The movies got it wrong. That was all I could think about on my three-hour flight back home to Philadelphia. My parents and I had made an emergency trip to Dallas after a wallet size mass was found in my brother’s lungs. It was two weeks before my sophomore year of college when my brother was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Maybe it was a coping mechanism, possibly a way to distance me from reality, but I began to look at my life as a movie. Not the aesthetic coming-of-age type, but the quiet and ominous type shot in a cold blue filter. The background music became undeniably sad as my headphones accompanied me walking to class, buying groceries, and doing my homework. I pictured everything I was doing from a third-person perspective as if a camera crew was shooting from above. When I first heard the news and the biopsy results were pending, we were repeating “it could be benign” like a mantra. So, we kept the news private until the diagnosis was finalized but the fear was too much to push aside. The next day, I made the emotionally fueled decision to call my crush, a senior I met the past summer, to cry about my brother’s supposedly impending death. When nothing feels real there seem to be no consequences for your actions. I would have never made that call if I didn’t feel like my grasp on reality had escaped me. If I didn’t think every morning that it was just a bad dream.
Time seems to freeze in two instances when it comes to cinema, when someone is dying and when someone is falling in love. That might be the only thing they got right. I had yet to experience falling in love but at that moment, I was in the presence of death. The part of my world that was supposed to be safe and comfortable started to dangle by a thread. Every day I feared how much it would break or if it would simply snap. Somehow, I convinced myself that if I made any abrupt movements; failed a test, got hurt, or simply broke down, then the entirely delicate system that had become my family would collapse. So, I did all I could to remain behind the scenes. Be a good student, be a good daughter and make it through the year. It was never going to be that easy.
Having already lost touch with reality, halting any self-expression removed all color from the screen. I remember the first time I went to Penn Medicine after class to visit my brother during chemo. My chest got tighter as I passed the rooms of patients all fighting for their lives, some surrounded by family and some alone. I vividly recall turning into the room and seeing his hollow cheeks, pale face and bald head tilted back with his eyes closed. The machine beeped as clear liquid dripped from the IV bag making its way through the tubes and into his veins. I didn’t get the chance to take off my backpack until I left in tears. The world felt ugly and entirely unfair. The movie was now in black and white.
That period of my life felt like a ticket out of every social situation that presented itself. In my head, I had become a grey cloud that, had I entered any social setting, would cast a shadow on everyone’s hope for the future. I couldn’t stop thinking about death, how fragile everything was, and how dumb everyone sounded complaining. I was bitter and confused why we weren’t all constantly talking about the stark reality of impermanence. I started to notice something: as much as I wanted to keep things under wraps, I kept catching myself unknowingly breaking open. In one moment I would be making a sarcastic comment (probably to deflect some genuine question) and in the other, I spit out the word ‘cancer’. I will continue to notice myself break as if for a brief moment the weight gets too much and I need to lighten the load. I guess looking back, it was a cry for help, a way to ask for support without truly letting anyone in on the details. After those nights, I would sit in shame, upset that I exposed myself and scared about how much I must’ve scared them, as if death was a surprise ending to life. Even when my life is calm, with nothing to shed a tear over, I seem to unconsciously not let people in, not let them truly know anything. I think sometimes that maybe all those efforts to keep things close made me forget how to share all together. I often find it easier to be sad or worried because it allows me to shut down without addressing my lack of trust, trust in others listening and trust in the thought that I will still be cared for after they listen.
I won’t lie, I go back often, to sit in the sadness of that time and other times similar to it. For how scary it was, it was the biggest shake to my sense of reality. Everything crumbled, every superficial worry dissipated and my goal was to simply go unnoticed, make sure my eyes didn’t look too puffy and that I attracted no suspicion. During those times a successful day was simply a day where I could pull out a few moments of joy or ease. When you’re reminded that life is temporary, everything feels like a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Getting coffee that’s the perfect temperature, bumping into a classmate far from campus, or having a deadline on your assignment pushed back. I get so easily wrapped up in how others perceive me, how quickly I am hitting milestones, and the amount of experiences I can jam into every new year. Living with the idea that I am constantly running out of time. For that reason, it feels simpler back then, when I just wanted my family to be healthy and my life to be somewhat boring.
However, I know that there’s an ulterior motive for going back there. Going back acts as proof to myself that I can’t let people in, it’s similar to when guests are about to come to your house and you notice how messy one of the bedrooms is. It feels unacceptable to let anyone in to see the scene, so you close the door and you force them to stay downstairs — no opportunity to wander. We often preach the importance of self-awareness but the practice is when things start to change. I know why I revisit the sad times but I hope that one day those memories become aspects of the house and not a reason to hold guests hostage to the first floor.
Fast forward to my brother now in remission — cancer always seems to be close by. It’s as if the instant your family is affected, your name is put on a never-ending list and every now and then, just when you forget that it was ever a part of your life, it makes a reappearance. Suddenly, your new roommate in Boston tells you she lost her father to cancer, or your classmate apologizes for not helping on an assignment because her parent is sick. Or the sandwich shop owner that lives below you tells you that he moved to the city to care for his mother during chemo. At first, these coincidences felt like punishments, like a never-ending weight of sadness and grief that I couldn’t shake. I thought the world was always going to be a sad place for me and that I simply had to learn to adjust. However, in those moments of vulnerability was empathy. I knew from a simple sentence what they meant. Soon what felt like punches to the gut became a chance to care, and to show the sensitivity I craved in my moments of coping. It was an emotional superpower to know even a sliver of someone’s reality without the need of hashing out the details. There was a common understanding in that moment of sharing between the two of us regardless of how long we knew each other. Maybe that revelation was what I needed to make amends. A glimmer of hope before the closing credits.