Two years ago, the October skies were their usual charcoal smudge. Lawns sprouted tombstones. Leafless trees mimicked skeleton fingers. On the University of Washington campus, students emerged from lecture halls like bats fleeing caves.
My son Jeff was 22 years old – a happy-go-lucky college student in his senior year. He had a track scholarship, great friends, a big-screen TV and a cable sports package.
But he was feeling uncharacteristically tired after sprint workouts. His coach sent him to see the team doctor. That night, I got the worst phone call of my life.
“Mom, there’s a mass in my neck.”
Two weeks later, a biopsy confirmed that Jeff had thyroid cancer.
Horror film clichés – alien in our midst, attic-concealed serial killer, zombie hordes – seemed to be unleashed in our lives.
Jeff was swept up in tests, bloodwork and insurance pre-approvals. He signed the Disclaimer in Case of Injury or Death. Doctors spoke of things as strange as “eye of newt and toe of frog”: scalpels delicately carving around vocal chords, a magic pill poisoning disease from inside.
Ever practical, Jeff decided against an immediate leave of absence. By finishing three finals, he needed only one class to graduate the next year.
I helped him box up books, clothes, sports gear and medals, then went into the bathroom to have a good cry. Track spikes evoked memories, triggering a maternal meltdown: Arkansas, where tornado warnings delayed the 2009 NCAA championships; family road trips in high school to Spokane finals; an eighth-grade boy, beating his gym teacher in a parking lot race; handfuls of field day ribbons; the first tentative steps of a toddler; an unmarried college student, questioning her fitness as a mother.
Just before Christmas, Jeff underwent six hours of surgery. The resulting scar would have made a special-effects makeup artist envious. He woke up sounding like Quasimodo. He told jokes. We took gory photos.
Once home, he had months to recover before radiation treatment. The doctor fine-tuned his meds, and Jeff readjusted his life plans. There were long naps. Insurance complexities and physical exhaustion shrouded us in fatigue.
We watched six seasons of “Scrubs” on Netflix. We ate boxes and boxes of Klondike Bars.
In April 2011, he underwent radiation treatment. Follow-up scans came back clear, thank God. Jeff found a great job and finished his last college class this June.
Two years after the initial diagnosis, anguish has receded like the scar, which now looks more like a football injury than a shark attack.
I’m eternally grateful to the grim season’s heroes. The surgeon who pinpointed and removed the threat. Friends who offered prayers, meals and fundraisers. Coaches. Pastors. Nurses. Church family.
We were not wrong to feel alarmed. Cancer is one of the most powerful, pathological forces of chaos disrupting modern life. Like the mechanisms of sin, greed and genocide, cancer is often unstoppable in self-absorption. It’s a disease of excess, like societal corruption, except that it’s inside, eating us alive.
Halloween legends and modern horror films both seek to make sense of mysteries. Things like cancer. Evil. Our dual, warring natures. What happens after death. Whether there is justice on Earth. How ordinary people handle grotesque circumstances.
Unlike the Celts on All Hallow’s Eve, we don’t banish terror with candles in carved turnips. Our friends on the borderlands – those facing health issues and cancer diagnoses – receive prayer, casseroles, Facebook notes and pumpkin bread.
When friends and family fight life’s monsters, what’s needed is not anything sugar-coated. Often there is no silver bullet for what’s aberrant.
Give the gift of attention. Everything in us may want to flee, weak-kneed, lacking courage and words. Choose to sit with them anyway, just to relieve the awful aloneness.
Whether the monster is defeated or the battle against internal menace is lost, we emerge from our horror with insight: Sacrificial love was, is, will always be, our brightest bonfire, our only hope to overcome darkness.Maria Gudaitis, a writer and designer, is one of six reader columnists whose work appears on this page. Reach her through her blog at mariagudaitis.com, where she writes about food, poetry, faith and art.