she says.
“Hey, I know I’m in deep shit, but tonight was an adventure—probably the last one I’ll ever have until I’m at least thirty.”
“Don’t mention it,” she says. Most people would say she has no expression on her face, but I can tell she’s smiling.
* * *
When I first met Deanna last summer, she’d just moved here from San Francisco with her mom. I was the first person she told about her face. I googled it to try to understand better why her face doesn’t work the same way as most people’s faces, but after reading pages and pages of medical blah, blah, blah, it really just boils down to the very first thing Deanna said to me about it: “The muscles in my face don’t work.”
“Does my hair look okay?” I hear some voice from behind me say. “Do I have anything in my teeth?”
I hear another voice say, “No, but do I have anything in my teeth? My mascara smeared?”
“Are they kidding?” Deanna says to me. “We’re in a cell, and they’re worried about their makeup. They should call our school Airhead High.”
“Shush,” I say.
“Mar, no one is listening to us. This crowd is too busy hearing themselves not think.”
Deanna knows they’re shallow. The only reason she even wanted me to crash the party with her was so she could show me what I wasn’t missing. But look at the rest of them. Not one seems the least bit freaked out. Are their parents that laid-back? Damn. Maybe that’s the secret to their coolness—cool parents. If that’s true, I don’t have a chance in hell of ever being in with this crowd.
“Well, it could be worse,” she says.
“How?” I say.
“Oh shit,” she says, watching an officer unlock the large cell door. There stand Karen and Beth—Bitch and Bitchier.
“In you go,” the officer says.
Deanna looks at me. “We could be locked in here with them.”
“Look at this.” Karen stares at me. “Who’re you supposed to be? Cleopatra?”
I rub my eyes. Black eyeliner wipes off on my fingers. I’d forgotten that Deanna had done my makeup before we went to the party. You look like an Egyptian queen, Deanna had said. But not any Egyptian queen. She insists that I’m Hatsheput, the queen who ruled Egypt for over twenty years. Deanna says Hatsheput was the queen who was a king. Deanna loves anything Egyptian, which is probably why she’s even friends with me. But I don’t want to look like an Egyptian queen, even if she was a king. I don’t want to look like an Egyptian anything. I rub my eyes some more.
“Back off,” Deanna says, moving in between Karen and me. Karen is a half foot taller than Deanna, but my bets are on Deanna.
“Hey, Beth.” Karen steps back, banging into the bars. “I just realized why these two are best friends.”
“They come from the same place,” Beth says, like the two of them had rehearsed this scene. Now everyone is listening. “Cleopatra and the Sphinx.”
“You mean Sphinx Face,” Karen laughs.
“She didn’t just say that,” I hear someone say.
“Yes, she did,” someone else says.
Beth lifts her hand to high-five Karen, but Deanna grabs both their hands and, just like a professional wrestler, pulls their arms behind both their backs.
“Fight, fight!” people shout around us.
“Get off of me,” Beth says, struggling. Karen winces.
“Apologize.” Deanna pulls both their arms back harder.
“You’re hurting me!” Beth stops struggling.
“Apologize,” Deanna says.
“Fine. Fine. I apologize,” Beth shouts, and Deanna lets them both go.
“Get the fuck out of my face,” Deanna says.
Beth scrambles over to the other side of the cell. “You’re crazy,” she says, but it’s obvious she’s trying to save face with everyone watching. I know Deanna hears this, but she doesn’t take her eyes off of Karen. Karen opens her mouth, but before anything comes out of it, she closes it and walks over to Beth.
“You okay?” Deanna says.
I nod, but I have never felt lamer. Here she stood up to both of them for the two of us, and I just stood there watching, doing nothing. I didn’t even say anything. And she’s asking if I’m okay? They called her Sphinx Face, and I didn’t do or say anything.
“Deanna . . . ”
“You’ll get it the next time,” she says, like she’s just treated me to a mocha cappuccino.
I force a smile. I can’t imagine doing anything as courageous as Deanna just did.
So, since Halloween is my favorite holiday of the year. I’ve decided to make a Halloween Resolution!
I, Patricia Marie Gena Dunn, promise to blog at least once a week.
If you care to make your Halloween Resolution, please do. I think studies have shown that people who make Halloween Resolutions follow through much more than those who make New Year’s Resolutions.
This study was conducted by a very unreliable source and the study was with one participant.
So, take it for what it’s worth.