Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The C-word

I've thought long and hard about whether or not to write a post like this but, in the end, this is the purpose of my blog: to chronicle, to cultivate, to excavate, and perhaps, above all, to process.

If you've been reading recently--but what am I saying?  Of course you have--you know I've been pruning a small(ish) bouquet of complaints about a variety of topics, ranging from cultural perceptions of feminism to the idleness of unemployment.  Those stem from real frustrations that, at the time, I felt truly troubled by, so, in that sense, I don't feel ashamed that I grumbled about them.  But, there is this little thing called perspective that's hard to have in those moments, until an involuntary tilt of the head forces you to see everything differently.

On Wednesday of last week, I was offered a really exciting job at Berklee College of Music online.  After months of applying and interviewing and hoping and being disappointed, I was elated and immensely relieved and I accepted the position immediately. The malaise of joblessness was soon to be lifted and my sister and I promptly went out to celebrate by drinking several glasses of red wine and chatting and laughing until it was uncomfortably late for the working folk. The next day marked Moses and my 10th anniversary. I relished the lovely lazy morning (something I could now enjoy as my seemingly infinite leisure time suddenly had a limit): I drank coffee and wedding planned, only left the house once to turn in my mound of new employee paperwork.

I felt generally cheerful about life with a few minor exceptions.  The fruit fly infestation in our kitchen had reached biblical proportions; that wasn't so nice.  I was having some trouble finding suitable venues for our wedding reception; that was less than pleasant also. That afternoon, after I returned from my errand, I called my parents' house to talk them about these and mostly other trivial things. My father answered the phone and started talking to me as if we were already in the middle of a conversation, telling me that my sister was thinking of coming to Ithaca that weekend and how he wasn't sure if she needed to yet. I was utterly confused; I had no idea that my sister thinking of going anywhere in the near future and I had just seen her the night before.  When I questioned him about this, he replied: "didn't you get my text?" I hadn't; the text had somehow gone astray. It was a text telling me that my younger brother John had been diagnosed with Leukemia. He is 17.

As many of you know, I come from a large Polish-Irish Catholic family.  Is there any other kind of Polish-Irish Catholic family?  Probably not.  There are six kids altogether and my siblings and I are considerably spread out in ages: my sister Genevieve is the oldest at 31, I am 29, Scott is 25, Jeremiah is 19, John I just mentioned is 17, and my brother Isaiah is the youngest at 11.  The names, as you can see, became progressively more biblical as time wore on.  Perhaps if my parents had another child they would name him Jesus Joseph Kozak. 

The wide gap in our ages has always had a tendency to perplex or shock most people; they ask if our parents divorced and married other people (they didn't) or if having younger siblings so much younger than me was hard on me (it wasn't).  Mostly, it makes everything more fun and it causes you to let go of a lot of your more primal selfish urges, which makes you a better partner, a better friend, and a better person.

Maybe it's because we're a big family or maybe it's because we have a sprinkling of introversion dashed with aspergers but we're a pretty close-knit bunch.  Sure we have our quarrels but we all genuinely care about each other and look out for one another.  In many cases, we were each other's first friends.  In many cases, we are still each other's best friends.  And when you are 12 years or 18 years older than a sibling, it's hard not to feel slightly maternal towards them. That was one of the reasons it was so hard to live on the West coast; I missed a lot of events in my brothers' lives that I wished I had been there for, making those rare occasions when I could swoop in for a birthday or a graduation feel like the biggest treat ever. 

To say that I was shocked when I learned my brother had cancer is an understatement.  I was utterly confounded.  I couldn't understand how this had happened. We have no family history of cancer.  My paternal grandparents lived to be in their 90's, my maternal grandfather died in his 80's, and my maternal grandmother will ring in her 91st birthday this year.  I knew that my brother John had been sick with a stomach bug for the past week, but there was nothing to indicate, nothing to prepare us for it being anything other than a virus.  In fact, that was precisely what the doctor initially thought it was.  He blessedly decided to run some blood tests just to be safe.

I was alone in my apartment when I got the news.  I hung up the phone with my father--my poor father who had been tasked with telling his children this terrible news, who I couldn't even find the words to comfort, who had to listen me robotically repeat "Oh my god.  Oh my god." a phrase that he had taught me as a child never to say.  I immediately called Moses and the second I heard his voice, I burst into tears and cried harder than I ever had before: so hard that it echoed in our now full apartment, so hard that my eyes were swollen the next day, so hard that I wondered if it might have been easier to have received this diagnosis for myself.

Since that day I have felt every cliched five-stages of grief bullshit emotion that they always say you'll feel when faced with a situation difficult to understand: outrage (Why him?!  Why our family!? Why do bad things always happen to good people!?), denial (Maybe they made a mistake, maybe it's just a strange virus or an autoimmune disease--as if either of those would be better...), and sadness. Sometimes, I feel it all at once. Sometimes I just feel angry and have to talk myself out of it.  But what has been most pervasive is the sadness.  I feel sad that this has happened to my brother and to my family.  I feel sad that this happens to anyone.  I feel sad that my brother has such a long road to recovery before him. I feel sad that he won't have a typical senior year of high school.  I feel sad that even with a 90% survival rate, that he will ever wonder if he is in the 10%, or worry that the cancer might come back.  I feel sad to think he might never have a "normal" life again.  And although I am not entirely sure why, I feel sad to know that he will forever be identified as a cancer-survivor.

One thing I was not expecting to feel; however, was gratitude.

I know it may seem strange or trite but when I drove down to Ithaca this past weekend and spent the day in the hospital with my family and the night in the hospital caring for my brother, I felt overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude.  I am not grateful that this happened to John or to my family, by any means, but I am grateful that if this had to happen to John, that it at least happened to him at an age when he could understand it. When John was in the ICU on Sunday morning, I walked past a nearby room where I saw a baby sleeping in a crib and was overcome by just how awful it must be to not understand what you are sick with or why you are in the hospital and why you are being given these treatments that make you feel so ill.

I feel grateful that in spite of everything, my parents remain unfailing kind to everyone around them. They thanked the doctors and nurses profusely, they opened doors for people, they smiled at people in the hallways, they are supporting each other and aren't letting the stress of the situation divide them.

I feel grateful that I have siblings who are motivated only by what they could do to help John and our parents; who take turns staying overnight in the hospital with John and go grocery shopping for my parents and babysit Isaiah.  We hardly even need to coordinate, we simply all said "what can we do," the roles were all clear and we played them uncomplainingly.  Not all families can come together so cohesively in times of strife and it makes me so incredibly proud to be part of one that can.

I am grateful that this has made me much more conscious of sharing all of those words of love and admiration for my family that I always think but rarely say.

I feel so grateful that all of the nurses and doctors caring for John are so nice and gentle with him and take the time to explain what they are doing and why.  I feel grateful that my parents have medical insurance; I can't even begin to imagine how difficult this must be for the families who don't.

I am grateful for the outpour of support and encouragement from our family, friends, neighbors, etc. I always knew my friends were awesome; but, it makes my heart so full to know that there are so many good people out there who want to help. I cannot tell you how such a little thing like a text or email from a friend saying "thinking about you," has comforted me during some of the more difficult moments.

Perhaps most of all, I am grateful that despite everything that has happened to him, my brother John isn't bitter. Even that night I stayed with him, when he was so miserably sick, he still thanked the nurses every time they helped him, he thanked me for being there with him, and kept apologizing that the one night I was there he kept "losing his lunch."

There was one moment, during that long night, which I think really speaks to John's character.

He had had surgery earlier that day and was woken up by the nurses every few hours during the night to take some medication that could not be given to him in IV form.  The combination of chemo and the anesthesia really did a number on his stomach.  He was sitting up in bed, I was holding, for lack of a better term, the throw-up bucket in front of him and rubbing his back.  He looked up at me and drowsily said:  "Thank you for being here with me and coming all this way.  I know you have better to things to do."  I replied: "John, of course."  And without skipping a beat he smiled and said: " Of course, you have better things to do."

That reader, is my brother John in a nutshell: steady, funny, and kind.

I still get overwhelmed with sadness from time to time--it ebbs and flows and as with anything else, some days are better than others.  But I will do my best to be uncharacteristically positive and to dwell in that feeling of gratitude as much as I can over the coming months; because it's no use dwelling in those other kinds of feelings; because reminding myself of that gratitude ultimately reminds me of everything good and meaningful and that goodness is easy forgot and therefore worth the remembering; because cancer and chemo are hard enough and there will be days when my brother will be tired and weak and in those moments, it's only through love and gratitude that we can truly supplement his strength.  

But I suppose that's the easy part, really.  

Not because any of it is actually easy but because of how much love and gratitude we have for him.


  1. Wow, Wendy. What a piece of writing you have here. I'm thinking of you all so often. It's so easy for me to picture you among your family, being there with John.

    I speak from experience: you are so graceful when you help people.

    1. Thank you, Kate: for all your words of comfort over the last week and for keeping my family in your thoughts and prayers. I wish I could effective communicate how much it means to me.

  2. Total stranger who lives in NYC and reads the Rhodes log praying for John and your family.