Fact: My hands are too short to reach mom’s cancer.

How Cancer Changed Me: My logic is the safest thing I have. I write lists about logic. I make everything neat and ordered. There is a careful, measured safety in lists. I can see how far they stretch. Nothing sneaks up on me. I love a good list.

I tell him that I can’t know what he’s too much of a coward to tell me.

What the Doctors Said: The doctors tell me that my mother’s cancer cannot be erased by how big or small my hands are. They don’t tell me that my hands can make a difference. They tell us to have hope. They tell us she’ll die. When I ask what we should do now, a doctor tells me to take her on a cruise, medical code for we really have nothing left for you. He calls me after she dies and screams at me. He tells me that I should have known what he was saying. I curse at him. I tell him that I can’t know what he’s too much of a coward to tell me. It’s all over his demeanor: It’s not my job to tell you or to fix what breaks. His parents are alive. He’ll hang up and get lunch. I sit still for hours and finally there is nothing to do.

What It Is (From Back Then): It is 2005, I am 27, and my father has just died. In the twisted, are-you-seriously-fucking-kidding-me-God way of dark stories heard around the office, my only remaining parent—my mother—has cancer. A year before, it was in her lungs. She went through chemo (she was a cheerful patient, the kind that everyone wants to be, and I suppose that’s why she was the kind that wears hats for holidays and brings in cake for everybody). Then my 75-year-old dad fell down the stairs and spent four days yelling at me and pissing himself. Then he went into the hospital and died. It is two months later and her headaches have turned out to be stage four. I don’t know it then, but my mother’s clock is already ticking. It runs out in 2007.

What I Wished: I wished I could hear this dark story around the office and then shake my head. It would be so nice to walk over to someone else, listen tenderly to her shit story, and then leave after an hour, feeling grateful that the life lived around that story is someone else’s.

Books I Read: I read C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed. I read The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, Little Women. I read books that should tell me what a roadmap looks like and how to recognize it. Mary Lennox and Sara Crewe survive without parents. In Little Women, Beth dies. American literature never quite recovers from the blow of losing the sweetest March sister.

Fact: My mother is not a story or Beth March. All the reading I do does not matter, and does not save.

What My Mother Was: 5’6”. Brown/brown. Vaccine scar on upper arm. Pink painted toenails. The place between her eyebrows sometimes raw when she tweezed too much. Happy. Secretly scared of her entire life, even before the cancer, a fact that I pretend I don’t know. Never went out after dark. Vivacious laugh. Caught between her parents (my alcoholic grandpa and my lovely, hurt, spoiled grandmother) when they violently and brutally divorced because he was fucking grandma’s best friend at a time when most of America couldn’t spell divorce. Scorpio with a Taurus moon. All my friends want to come over and read tarot cards with her.

What My Mother Does Before Cancer: Goes shopping when she has enough money. Tells my dad to fuck himself when he yells at her. Wants me to be more girly, and secretly wants me to think tall, Jewish boys are my soul mates, instead of tall, boyish girls. Reads Walden. Reads The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Calls Lady the beagle her soul mate because Lady has large brown eyes and is a Pisces and mom is a Scorpio. Avoids calls from her sister, who seems to always be angry with my mother for not protecting her or my uncle when they were children, but from what, I don’t know. Tells me stories when I am a child about getting very small, and climbing on the back of a leaf, and flying to China, and to Heaven, and inside tree trunks.

What My Mother Does After Cancer: Paints random words all over the backyard: love, laugh, brave, sex, hide (on the underside of a chair), seek (on the fence next to the chair), daughter, mother, father, dog, happy, live. Loses long, curly hair and cries. Then, shaves off what is left. Talks about suing the doctor who misdiagnosed her and never said it was cancer until cells became cells and the thing started to eat her from within. Slowly dies but pretends she isn’t. Slowly dies but tries not to.

Who Saves Me (During and After): Friends, the kind that show up in books, show up here. My home—the one that I throw at the sun as hard as I can—is filled to bursting. Friends make quilts, curry, cookies, cd mixes. They hug me, some kiss me, and I sleep with one of them the night after the funeral, because I can’t tell where my grief ends and another body starts, but somewhere in the middle is something I can’t quite call joy.

I threw the whole house, it seems, toward the light. I have bought things that belong to me.

What It Is (Now): My childhood house is mine and I fight with it daily. It has taken years of grief therapy and slow growth. I threw the whole house, it seems, toward the light. I have bought things that belong to me. I have trashed old pictures, smelly couches. I wrestle with the house as though I am trying to kill what happened to the family that lived here. It is easier to write it like that, instead of “my family that lived here” because two out of three—my mother and father—wound up dying, and I, the one that was left, grew, because there was nothing else to kill me at hand. I, too, have been flung at the light, and forced to grow.

What We Cannot Do: With cancer, my mother and I cannot get very, very small. We cannot shrink to leaf-traveling-size. There is no flying away on this one, and nothing big enough to carry us away. We are here, and rooted, and trying. Now, I am here. She is not. I am rooted and trying.

Marissa CohenThe late poet laureate of Florida called Marissa Cohen’s ( work “powerful.” Her writing has appeared in countless publications, including The Cancer Poetry Project 2 (as featured in The New York Times), Gather Kindling, and Wilde Magazine. She’s twice been interviewed on CBS Radio and also works in higher education and publishing.