“You must be so proud,” yet another couple gushed while their eyes tracked me. Not that they were speaking to me, but everyone’s eyes were always directed my way at these events. I was a bug under a microscope—a well-dressed and polished bug, but a bug nonetheless. I stood dutifully by as my parents received the compliment and my mother doled out air kisses to the couple decked out in expensive but understated formalwear.
We wouldn’t want to go crazy and wear peek-a-boo lace or down-to-there necklines or, well, a color that actually stood a chance at catching someone’s eye, now would we?
I didn’t know how I was going to make it through another one of these yawn fests without at least something sparkly to look at. Come on, people! It was as if the invitations had read “Attire: Funereal Chic.” My gaze swept the room—black, black, black—ooh, charcoal! Wait, red! Oh, just the exit sign—my bad.
I was stuck in this receiving line of sorts with nary a glass of champagne to keep me entertained. My only small act of rebellion was wearing the sexiest, skimpiest pair of lilac lace panties I could find, but they were completely hidden under my (modest, of course) black sheath Dior gown. I had forgone the delicious red patent leather Manolos—the poor things were stuck at home in my closet, probably happy they didn’t have to endure this evening’s event.
“Shut up, Fiona! Positive thoughts, please,” my inner voice, Guilt, reprimanded.
Oh, right. Sorry.
So right now, you might be curious as to why I was the reluctant center of attention at this function, and you may even sympathize with me for having to stand here sans champagne and bored out of my mind (sexy panties aside). But in a minute, you’re going to agree with Guilt and think I’m a bitch.
You see, when all these people approach my parents and say, “You must be so proud,” what some of them really mean is, “You’re so goddamn lucky and a tiny part of me resents the shit out of you.” But it would be unseemly to actually say that so they always go with the former comment.
Regardless of etiquette, behind their eyes I can always see the envy along with the effort it takes to not let it show. They would give anything, and I mean anything, to have a daughter like me.
I know, what a bitch, right?
But it’s the God’s honest truth. Many of these couples would trade their very lives to have what my parents have—a daughter who survived childhood cancer and lived to tell about it.
* * *
“I thought that went exceptionally well, didn’t you?” my mother asked as she perched on the sofa next to me, her makeup still flawless and her blond up-do as elegant as it had been five hours earlier.
“Definitely,” I agreed, removing my shoes to massage my sore feet. I mean, I may not have gotten to wear the Manolos but I wasn’t a heathen or anything—I had still worn a pair of stilettos. At five-feet and a quarter (you bet your ass I’m including that extra quarter inch), I always wear heels—the higher the better.
Fact: adults don’t take short people seriously. So I do anything I can to even the playing field. If I had a nickel for every time I’d been patted on the head by some patronizing asshole, I’d be—well, I’m already rich, so let’s just say I’d be disgustingly rich.
To be fair, I, myself, am not actually rich, but my parents are. And they both evidently got straight As in preschool because they are awesome at sharing.
We have this odd relationship where I just exist and they are so tickled that they throw money at me. That, in and of itself, would be pretty pathetic, but along with the money, they also throw unwavering love, affection, and support in my direction and I hope I do a halfway decent job of returning the same to them. Lots of people say they have the best parents in the whole world, but I actually do. And that, in short, is why I can never say no when they ask for my help with The Foundation. That and my ever-present companion Guilt, of course.
“Ah, there are my beautiful girls!” my father said as he entered my parents’ massive living room. He’d loosened his bow-tie and removed his tux jacket and was now looking between us and the screen of his smartphone. “Guess how much we netted? Just take a guess!” From his excitement, the answer was clearly a good one.
“$350,000?” my mother guessed.
“Um, $375,000 and Barbara Rogers’ hotel keycard—I hear 80 is the new 40,” I said, earning a nudge from my mother.
My dad looked at me with the most serious expression he could muster. “Fiona, you know I won’t go older than 75—at that point they’re more housecat than cougar.”
I giggled—what can I say? I’m a daddy’s girl. Did I mention how awesome my dad is?
“So, drum-roll please,” he said and my mother and I dutifully tapped our respective sofa arms. “$432,350!”
Mom and I enthused appropriately and my dad went to the kitchen to fetch a bottle of champagne—finally, I was going to get some bubbly!
“Totally exhausting, but so worth it,” my mother sighed as she let herself relax back into the cushions of the stylish gray sofa, her formal gown somehow remaining completely un-rumpled. I propped my stockinged feet on the designer coffee table and pretended not to see the chastising glance aimed at me. “This is going to make such a difference—I think this may put us over the top to get the new MRI for Children’s.”
We speak in shorthand around here where medical terminology, facilities, and organizations are so ingrained in our everyday dialogue that I often wonder if we need complete words at all. We’re like a depressing version of a teenage text exchange.
Everything is “WBC,” “ALL,” “SCT,” “Children’s,” and “County” to name just a few. And it’s a good thing because if we used all the actual terms, we wouldn’t ever have time to finish a conversation. For instance, saying “ALL” is a lot easier than saying “acute lymphocytic leukemia,” which just happens to be the disease that has defined and redefined our lives over and over.
All right, so here’s the 4-1-1: When I was nine years old I was diagnosed with ALL, and because of a series of unlucky test results and poor response to treatment, it was revealed that my chances were quite shitty. Undaunted, my parents used every resource available to them and refused to let the poor prognosis stick. It took three hospitals, a clinical trial, every alternative form of treatment my mother could find on the internet, and finally a stem-cell transplant to put me in remission. When I tell you that acupuncture was the highlight of my treatment plan, you understand how much the rest of it sucked donkey balls. And anybody who tells you acupuncture is “fabulous” or “so rejuvenating” is a big, fat, lying whore. Just so you know.
Where was I? Oh, right.
Needless to say, we were all elated when we got the good news that my leukemia was in remission and we would finally be able to return to normal life. The only problem? There was no “normal” to go back to.
Suddenly, our whole family was grappling with a host of conflicting emotions. For the two years we’d been fighting the disease, we’d assumed the finish line was remission. Instead, we were almost paralyzed by the simultaneous onslaught of not just the joy, but also fear, guilt, and sadness. What if it comes back? Why did we reach remission when so many others didn’t? What comes next? And what happened to the sense of innocence an eleven-year-old is entitled to?
It was at this point in my life that Guilt moved into my consciousness and made herself comfortable. As far as I can tell, she spends her days tsk-ing disapprovingly at the cobwebs in my head and honing her skills as the most spectacularly annoying backseat driver ever. I would not recommend her as a house guest.
After a few weeks, I attempted to return to the life of a typical eleven-year-old, but everything was so different and awkward. My brain didn’t seem to want to work the same anymore, and things that had previously come easily to me were suddenly overwhelming. I was having trouble remembering things, and my academic performance, which had always been stellar, began a downward spiral, with tests and homework becoming a huge struggle.
There were also physical implications from the disease and its treatment, the most noticeable of which was my development, or more specifically my lack thereof. While other girls my age were shooting up like beanstalks and wearing training bras, I was still essentially living in the body of a nine-year-old, with stunted growth and hormonal issues, neither of which would ever fully resolve—much to my dismay (see previous short-person rant).
In addition to all these issues, and possibly even because of them, my social life was a mess. My friends, classmates, and teachers treated me either like glass or like I didn’t exist, their discomfort achingly obvious—which was all particularly hurtful to a young girl who had spent her childhood as a total people-person, embracing the world with complete exuberance and in the girliest manner possible.
I longed to return to the ease of my pre-cancer life but knew that I should just be happy to be alive. To ease the situation for everyone, I resolved to plaster a smile on my face so no one would think me ungrateful or worry about me. It was a habit I still maintained much of the time.
Meanwhile, out of a combined sense of gratefulness and contrition, my parents dove headlong into establishing a foundation for cancer research and childhood cancer facilities. To this day, it sometimes seems my mother’s entire reason for existence is to spare other families the devastation wreaked by cancer. Other times, I’m reminded that about forty percent of her existence is actually reserved for worrying about me and trying to smother me—with love and attention. Although it often feels like plain old-fashioned smothering—you know, like with a pillow.
Obviously, my father is also very involved in what we call “The Foundation.” But somebody has to bring in the big bucks, so he also runs the family’s tech firm in Raleigh while my mom holds the reigns of The Foundation and I pitch in when called upon.
Then about four years ago, when I had reached my nine-year anniversary of remission, I decided to leave the nest—you know, the one full of pillows—and move to Greensboro to branch out on my own. I was twenty and finding it very difficult to find direction, so I figured becoming more independent might help me out.
My parents naturally fought it at first, but they eventually relented and bought me a gorgeous condo in a downtown high-rise with amazing floor-to-ceiling windows and two balconies. I freaking love it! They wanted to buy me a house, but I am way too much of a girly-girl to be responsible for my own appliances and grass and stuff. No thanks. I did mention the heels, right? Well, there is a whole designer wardrobe to go along with those heels and not a single pair of overalls in it. They also wanted to buy me a Mercedes, but I talked them down to a Prius with a mere mention of environmental effects and carcinogens.
So, I had my own place and my own life in Greensboro, and it was only an hour and a half to Raleigh so my parents could still hover enough to keep them relatively content. The one thing I still didn’t have, though, was direction. It apparently didn’t come with the new life and new condo like a gift-with-purchase at Nordstrom. I’ve spent the last four years floating from job to job trying to figure out what I want to do with my life and having very little luck.
The floating around has, however, provided a couple of amazing benefits—some really hilarious and awesome experiences, and some really hilarious and awesome friends. The greatest of these is, of course, my best friend in the whole wide world, Laney.
She and I met when I was doing a brief stint as a receptionist at the same company she was temping for. At the time, Laney had been raising a baby, going to college, and working a part-time job.
Needless to say, Laney rocks, and I am in complete awe of her most of the time. She is a single mom to a five-year-old little heartbreaker named Rocco (Oh, excuse me, he now demands that I say he is five-and-three-quarters) and she almost ties my mom for being the best mom in the world. However, Laney’s inability to wear stilettos or any article of clothing made from a material other than cotton will eventually result in Rocco growing up to marry a girl with similarly bad taste—and that’s just irresponsible. Therefore, she rates second in the best mom competition.
What my best friend lacks in fashion sense, though, she makes up for in her taste in men. She recently scored herself one seriously hot man in the form of an adorably doting construction god named Nate. I often want to cry tears of joy at his love and dedication to Laney and Rocco—well that and his tight ass.
What? Laney doesn’t care that I ogle him. Sometimes we even do it together. It’s a bonding thing.
Laney has not had the easiest time since she accidentally got knocked up her freshman year of college and the douchebag dad essentially skipped the scene. So seeing her and Rocco with such a great guy does things to my heart. It almost makes me wonder if that’s something I could want for myself. Almost.
But I have my condo and my various jobs and my flitting back and forth to Raleigh, not to mention Guilt to keep me company, so I’m good.
My phone vibrated on the coffee table next to my empty crystal flute, sending me reminders I’d need for the morning. This particular night of flitting to Raleigh was thankfully over and had ended just as I preferred—with a drink and the people I love. Celebratory champagne consumed and the night’s events adequately dissected, my parents and I doled out goodnight kisses and decided it was time for bed.
The thought of driving back to Greensboro so late was unappealing at best, and with the bubbly coursing through me, would have been idiotic. I am not the most responsible person on a good day—Guilt can attest—and I have a healthy respect for my own limits, so driving would just be begging for trouble. Instead, I crashed in my old bedroom. This happens often enough that I keep a small wardrobe and stash of beauty supplies at my parents’ house for just such times. I consulted my phone on the next day’s plans and slipped into my nightgown. As soon as my head hit the pillow, I was out.
Thank God for champagne.
Oh right, and for letting me be alive.
Can I go to sleep now, Guilt?