That Would Be Enough
My 2-and-a-half year old cousin Lyle stepped on a soldering iron and burned the sole of his left foot two weeks ago. His grandfather, my great uncle Pa Lee, was using it to fix the cables of Lyle’s electric hamster toy. I watched as he wailed in pain, as his parents fretted and ran his foot through water, as his grandparents apologized and regretted not being careful enough. I watched as his sobs subsided and held him and wished I could absorb his pain. I wished wishing was enough.
My dance teacher and my mother have repeatedly said that one of the greatest pains of motherhood is seeing your child hurt and not being able to help. For me, this feeling extends to everyone I love. I inherited this fierce love from my mother, who inherited it from her mother and her mother’s mother (who passed it down to all the members of her family), like our tendency to overstock refrigerators and our inability to roll our R’s. Seeing Lyle cry and cry broke my heart, as it broke the hearts of my mother, his parents, and his grandparents. The same instinct to protect and care runs deep in our bloodstream. But beyond salves, bandages, and a soft sock to shield the sole, what else could be done?
His burn swelled into a blister wider than my pinky. Lyle waddled throughout the house with the sole of his left foot raised at an angle, digging the tip of his heel on the floor. I joked that he was practicing his heel leads for when he eventually picks up ballroom dancing like his Tia Levina, his mother, and me. I tried to alleviate the pain the only way I knew how: by cracking (lame) jokes and telling tales. In other words, I attempted to soothe their hearts the only way I knew how: by using my words.
Before I had learned how to harness my words, I briefly entertained the idea of becoming an oncologist in 8th grade. This was during a time when the entire world seemed to be mine; when every dream felt like a reality merely fingertips away. At the time, two of my cousins were studying to become oncologists following their father’s diagnosis of brain cancer. My close friend’s mother had also been diagnosed with brain cancer. I remember the pain in his eyes when he told me, “My mom is sick.” There was a pause, followed by my (naive) asking, “But she’s gonna get better, right?” He left to fly back to his Polish hometown for weeks after that, and returned with a tiny souvenir and the news that his mother had passed away.
My great uncle Pa Lee was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer four months ago. The doctors gave him six months to a year left to live. The only thing that might help, they said, was if he undergoes a major (6 hour!) operation. With his weak heart and history of fragile health, we were all at a loss. To me and many in our family, he is a mentor, a listener, a father when our fathers were far away (geographically or emotionally). I can’t imagine my life without him.
I remember the pain in the eyes of my great aunt Maces -- his wife -- on the day she confided, “I don’t understand, Melitz.” Pa Lee has done everything he possibly can to stay in shape. He walks on the treadmill each day and only eats greens and lean proteins. He avoids sweets, red meats, and processed foods. Pa Lee has done everything, and it still wasn’t enough to protect him from the vicious clutches of cancer. I don’t understand either. Upon hearing the news, my mom wept. To this day, it’s still not real to me; I have yet to let it sink in and flood out into tears.
If I had followed through with my 8th grade whim, I would have been thousands of kilometers away studying the anatomy of the body -- including the pancreas. At the time, my desire to be an oncologist made sense. I reasoned that concrete help was the best kind of help; you know, the kind you can probe and splice with a scalpel. Maybe it would’ve helped me understand. Then again, maybe not. The only thing I know now: I would have been too far away to be with them in the moments where they needed me the most.
I am not a doctor, or anything close to a doctor, but I now know there is a myriad of ways to soothe a loved one’s soul. It can be something as simple as a hug and four kiwis after a long day of rehearsal and dealing with horrible roommates. It can be a story told with inflections and made-up slang characteristic of my family, or even just a Snapchat with the caption, “This made me think of you.” It can be a list of things to live for and inside jokes (walls can’t die) made with a friend in a favourite coffee shop after an emotionally draining week. There are plenty of ways to alleviate pain beyond being qualified to use a stethoscope and prescribe medication.
A lot of the time, words and gestures feel tiny in comparison to the wealth of emotions we wish to convey. We question their ability to extend across the gulfs between the peaks and valleys within us and the people around us. Perhaps we undermine their strength because we underestimate our own power to affect, touch, and make a lasting impression.
“Pray for me,” Pa Lee said. He had never requested that from anyone before. I promised him I would. I promised myself I’d stay and spend more time in their company. I hugged both of them, holding on a bit too long, and smiled. I relished in their smiles beaming back at me; I relished in being able to lighten their pain, if just for a moment.
And sometimes, that is enough.