by Briana Borges
I now fully understand the phrase ”Fuck Cancer”
I was on the fence about doing this assignment due to it hitting home pretty hard. I laughed to myself in class when I read the bottom of the screen: “Only do this if you accept the fact that it may bring up a number of difficult thoughts and emotions.” I’ve fabricated quite a few stories in my lifetime for the sake of an assignment but I told myself I would actually put some blood, sweat, and tears into this journal. I thought about only grazing the surface of my grief but it would be an injustice to not at least attempt to write about what I experienced this past July.
I have quite a complicated relationship with death, which is awfully rooted in denial. I often wonder whether it’s due to being exposed to it so early in my childhood. It seemed to constantly surround me as my loved ones were forced to mourn time and time again. Life-long family friends, grandparents, former teachers, distant relatives…the list goes on. Cause of death ranges from breast cancer to multiple gunshot wounds. Honorable mention to my father’s brother, Nelson, who overdosed and was discovered on my 18th birthday. I was notified just as I was about to blow out my candles. Each death I was hit with stung but none of them ever really broke me. I hadn’t experienced the kind of loss you see someone choke up on decades later.
They found a mass on my uncle’s liver in late November 2021. I was sitting at my dining room table when the news was mistakenly delivered to me. I drove to therapy in complete silence that day. In the following months, the updates gradually slowed as his health declined. At the time I didn’t know it but the diagnosis was a ticking time bomb, the tumor violently spreading to the rest of his organs. I could not live with myself if I didn’t visit him like I had promised, so I left for Brazil with my mom on June 4th, 2022.
I melted into the pure skin and bones that lay quietly on the mattress before me. I held back my tears. He could barely stand up on his own. His beautiful brown eyes, once full of life, were now sunken and distant. After everyone fell asleep that night, I sat on the cold kitchen tile, facing the reality of the disease that was swallowing him whole. I stared into the complete darkness, pleading with a God I hadn’t spoken to in years. The grandfather clock on the wall seemed to sync up with my heartbeat. I spent the entire month of June soaking in every last possible second I had with my uncle. I laid with him for hours, gently tracing all the new wrinkles on his hand. I caressed his arm which was now thinner than mine. We didn’t need to speak. I spoon fed him on bad days, even though I knew the food wouldn’t stay down for long. I made sure he was comfortable, always placing the small purple pillow between his knees and evening out the one underneath his neck. Occasionally he would catch a glimpse of a tear streaming down my cheek and ask me why. He would apologize for not being able to “play with me” or take me on motorcycle rides like we used to. I assured him he would soon get better and we would do it all. Together, we clung onto these empty promises, finding solace in the future that would forever be out of our reach.
Crowds of people came to visit daily. My uncle was so loved to the point where it was almost annoying. Neighbors, friends, guards who worked at the prison across the street, priests. Each and every person had their own ridiculous stories to tell, and would stay for hours at a time. It was my mother and I’s duty to keep them entertained as my uncle retreated back into his room. His friends became one of the few things I looked forward to. I grew fond of these strangers who cared so deeply for my loved one. They kept his spirit alive.
Two weeks into our stay, my mother went to a doctor’s appointment with my aunt and discovered that the entire time my uncle had not been undergoing chemotherapy to shrink the tumor but merely palliative care to help with the pain. On top of that, his cancer had spread from his liver to his bones. This was not to be shared with anyone, especially my uncle. The document that contained his diagnoses was carefully stashed away somewhere in the house. With no formal education and limited medical knowledge, he was entirely reliant on my aunt. She shielded him from the harsh reality, carefully withholding the extent of his illness. I felt trapped in this facade, with no choice but to play along. I’m still not entirely sure whether my aunt was truly unaware of the severity of his disease or if she was in complete denial. Either way, things couldn’t have been worse.
Less than eight months after being diagnosed, he was already unrecognizable. His distended abdomen, swollen limbs, and gaunt face were all undeniable indicators that his body was failing him. As his condition worsened, doctors were removing over 15 liters from his abdomen weekly. He could no longer sit up or walk, his legs far too weak to bear the weight of his own body. He began isolating himself, spending a majority of his time in his bedroom away from any guests. He didn’t want to watch soccer games anymore or look at old photographs. Our laughs and singing were replaced with a heavy, uncomfortable silence. Deeply embedded in this uncomfortable silence was an unspoken understanding. I was glued to his side from morning until night.
Even in the midst of it all I was able to convince myself wholeheartedly that he would make it out unscathed. This delusion dampened the desperation, which allowed me to care for him as I watched him slowly slip away. I continued to compartmentalize, shoving the pain down as far as it would go with no intention of it coming up anytime soon. To no one’s surprise, my coping strategies were doing far more harm than good. My mother was the first to notice the physical toll the situation was taking on my body. My jeans were practically falling off from all the weight I dropped, almost 10 pounds in less than three weeks. A direct consequence of the lack of sleep, isolation, and non-existent appetite. Initially, I was given the opportunity to stay until the end or leave before things progressively got worse. My choice to stay was overruled by my mother’s concern. She lay by my side that night, heartbroken by her own decision.
The very next day, I packed my things and prepared for the five hour drive to the airport. I spent the entire afternoon laying with my uncle in silence. I hugged him one last time. We agreed we would see each other again.
The man next to me took advantage of the free alcohol and drunkenly talked practically the entire nine hours of the trip. I kept my legs tightly crossed and glued my body to the cold, plastic wall of the plane. I arrived in EWR after two days of travel, unbelievably exhausted. For the first few days of being home, I tried to keep myself busy. I took apart my closet, violently scrubbed my kitchen cabinets, and for the first time ever pulled weeds out of the front yard. I called every night to check in. One day, when my aunt passed the phone over to my uncle, he could no longer remember me. A few days later, he was taken into the emergency room and slipped into a deep coma. He remained in this vegetative state for a number of days and began having seizures.
It was July 12th when they broke the news that he had finally died. I remember it being one of the few days where I was able to refrain from thinking about it all. So much so that the contents of the phone call caught me by complete surprise. My cousin’s fiance drove us home from the beach and dropped me off. I assured her I was fine.
I took a long shower and quietly crawled into bed. My house was empty, with all of my family out of the country and now focused on the funeral. For four days and four nights, I lay very still in the darkness of my mother’s room. My best friend would come over at night and leave in the morning for work. Upon her return, she would often discover that I had not moved an inch. Although we exchanged very few words, her presence was my only sense of comfort. Some relatives came by, with nothing to offer but cliches and cold hugs. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t still harbor anger for their actions during this time. Although grieving a death of this magnitude alone was excruciating, I preferred isolation over their obligatory visits.
I haunted the hallways of my home, suffocated by the few remaining memories my body failed to repress. Around a week or so after his death, my family returned. Hugs were exchanged and life went back to normal. I seemed to be the only one stuck in my own emotional abyss. I have little recollection but by this point it must’ve been the end of July.
I wore my grief like a cloak, my body standing no chance against the unbearable weight settling over my shoulders. I felt like you could smell death on me from miles away. There was a thick, unforgiving fog constantly surrounding me. There was no clear sense of direction or purpose. I went searching for distractions of any kind. During the day, I wanted to be anywhere but home. On weekends, I buried myself in nights out, falling asleep on couches and bathroom floors. I lashed out and cut communication with a few family members. I continued to isolate and compartmentalize but the more I ran, the more the feelings seemed to follow. My only true saving grace during this time was therapy. Twice a week, without fail, successfully moved me away from denial and closer towards acceptance. I brought my daily habits back, like walking and writing. I look back and laugh now but I spent a lot of time speaking aloud to God and my uncle and whomever else may have been watching over me. Who knows if they were even listening. Little by little, the once unbearable weight had begun lifting off my shoulders.
I still have difficulty accepting the reality that I will never see my uncle again. There are days where I choose my words very carefully when speaking about his death, so as to not shock my own system. A majority of the pain lies in forgetting his face, his laugh, and his touch. I can wholeheartedly say I am eternally grateful for this journal as it forced me to acknowledge the pain I had almost completely detached from. Although my grief still weighs heavy on my heart, I now wear it with pride. It is a constant reminder of the unconditional love I have for my uncle, and serves as a powerful testimony to my ability to overcome even the darkest of days.
I’m sure one day we’ll meet again.
Briana is a dedicated professional from Union County. She will graduate with her MSW from Rutgers in 2024. She serves as an intern at Prevention Links at the Raymond Lesniak Recovery High School. Her role involves providing counseling, advocating for resources, and creating a nurturing environment for the students. Briana’s experiences have equipped her with the knowledge and skills necessary to make a meaningful difference in the lives of the youth she serves.