Recollections of cancerous sorts

The hospital room was spacious.  It had to be in order to accommodate our entire family.  I remember wiggling myself onto the thick, smooth, cool concrete windowsill.  I loved to look down on the strange green lawn from the third story window.  We were in the desert town of Albuquerque, New Mexico, green lawns were far and few between.  I would watch people picnic and kids play in the grass, as if they enjoyed being at a hospital.  Perhaps, for the short time that they frolicked, they imagined they were somewhere else.

My weekends and week nights were spent inside the institutional green Indian Health Service hospital room during the 11th and 12th years of my life.  I often sat away from everyone and kept quiet.  I occupied my time with word search books, or people watching – strangers and my family.  More than anything, I tried to watch and not to feel.

It wasn’t always this way.  I remember being mesmerized by how cool my uncle Alvin and his friends were.  I even had a secret crush on his best friend, Jerome.  We would pine over how cool he looked in his faded Levi’s and 80’s mullet.  They were so much older than my sisters and I, but we were fascinated by how exciting their lives were.  Even though we didn’t really know what their lives were like, we imagined they must have been simply fantastic!

My uncle Alvin got sick in his early 20’s. His carefree days with friends were interrupted by his new life in and out of the confines of a hospital.  I remember he would stay with us in Albuquerque for days at a time.  I can only assume that it was for medical reasons.  He loved to make baked potatoes.  They were his specialty.  He would eat his potato at the table and ask me questions about school as I saw across from him working on homework, artwork or word puzzles.

As his life changed, so did ours.  We didn’t laugh as much.  My mom and my aunts were always huddled as they talked in muffled voices at the hospital, at restaurants, or at our house.  I knew he had cancer, but I was never told what kind.  To this day, I’m not sure what kind he had, I just know it was aggressive and took him down hard….cancer.

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Cancer would become a word that rolled off my tongue as I recounted family medical history to any new doctor that came into my life.  I didn’t think it was odd that our family was so familiar with cancer…but, apparently, it is.

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Mary Sue was the aunt I only knew through stories.  She was diagnosed with Leukemia when she was a child.  My mother’s older sister died in the 1950’s after a long, difficult struggle.  At the time of her death, cancer was new to our family and to the Dine’ (Navajo).  It was back when the “experts” thought that our people were immune to cancer.  Back when they sent dads, brothers and grandpas, like mine, deep into the Uranium mines of Cove, Arizona in the heart of Dinetah (Navajo land).  Those men would come out of the mines covered in yellow dirt.  The smart ones, took rags or bandanas to cover their noses and mouths.  All of them walked radiant paths right up to the doorsteps of their homes – including our family home in Shiprock, NM.

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I was the mother of junior high aged children when I learned that my Grandma, our matriarch, was diagnosed with cancer.  She was in the winter months of her life.  She had lived a long, full life, rewarded with successful children and more than 24 aspiring grandchildren and a handful of great-grandchildren.  She loved and knew she was loved, greatly.  Regardless, it was difficult to watch that intangible scourge take the life from her.  Her soft hands continued to dole out love pats, and gentle, comforting grips even as the rest of her body succumbed to the internal predator.

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In Navajo, we call our mother’s sisters, Shima yazhi, “my little mother.”  And they are my mother’s in every sense of the word.  I can call them if I’m feeling bad.  I can call them when I’m in need.  I can call them anytime and I’ll be greeted with “Oh, Shi yazhi (my little one), Bunty….”    Bunty, being that baby nickname that I’ve never been able to escape.

Not too long ago, I longed to hear that silly nickname from my Auntie Lorraine.  I’m her namesake and spent the early years of my life living with her and her husband, my Uncle Jim.  It was at my wedding to my husband, Jimmy that I learned her and my uncle were the original “Lori and Jimmy.”  History repeats itself in the most amazing way sometimes.

She was diagnosed with breast cancer.  Not so long ago, I feared I’d have to carry on the blessing of her name, alone.  I remember her telling me, “I knew it was coming for me.  I just didn’t know when.”  It was heart-wrenching to actually feel the doom in her voice from over a thousand miles away.  They caught it in time, but not without the sacrifice of her womanhood.

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My Auntie Woosie was always gruff, tuff and funny, even though she didn’t realize it.  As kids, we’d always jokingly try to avoid her trailer come evening.  It was not easy, as the front door was at a 90 angle from the front door of my grandparent’s home, which is where our family gathered.  If one of us strayed too close to her trailer, we’d get called to her side and made to scratch her hair or her back “until it bleeds;” because, after all, we were of “slave age.”  We can laugh now, but steering clear was a covert operation as kids.

Those funny memories were endangered once we learned that she too had become a victim of cancer.  She would be the second case of breast cancer in our family.  Her life was spared, but not without her offering of self, body and dignity.  Today, her humor and liveliness is guarded by folded arms and limited gestures; almost as if protecting self.

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In Dine’ life, there are no lines dividing family.  No aunt, uncles, cousins or nieces and nephews.  We are simply- mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and each other’s children.

One of my younger sisters was in junior high school when she was hit by a car.  Even then, she was a petite young girl with delicate features.  We feared her fragile body couldn’t handle the trauma.  They urgently labored to piece her back together again as we braced against the fact that she might not survive.  If she did, she would probably never walk again.

She walked right out of the grips of death and into young adulthood and later into motherhood.  It was when her youngest children, twins, were just beginning their pre-school experience that she learned she was firmly in stage 4 of a rare cancer.  Her body failed her and did not develop as planned when she was a toddler, giving an opportunistic cancer the perfect environment to grow.

We feared that this would be the end.  Her even more fragile body readied for the long, hard fight. Every day was a new battle against a powerful, unseen villain.  Prayers and tears enveloped her small, bed-ridden frame as she drew back again from impending death.  She went into remission only to be back on the battlefield a few years later.  Again, she drew strength from family, friends and loved ones, alive and departed, to pull firmly back into our lives for good.

Chemotherapy is a cruel savior in our circles.  It is the kryptonite to cancer, yet is the kink in our protective armor called immunity.

My sister battles with the repercussions of her numerous cycles of chemo.  Today, her nearly 90 pound frame braces against the simple invasion of germs, illness and even the common cold. It’s a bitter-sweet reminder of the tears, prayers and faith that uplifted our own vanquished spirits during her most trying times.  But, she survived.  We survived.

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Sadly, our family stories are not unique.  They are not proof of a family curse.  They are stories of Navajo people that are familiar and the same for indigenous peoples around the world.  They are proof that we are not a magical people with the ability to conjure up paranormal protection from universal forces.  They are proof that we are not supernatural beings that can seek help from botanical or animal entities. We are human.

The stories are proof that we are survivors. We have proven over generations that we are resilient. We are determined.  We have stood together and strong against more than most people care to imagine. We are proof that the human spirit is stronger than disease, manufactured myths and genocide.  We stand above the blame and use that strength to lift one another up.

Now and in the future, we will continue to weave our stories of hurt and disease.  But in each, we always look beyond to the outcome; which maybe a new journey in a new life, or a renewed journey in this one.  Either way, the end is always a blessing.

The end is always a blessing.

Sisters

In my pre-mortal life I know I was whole.

I accepted the challenge to venture to this earthly home…for a time.

I’m guessing there must have been a mix-up…maybe a heavenly malfunction…because I became two.

We landed together

her first, then me

lagging behind by six months.

We were born as close as possible without taking a toll on our mothers, sisters themselves.

Sisters – May, 1989.

Both sharing an identity-

Todíkozhí born for Áshííhí- both of us

And from birth we were inseparable

able to speak without words

know each others thoughts

feel the others’ joy and pain

As we grew so did our bond.

Together we faced adolescence-

the first loves, the break-ups, the run-a-way plots, happiness and grief.

In our adult lives our bond has matured.

It has steered us through martial bliss, marital woes, parenting trials and triumphs.

Sisters, circa 2005.

Now we live by text, cell and email.

When we hear the voice on the other end of the line,

we sense the mood, we feel the emotion

and we automatically align our response to her need.

These days we think about where the future will take us

and we worry about distance

When in reality, we know our bond reaches beyond any physical existence.

I don’t fear much in life because I know I have her always pushing me to succeed…and vice versa…

Because, she’s my sister, she’s my strength…she’s simply an extension of me.

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