In “Pale Girl Speaks,” a firsthand account of dealing with a melanoma diagnosis, Hillary Fogelson tells her story with poise, courage and humor, shedding light on a largely misunderstood cancer. Here's an excerpt.
He’s on his way. She’s on her way. The whole f-ing world is on their way to my house, and I have cancer. I have cancer I have cancer I have cancer. I need to say it one more time. I have cancer. I feel like Chevy Chase before he jumps into the swimming pool with Christy Brinkley. This is crazy this is crazy this is crazy. Okay. I’m just going to sit here in my den with my dog at my feet—licking my feet—and wait . . . it’s that word that’s bothering me so much. The one Dr. Bach used. The one . . . ya know, the “c”-word. When I think of “that word,” an old person springs to mind, with yellow skin, hollowed-out eyes, brown teeth, and a cough that sounds sick enough to hack up several pieces of lung. But that’s not me. That’s not even close to me. I’m young and healthy. I use whitening strips regularly, and my skin, albeit pale, has a rosy undertone. And yes, I admit I have the occasional nervous cough, but nothing deep or hacking or mucus-producing.
“That word” always seemed fairly easy to say when I’d used it in stories about other people. Stories about older people. It used to slip out, flow freely, along with a whole slew of nouns and adjectives. It was just another word. It’s just another word when you’re talking about someone else. But now, I don’t have . . . that word. I just can’t.
It’s so weird. I’m sitting here on my couch and everything around me looks the same as always. Same coffee table, same TV, same light coming through the same French doors hitting the Berber carpet in the same old way, yet I feel like everything is so completely different. I am completely different. I feel like a completely different person than I did ten minutes ago. I am totally freaking myself out right now. I need to breathe. Need to focus on my breath. In . . . two, three, four . . . out . . . two, three, four. Okay, now I’m really light-headed.
Mom is right outside the front door. I can hear her panting, her body ready and in wait. A bundle of raw nerves set to burst the moment her size 5 1⁄2 feet hit my recently swiffered hardwood floors. A modern-day June Cleaver on speed. Carol Brady with a perverted sense of humor and a southern drawl. She’s passive-aggressive in the way all great mothers are: she can compliment and criticize all in the same breath. She’s often distracted, walking into rooms and then immediately forgetting what she wanted to get in the first place. She can remember neither movie titles nor actors’ names, and yet she insists on asking if I’ve seen “that movie. You know, the one with that actor. You know who I’m talking about; he has a brother who was in that movie that you just saw.” I have never seen her drink a hot cup of coffee or finish putting on her mascara in any place other than the car. She makes the world’s best carrot cake, assuming she hasn’t left out some vital ingredient—like sugar. She can clean a house like no other. And she is a giver, through and through. The kind of mother I aspire to be. She is selfless. She would do anything for all of her children. And she has given everything, all of herself, for all of these years, to all three of us . . . and she is currently jumping up and down, desperately trying to peek in the upper panes of my front door, her coarse, dyed blond hair floating in and out of frame. I hate to let her in. I hate to let her into my world right now, into my “new” life, this new existence. I’ll just pretend I’ve gone out . . . knock . . . knock . . . knock, knock, knock, KNOCKKNOCK. Okay. Be strong and smile . . .
Me: Hey, sorry, I didn’t hear the door. I was—
Mom: Hi, honey. Your garden looks beauti—oh, the house smells so good. You’ve been slaving away on your hands and knees all morning, haven’t you?
Me: No, not really. I—
Mom: Are these the new chairs you were waiting for? They must have cost a fortune. The leather is so soft. Oh, the life you lead. Your father and I sat on egg crates in our first house. I hope you realize how lucky you are to—
Me: Yeah, Mom, I know—
Mom: So many people never get to live like this. Never in their whole life. You are so fortunate.
Me: Yeah, well . . . let me take your bags. I have you set up in this room here. I cleared—
Mom: I think I hear . . . is that Adam? He’s home for lunch? He’s so lucky he has time to do that. Your father worked so hard, he never had time for a lunch break.
Me: I remember. Hey, honey . . .
Adam: It’s going to be okay. Shh-shh-shh. I’m not going to let anything happen to . . . I’m . ..
Me: It’s okay . . . I’m okay.
Adam: Honey, you’re shaking.
Mom: What’s going—
Me: Mom, why don’t we all go sit down in the kitchen . . .
I told her. I told her everything. Everything I know. Which isn’t much. The few tidbits of disturbing information. The unfinished CliffsNotes version. I kept it short and precise and told her I was going to be okay, even though I’m not so sure myself. I did my damnedest to hide my fear and calm the sudden twitch that had started in my upper eyelid. I told her everything a child never wants to have to tell a parent. And at first she was strong. And then . . . well . . . she wasn’t.
Excerpted from PALE GIRK SPEAKS by Hillary Fogelson. Copyright (c) 2012 by Hillargy Fogelson. Reprinted by arrangement with Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group.