I originally wrote about Katie Rosman’s book If You Knew Suzy in 2010. The blogpost was written before my diagnosis with metastatic breast cancer but years after my diagnosis of stage II breast cancer. My fears, articulated below, of my cancer returning and taking me from my family have now come true. It is interesting to read my words now through this new life lens.
Katie and I have grown so close since I first wrote about her book, her mother, and their effect on me. Our friendship runs deep. I treasure Katie’s thoughtfulness, her compassion, her devotion to her family, her laugh, and yes, I’ll say it: I am very jealous of her curly hair and ability to do handstands.
November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month. Misinformation and stigma are still linked with lung cancer.
I get asked all the time, “Why do you think you got cancer so young the first time? Why do you think it metastasized?” I think people are searching desperately for identifiable reasons so they can feel “safe” from the fate I have (Clearly she must have done something to be seeing it once again, right? That won’t happen to me, right? If I just eat this or drink that it won’t happen to me, right?).
There is one question almost universally asked of those diagnosed with lung cancer: “Smoker?” There are many risk factors for lung cancer that have nothing to do with smoking. In fact, I only learned after having an oophorectomy in 2008 that surgically-induced menopause significantly increases the risk of lung cancer (one paper here).
Yes, current smokers are those most likely to be diagnosed with lung cancer. But there are increasing diagnoses of those who have never smoked and many who stopped decades ago. We need much more research into the spectrum of causes of lung cancer (including radon and asbestos exposure) and effective treatments. The stigma associated with it, however, is a barrier to raising money for research compared with other cancers. It is the deadliest cancer; more than 25% of cancer deaths are from lung cancer (more than from colon, breast, and prostate cancer combined) yet receives only a fraction of research funding.
I wanted to share this post again during Lung Cancer Awareness Month to highlight one life. Writing is powerful. Across time and space, without ever having heard each other’s voices or shaken each other’s hand, I have learned so much from Suzy.
Katie’s mother, Suzy Rosin, died from lung cancer.
There comes a point in your life when you realize that your parents are people too. Not just chaffeurs, laundresses, baseball-catchers, etc.– but people. And when that happens, it is a lightbulb moment, a moment in which a parent’s humanity, flaws, and individuality come into focus.
If you are lucky, like I am, you get a window into that world via an adult relationship with your parents. In this domain you start to learn more about them; you see them through the eyes of their friends, their employer, their spouse, and their other children.
Yesterday I sat transfixed reading Katherine Rosman’s book If You Knew Suzy: A Mother, A Daughter, A Reporter’s Notebook cover to cover. The book arrived at noon and at 11:00 last night I shut the back cover and went to sleep. But by the middle of the night I was up again, thinking about it.
I had read an excerpt of the book in a magazine and had already been following Katie on Twitter. I knew this was going to be a powerful book for me, and I was right. Katie is a columnist for The Wall Street Journal and went on a mission to learn about her mother after her mother died in 2005 from lung cancer. In an attempt to construct a completed puzzle of who her mother was, Katie travels around the country to talk with those who knew her mother: a golf caddy, some of her Pilates students, her doctors, and even people who interacted with Suzy via Ebay when she started buying up decorative glass after her diagnosis.
Katie learns a lot about her mother; she is able to round out the picture of who her mother was as a friend, an inspiration, a wife, a mother, a strong and humorous woman with an intense, fighting spirit. These revelations sit amidst the narrative of Katie’s experience watching her mother going through treatment in both Arizona and New York, ultimately dying at home one night while Katie and some family members are asleep in another room.
I teared up many times during my afternoon getting to know not only Suzy, but also Katie and her sister Lizzie. There were so many parts of the book that affected me. The main themes that really had the mental gears going were those of fear, regret, control, and wonder.
I fear that what happened to Suzy will happen to me:
my cancer will return.
I will have to leave the ones I love.
I will go “unknown.”
My children and my spouse will have to care for me.
My needs will impinge on their worlds.
The day-to-day caretaking will overshadow my life, and who I was.
I will die before I have done all that I want to do, see all that I want to see.
As I read the book I realized the tribute Katie has created to her mother. As a mother of three children myself, I am so sad that Suzy did not live to see this accomplishment (of course, it was Suzy’s death that spurred the project, so it is an inherent Catch-22). Suzy loved to brag about Katie’s accomplishments; I can only imagine if she could have walked around her daily life bragging that her daughter had written a book about her… and a loving one at that.
Rosman has not been without critics as she went on this fact-finding mission in true reporter-style. One dinner party guest she talked with said, ” … you really have no way of knowing what, if anything, any of your discoveries signify.” True: I wondered as others have, where Suzy’s dearest friends were… but where is the mystery in that? To me, Rosman’s book is “significant” (in the words of the guest) because it shows how it is often those with whom we are only tangentially connected, those with whom we may have a unidimensional relationship (a golf caddy, an Ebay seller, a Pilates student) may be the ones we confide in the most. For example, while Katie was researching, she found that her mother had talked with relative strangers about her fear of dying, but rarely (if ever) had extended conversations about the topic with her own children.
It’s precisely the fact that some people find it easier to tell the stranger next to them on the airplane things that they conceal from their own family that makes Katie’s story so accessible. What do her discoveries signify? For me it was less about the details Katie learned about her mother. For me, the story of her mother’s death, the process of dying, the resilient spirit that refuses to give in, the ways in which our health care system and doctors think about and react to patients’ physical and emotional needs– all of these are significant. The things left unsaid as a woman dies of cancer, the people she leaves behind who mourn her loss, the way one person can affect the lives of others in a unique way… these are things that are “significant.”
I woke up in the middle of the night thinking about the book. My head spun with all of the emotions it raised in me. I think that part of the reason writing has become so important to me is precisely because I do realize that we can die at any moment. And if you don’t have an author in the family who might undertake an enormous project as Katie did, where will that explanation of who you were — what you thought — come from?
Is my writing an extension of my desire to control things when cancer has taken away so much of this ability?
Is part of the reason I write an attempt to document my thoughts, my perspective for after I am gone… am I, in a smaller way, trying to do for myself what Katie did for her mother?
If I don’t do it, who will do it for me?
And in my odd way of thinking, am I trying to save anyone the considerable effort of having to work to figure out who I was– deep down?
[My original blog had] the title “You’d Never Know”: I am telling you things about myself, my worldview, and my life, that you would otherwise have no knowledge of. One of the things people say to me all the time is, “You’d never know to look at you that you had cancer.” After hearing this comment repeatedly I realized that much of our lives are like that:
If we don’t tell someone — share our feelings and experiences — are our lives the proverbial trees falling (unheard) in the forest?
What if you die without being truly understood?
Would that be a life wasted?
If you don’t say things for yourself can you count on others to express them for you?
Further, can anyone really know anyone else in her entirety?
After a loved one dies, there always seems to be at least one mystery person: an individual contacts the family by email, phone, or in person to say, “I knew her: this is how I knew her, this is what I remember about her, and this is what she meant to me.” I know that this happened when Barbara (my beloved mother-in-law) died suddenly in 2009. There are stories to be told, memories to be shared. The living gain knowledge about their loved one. Most often, I think families find these insights comforting and informative.
Katie did the work: she’s made a tribute to her mother that will endure not only in its documentation of the person her mother was (and she was quite a character!) but also in sharing her with all of us. Even after her death, Suzy has the lovely ability to inspire, to entertain, to be present.
I could talk more about the book, Katie’s wonderful writing, and cancer, but I would rather you read it for yourself. I’m still processing it all, making sense of this disease and how it affects families, and being sad that Katie’s children didn’t get to know their grandmother. Katie did have the joy of telling her mother she was pregnant with her first child, but Suzy did not live long enough to see her grandson born. In a heartwarming gesture, Katie names her son Ariel, derived from Suzy’s Hebrew name Ariella Chaya.
I thank Katie for sharing her mother with me, with us. As a writer I learned a lot from reading this book. I had said in years prior that “we don’t need another memoir.” I was wrong. That’s like saying, “I don’t need to meet anyone new. I don’t need another friend.” Truth is, there are many special people. Katie and Suzy Rosman are two of them.