Mary Wang recalls the ways in which she and her family in China conspired to hide her grandmother’s cancer diagnosis from her.
Mary Wang | Longreads | September 2018 | 23 minutes (5,814 words)
1. Care /ker/ [verb], 保护 bǎo hù, the process of protecting someone or something.
In January 2018, Guo Zhen, my grandmother, was diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer. A month later, I arrived home for the first Chinese New Year that I’d spend in China since I had moved away 20 years earlier. I came home with my armor ready — my suitcase was packed with a library including Emperor of All Maladies, Siddhartha Mukherjee’s canonical book on the illness; Susan Sontag’s Illness and Its Metaphors, so that my analytical mind could help carry the weight of my emotional one; and Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, a manual for grief in the event of the worst-case scenario. I had rehearsed the serene facial expression I’d use when I’d see Guo Zhen in her hospital bed for the first time, and I had conscientiously visualized every IV drip and beeping machine to blunt any potential shock. Yet what I found in our family home was the rehearsal of a familiar routine: Her son, my uncle Fu Yuan, was still battling with his son to choose his homework over his iPad; Guo Zhen still sat on her children’s stool in the morning, washing clothes in a bucket of cold water, and grandfather, Pu Cheng, still bugged her to play their daily chess game, holding up a paper board fortified so many times over that the plastic tape covering it was far thicker than the board itself.
Guo Zhen didn’t know she had cancer, and my family had carefully devised a strategy to keep it that way. Doctors and nurses in the hospital had been instructed to never speak of her illness in her presence, and visitors to our home signed an invisible contract before entering, agreeing to act as if her recent hospitalization was due to a case of pneumonia. I never asked her to sit down when she’d get up after every few bites during lunch or dinner to restock the table with congee, buns, or pickles — I knew she did this out of habit rather than necessity. Fu Yuan and his wife never fought to take over her housework, though we worried about the strain of repetitive hunching on her weakening body. Any deviation from routine risked puncturing the facade of normalcy we all worked carefully to preserve, and, within a month, my family had become a theater troupe improvising their first performance, an intimate Truman Show designed to deceive its protagonist.
At 78, there was no point in performing surgery or chemotherapy on Guo Zhen anymore, and any new miracle drug that might land in the world would only arrive in China years after its introduction on the American market. Besides, the decidedly optimistic belief that cancer will soon become only a chronic illness rather than a fatal one is more of an American specialty — its arrogant nature evident when President Nixon declared a “War on Cancer.” The Chinese counterpart to that phrase illustrates a different approach. As one local newspaper put it, “One third of cancer patients die of fear, one third die of its treatment, and only one third die of the illness itself.”
Since there wasn’t much territory to be won in terms of Guo Zhen’s illness or its treatment, we shifted our efforts to shielding her from the first possibility. As soon as doctors saw the dark spots on Guo Zhen’s X-rays, Fu Yuan instructed them to follow our script. “Don’t let the lao ren” — the elderly — “know,” he said, emphasizing Guo Zhen’s status as a senior to make clear that she was no longer a caretaker but the one who was cared for.
“If a man die,” William Carlos Williams wrote, “it is because death / has first possessed his imagination.” Grandfather Pu Cheng, unaware of the American poet, has long touted his own version of this phrase. Boasting about how he’s never stepped foot in a hospital for himself, he’d say, “Nine out of ten people die from fear.” Even though Pu Cheng was also left in the dark about his wife’s disease — we didn’t trust him to keep a secret from his partner of 60 years — we abided by his logic that a doctor’s diagnosis could be a death sentence in itself. By shielding Guo Zhen from the weight of the doctor’s words, we took over the burden of her illness with our own shoulders.