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Rant #99
(published September 12, 2002)
My Kid Sister Has Cancer
by David Erik Nelson

My dad called the other day. He called a couple of times, but I wasn't home. This isn't unusual; I have a somewhat hectic schedule much of the time, and go through long stretches during which I'm generally not home.

My dad pretty much only calls when it's something he figures is important— his computer crashes, or my older sister, Nicole, goes into labor with her second son, or 19 guys fly a bunch of planes into iconic buildings in New York and DC.

He'd had surgery earlier that day— repairs to a blown rotator cuff, much abused after years of clumsiness and the occasional tennis match— so I wasn't surprised when I got home from work and there were several grim sounding messages from him, asking me to call. The surgery hadn't gone particularly well— they'd found more ligament damage than they'd expected, and ended up working dad over a little more roughly than he'd expected— and he was laid up in bed with one pump re-circulating refrigerated water around his arm (I think this was to prevent swelling), and another pump slowly delivering an infusion of antibiotics and Vicodin. Also, they'd had a tube down his throat— God knows why— so his voice was rough and rasping (and, frankly, a little sinister.)

But none of that was why he'd called. At some point, presumably before the surgery, he'd run into one of his doctors, and this doctor also happened to have done a biopsy for my younger sister— a funny looking mole, not a big deal.

Except for that it turns out that the funny looking mole was malignant.

My kid sister has cancer.

My heart froze and the world just stopped. "Oh," I said.

Dad stressed that it was, all things being equal, Not a Big Deal. Hers is a squamous carcinoma[1], they grow fast, but this was caught early. They don't tend to metastasize. One of the best skin cancer treatment centers in the country is right here, in Michigan, in Ann Arbor, less then a couple of miles from my house.

I had ridden my bike past it the other day, coincidentally. Small world.

My kid sister has cancer.

We kept talking for a long while after that, about this and that: Plans for Labor Day weekend, why his voice was so raspy, the fact that his gunsmith had been robbed, the growing insanity of our Commander and Chief— My dad is fairly conservative, and I'm at least a half-bubble left of center, but we're in agreement about the basic nuttiness of Bush Jr.'s Iraqi Crusade.

While we talked, I cooked dinner, went to the bathroom. I hung up, and it hit me

My kid sister has cancer.


My kid sister has cancer. It's not a big deal— malignant— but not a big deal. Caught it early. Not the kind that metastasizes, just a squamous carcinoma—

But the carcin- in carcinoma, in carcinogen starts echoing in my mind

Cancer, my kid sister has cancer.

That word— it's a terrible word. It's like Death's shadow when he's standing in the doorway, the late evening November sun streaming past his shoulders


No, it's worse: it's like coming home, and seeing Death's hat and coat hanging on the rack, and knowing he's somewhere in the house, with his feet up, drinking your beer, making himself comfortable.


I couldn't stop thinking about it, thinking about my kid sister has cancer. I pushed a video into the VCR— The Godfather— and stared vacantly at it.

My kid sister has cancer

but I couldn't really follow what was going on. Michael


or, at least, it looked like Michael, was somewhere in rural Italy— maybe he was a WWII partisan?


Maybe it was a flashback? I was having trouble putting it together, because my kid sister has cancer.


And the phone rings cancer and I pause the video cancer and it's Fritz.

"Hey, my kid sister has cancer," I don't say. "Cancer," it hangs in my head, like smoke in sunshine.

He wants to know what I'm up to, "My kid sister has cancer" I don't tell him.

"Nothing much," I say, and he tells me he just got a bunch of DVDs, and suggests we watch Citizen Kane and the Transformers movie back to back, in a tribute to Orson Wells. I refuse, and he says he'll be over with a selection of movies.

"Hey, man, listen, it's not a big deal, but my kid sister has cancer," I don't say, don't tell him. "Coo'," I say, and hang up and think

my kid sister has cancer.


Everything is frozen, like the light in late November, and I sit on the couch, and think "My kid sister has cancer" and stare at Death's hat and boots. I look at a few things online, and then turn off my computer.

I haven't even said it out loud yet, just thought it; the word


is like a curse, that word— saying it is so bad, so much worse than saying "fuck" or "cunt" or "nigger." Cancer. I can't say it, can't think it anymore. It'll kill me, if I think cancer again, think that my kid sister has cancer.

The world can't move, because it's frozen with my heart and the cancer. My kid sister has cancer.

Fritz shows up, and I look through the videos and think my kid sister has cancer

she has cancer, my kid sister. There's cancer. It's not a big deal, caught early, won't spread, there are good doctors, it's just a squamous carcinoma, but my kid sister has cancer and, somewhere in Chicago, Death is taking off his boots

My kid sister has cancer

My heart is frozen. I'm talking to Fritz about stuff, about the DVDs, about our site— this site, Poor Mojo's Almanac(k)— and OS X and videos we'd like to shoot and all I can think is about the cancer, and Death's coat on the rack and my kid sister has cancer.

"Fritz," I say, "Fritz, listen, it's not a big deal, but my kid sister has cancer," there's a terrible expression people's faces make when you say this— and so you rush fast into the next part: "Don't worry, don't worry; it's not a dig deal! Just squamous carcinoma; they caught it early, she'll be fine. But my kid sister has cancer, and I can't think about anything else."

But then I could; my heart thawed and the world rolled forward, and we talked about stuff, and I laughed, laughed hard at funny things Fritz said— God bless that bearded bastard— and for the next couple hours I didn't think about it. Cara, my fiance, came home, and I explained, about the cancer— she said "Yeah, squamous carcinoma, that's the white patchy one" and I told her I didn't know. I'd looked it up online, but the pictures I'd seen were so horrible— angry red weals, weeping, ulcerated— that I decided I didn't really want to know about the cancer that had my kid sister, who has cancer.

We watched Lord of the Rings and I dozed a little. Even when the Ringwraiths were coursing across the screen, wearing Death's coat and boots, I didn't think about cancer, that my kid sister has cancer.

I smoke, and drink coffee by the pot, and am half-blood Ashkenazi. I'm a walking invitation to cancer. Sometimes, when I'm smoking, I draw deep into my lungs, and think about the tar in the alveoli, about the cells going apeshit and dividing out of control, into schizoid, fibrous masses.

And it doesn't bother me, not at all. The idea of me having cancer . . . well, frankly my dear, I just don't give a damn. But I think of my kid sister, tall, with her pale, luminous skin, with a long black coat, and think my kid sister has cancer and my heart just stops, dead. The world freezes solid, like the little pools of water caught in crinkly fallen leaves in late November. Cancer.

My kid sister has cancer.

The next morning, I got up, and my kid sister still had cancer.

She lives in Chicago, where she is finishing her studies at the Art Institute of Chicago. She does a lot of photography (chemicals! cancer?), and has a cat, and lives in an old carriage house with a spiral staircase— I've never yet seen this place— and she's tall and wears big sunglasses and her skin is luminous pale and she has cancer. I saw her in early July, and she looked good, and took Cara and me to this great pancake joint where I had ambrosial pigs in a blanket and even then, in the sun, in the hot breeze, in the clanging city, she had cancer.

Even when she drove a Volvo with a leopard-print steering wheel in high school, when she rode horses and a pink bicycle, when she had barbies and a never-finished doll house, when we fought over neon colored Slinkies, when she was afraid of fire works, when we rode the same big yellow bus to elementary school, when she was a tiny newborn in 1981 curled in my pudgy arms— even then, even then there were cells in her, cells getting a bad idea. Delinquents.

She has cancer.

My kid sister has cancer. Holy God, she has cancer.

My kid sister has cancer, and I can do nothing.

I think about it, perseverate, and it echos in my head cancer that she has cancer. I can't get it out, and the words themselves hypnotized me, that she has cancer, terrible cancer she has cancer and it's no big deal, grows fast but caught early, rare to metastasize, but still my kid sister, she has cancer.

But I write it, to you, Anonymous Readers, I tell you, my kid sister has cancer, and finally I can put a hand to the words, can hold on to them, tight, as I begin to walk the corridors of my house, holding Death's hat and coat, his boots, ready to help the Eternal Footman into his traveling gear, and in short, I am afraid.

This is a tawdry business I'm in, this writing, this running a web magazine. Really. Like a lot of writers, in those dark moments, I feel like a slut, like a whore, putting a profound face on something that I do for two reasons only: 1) because I like it and 2) because it pays. But now, as I think about my kid sister, her rouge cells, I realize that I'm something worse. Not a whore, but a vampire. I eat souls, I steal people's stories (I've done it to her before), and make them mine. I kill the stories and and pin them to paper. I take them away from the world they live in, and mount them under glass, and sell them, for money, for fun.

My sister's name is Danielle, her name is Danielle Jean Nelson. She has cancer.

I look back over this essay, this tawdry piece of crap, and I see Death in his boots at the door, and my tall sister with her pale skin and cat smile, my sister who has cancer, and I don't look away. I am pleased, ghoul that I am, with what I have made. I'm proud— my kid sister has cancer and I can do nothing but be proud of the shit smears I put to paper about it— and I know exactly how a ghoul feels in a graveyard, as he starts to scrabble down into the fresh earth where the turf hasn't yet had a chance to even take root.

My heart is still— calm, not frozen— and I stare long and hard at the rolling car wreck that's the world. My kid sister has cancer, but tonight I'll sleep. And tomorrow, when I wake up, those words, terrible, lively, words, will be dead, and pinned under glass for display; they won't metastasize in my head anymore.

But she'll still have cancer.

1. FYI, a day or two later I talked to my mom, who corrected Dad: My kid sister doesn't have squamous cell carcinoma, she has melanoma, which is a lot worse.

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