AUGUST 6, 2022
AT THE BEGINNING of the pandemic, everything, it seemed, was about food — ordering it, storing it, even following an extensive 27-step disinfecting protocol for boxes of cereal. Food as security, as sustenance, as comfort. Food as fuel for rage-induced baking sessions. No longer are we competing for yeast and flour, but pandemic or not, it’s hard to find a turkey in October.
I don’t need a whole turkey, just legs to roast in the oven with herbs, wine, and stock — to collect enough drippings for pan gravy. Whether I’ll roast a turkey or order it precooked on Thanksgiving remains TBD, like so much else now. I can’t find drumsticks, so instead I go with a four-pound whole breast with skin on; my husband can use it for sandwiches now that he’s taken over the duty of packing lunches for our third- and ninth-grade boys. Leafing through the Manila folder of dog-eared recipes splattered with wine and butter from Thanksgiving meals past, I add sage, potatoes, and a dozen other items to my cart. I pay the extra two dollars to have it all here in an hour because time feels of the essence.
When I found the mass in my right breast, we were — my two boys, husband, and I — ascending from darkness. The country was still seeing high case numbers and surges in the Delta variant, but our county had low transmission and high vaccination rates. We were not yet in the light at the end of the tunnel, but we could see it, and it was a hopeful thing. After a year of home learning, my kids were returning to school in less than a week. The thrill of normalcy, for once, overshadowed the angst of the previous 16 months. The promise of bustling hallways, bell schedules, and after-school playdates filled our house with joyous anticipation. And for me, a few kid-free hours to write, see friends, and reconnect with my prepandemic self — someone I barely remembered.
Thanksgiving is a complicated holiday, but one I enjoy despite my childhood memories lacking the Hallmark card images of cousins and grandparents gathered around a table filled with pies. It’s not so much Thanksgiving I look forward to as it is November. The change of season and pause from busy schedules. The streets lined in fiery amber hues. The chill in the morning air. Another year overlapped on itself with a promise of closure and renewal.
Before I was a mother, Thanksgiving — the Hallmark version — often felt unbearable, lonely, and othering. A brash celebration of a thing that never came easily to me: family. There was one once, a kind of family. A father, a mother, a brother. Then, after my mother’s cancer and my dad’s departure, I became a stray consumed with longing to belong to someone. For a while there was another kind of mother. Almost mine, but not really. To be with her was to rearrange the past, erase parts of myself. She would say there are two sides to every story, and I know it’s true.
Over the years, my husband and I have taken our boys to coastal cottages and communal lodges for Thanksgiving, thinking it may infuse “big family” energy into our holiday. But we’ve found that, while the sunset s’mores with strangers are lovely, we prefer a kitchen filled with the smell of turkey roasting in the oven and the four of us together at home with our dogs faithfully begging underfoot.
Now, when I think of our family, the persistent question haunts me.
Is it —
Are we —
What of a small thing that becomes smaller? Does it vanish?
During the biopsy, I tried to hold them in, but silent tears slid down my cheeks as I looked into the radiologist’s eyes and told her I’d lost my mother to cancer when I was my youngest son’s age.
“I know it’s scary, but one step at a time,” she said as she marked the edges of the hypoechoic mass in my right breast with metal clips, each marker announcing its arrival with a small explosion.
After the biopsy, I came home, sat on the deck overlooking the creek behind our house, and howled into the trees for this not to end me. Please not like my mother. Guttural and pleading, I begged the universe for more of everything and nothing at the same time. All the small things: hands in mine on morning walks to school, shrieks on splashy summer days, Band-Aids on skinned knees, eye-rolling, slammed doors, piles of dishes in the sink, more, more, more of this life.
But I swallowed all of it whole, climbed the stairs to the kitchen, and packed a cooler of Goldfish and string cheese for the back-to-school picnic.
I sat on the field with school mom friends next to the playground where our boys have swung and climbed and grown inches over years of playing together. We talked about signing up for soccer and getting a baseball team together, but in my head I thought things like, What if I don’t get to be here for all of this growing up? I watched the golden hour blanket the school grounds in ethereal dappled rays and wondered, What if my disappearing has already begun?
The Instacart shopper texts a picture of a turkey breast: “7lbs, the only one. Do you still want it?”
That’s a lot of sandwiches, I think, but: “Yes, I need it.”
When the bags arrive, I spread everything out on the counter and start by tearing up the crusty loaves of Pugliese for the dressing. I usually use day-old bread, but since I’m short on days, I’ll improvise by drying it out in a low-heat oven. I’ve finally tweaked enough recipes so things taste like hers did — my almost-mother who passed her love of cooking on to me. All those years of lining baking sheets with bread and chopping thyme side by side, and I didn’t write anything down. I didn’t know I’d need to. But then again, didn’t I?
The grief of estrangement is not linear. In some spirals of time, she is nowhere to be found. In others, I loop through memories of another life. Who I was with her, who I am without her. Better, I’m better now. But she’s always in my kitchen, in my hands when I chop onions, or in the glass of wine I sip while I sear tenderloin in my well-seasoned cast-iron skillet. In the way I show love through food. On Thanksgiving, I am two selves: my grown-up/mother/wife self and the heavily eyelined, flannel-wearing teenager seeking approval with every strike of the potato peeler, willing it not to slip and cut my knuckle, which it inevitably always does.
I got the diagnosis on a video call: small, curable, not the worst kind of cancer. “It’s early-stage. You have a choice: lumpectomy or mastectomy,” my surgeon told me.
I only pretended to believe her. “I want a bilateral mastectomy. I’m not going to change my mind.”
After the call, my first thought was, How can I do this to my kids who have held on, followed rules half the adult population couldn’t follow, and lost nearly two years of their childhood inside a computer screen? And now this: cancer. My second thought was one I pushed away into the darkest, deepest part of me. Do not come back, for you could be the death of me two ways, I told it.
On the night I told my kids, my youngest was worry and fear — the baby I grew inside me spilled into my lap, arms around me with “Will you get betters?” My oldest was pale-faced stoic understanding of what a trickster cancer is because he’d seen it before, already having lost a friend. He wanted reassurance I’d always tell him the truth about my diagnosis. On both of their faces was the worry of something too big to carry. I answered questions. Give them only what they need now, one step at a time. Don’t make promises I promised myself — fingers crossed.
The moment I said the word cancer, it became a real thing living with us, an uninvited guest, and we could not go back to how it was when it was not here.
I am the cancer. I am the cause. I brought the uninvited guest.
It is my mother self who tears the bread and peels the potatoes in October, two days after having a port implanted in my chest to deliver the chemo I will receive for the first time the following day. I burn the bread twice and have to order more. My head is fuzzy from the port implant. My body is still recovering from the mastectomy I had six weeks earlier — one day before my 47th birthday. I splurge on another two dollars for fast delivery, deciding it qualifies as self-care. When he is between meetings, I ask my husband to peel the potatoes because, though it’s unlikely to happen, my “Your Guide Through Chemotherapy” information packet says to be careful of cuts.
I place the turkey in the roasting pan and add chicken broth and wine — a thing I have not touched since I found the lump. I stir in heavy cream and butter to the potatoes. Over my wooden spoon flow rivers of estrogen and progesterone that I’ve read will fuel my kind of breast cancer, which feeds on hormones. Everything is organic, promising to be non-GMO and free of bovine growth hormones, but I have become distrustful of food, of my body, of my future.
When the postsurgical pathology came back, I found out I’d need eight rounds of chemotherapy followed by radiation, that it wasn’t a not-scary kind of cancer but, in fact, a fast-growing, invasive tumor with plans to spread. My second thought crawled out from the darkness and sat on my chest until I couldn’t sleep at night, couldn’t breathe.
I did this. Me. It’s my fault.
I offer the monster on my chest another version of this story. In this version, I do not submerge myself into pandemic family life until I drown. I am balanced and rational. I don’t fear the world outside. Instead of only scheduling essential dentist and doctor’s appointments for my kids, I take care of myself. In this version, I schedule my mammogram, and it finds only tiny calcifications. In this story, I am the protagonist. I am the poster girl for mammography. Early detection saves lives! Moms, remember to put on your oxygen mask!
But the story is fiction, and the monster knows this, so I offer it excuses disguised as evidence of my worth. Here is the calendar where my son and I marked 180 days of second grade inside our home. Here is our family room with shelves of books labeled and organized by genre. Just like school! Here are the stories my youngest wrote (notice the letters sitting nicely on the lines instead of floating off the page). Here is my firstborn, who nearly drowned in stormy waves of puberty and shed his boy self and his affinity for me while the pandemic raged and the president tweeted. Here is the black hole that tried to suck him in. Here are my arms, weary from holding on. Here is my marriage, hollow and worn from over 500 days of being under the same roof with two children and no childcare. But we are still here. I am still here. Let me stay.
The gravy is a bust. Even with skin on, the breast proves a meager alternative to the dark meat and bones of a whole turkey. I reduce the remaining broth on the stove so I’ll have something to doctor up in a pinch if chemo leaves me too sick to cook on Thanksgiving. I put everything in containers and tuck them into a drawer in the freezer — a promise in the form of side dishes.
When I lost my mother as a child, the fear of my own mortality became a shadow that followed me around. Decades later, the truth is I barely remember her. Not in the visceral, core-memory kind of way. When I became a mother, I started marking our life with proof of me just in case: photo collages, memory books, lengthy handwritten cards, and holiday traditions like cutting down our Christmas tree and peeling potatoes for Thanksgiving dinner. When I learned I had cancer, I could imagine my story playing out no other way than how my mother’s did — dying within months of her diagnosis. But it’s been three decades, and cancer treatment has come a long way. I am not my mother.
In the maelstrom of months since I discovered the lump, I am sometimes consumed with fear and guilt. On those days, I remember how — midway through lockdown when our survival parenting bar had sunk so low our kids had nearly morphed into iPads — my husband and I would toast glasses of sweet, lemony bourbon and say, “Our only job is to make it to the other side of this alive.” A bargain I hope to uphold. On other days, I remember the only part of this story I know for sure is the page I’m on now. The one where it is almost Thanksgiving, and I am here — to chop the thyme, mix the potatoes, whisk the gravy, see the leaves change, feel the air shift, witness another year overlapping on itself.
Jacque Gorelick is a California-based writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Salon, and The Washington Post. She recently finished a memoir about family lost, then found. Visit her website at jacquegorelick.com.