On a chilly weekend last October, my family and I headed to Providence, Rhode Island for something called WaterFire. (When translated into the dialect of the people of the smallest state of the union, this event is known as WatahFiyah.) WaterFire is pretty much just like what it sounds to be; bonfires are lit on the waterways that run through Providence, illuminating the river and carrying the scent of a giant campfire throughout the capital. Downtown streets are closed to allow for pedestrian traffic, and music plays while visitors shop and eat at carts set up by local vendors.
I kind of hate WaterFire. I’d do anything not to go.
“But it’s so beautiful,” my mother-in-law would say.
“Too crowded,” I’d complain.
“It’s a work of aaht,” she’d explain for the umpteenth time.
“Too commercial, too forced,” I’d say.
And yet, here I was, attending WaterFire. Why?
Because the final WaterFire of the season, the one held in October, honors people living with – and dying from -- breast cancer. This event, known as Flames of Hope, is sponsored by the Gloria Gemma Breast Cancer Resource Foundation. My mother-in-law, Linda Gerstenblatt, would be a torchbearer. She received this honor because she was fighting breast cancer.
Before the actual bearing of the torches, there were several hours of waiting around in the New England cold. During this time, my family and I bought pink cake, pink hats, and pink fleece gloves. A tent was set up selling all manner of motivational knick-knacks and “fun” breast cancer t-shirts, such as the ones touting “Saving Second Base.” Uch.
“Seriously?” My husband, Brett, asked when I ducked out of the tent and told him about these seemingly cute but completely offensive t-shirts. I looked at my mother-in-law, who was trying to smile and keep her spirits up, though I know she was already exhausted from the day of rehearsal and preparation. The main event – with motivational speakers and then the parade of torches – was still over an hour away.
Linda was already well into a two-year prognosis for an aggressive form of incurable, inoperable breast cancer. Five years earlier, she had been treated for another, curable form of breast cancer. Over the past 18 months, Linda had been diligently marching through rounds of chemotherapy, and when one stopped working, she would try another.
Linda was so beyond saving second base.
The game she was playing followed completely different rules. Her goal was to outwit the cancer cells and buy time by constantly staying one breakthrough drug ahead of the tumors. Her goal was to attend my son’s bar mitzvah.
My son is nine.
So, please excuse me for being cynical.
That night, I knew I should be more upbeat. I knew that the event was raising money to support local breast health organizations. But I had taken off my pink-colored glasses and now everything around me felt fake, from the pink-ribboned teddy bears to the pink LED light up ribbon pins. People were eating funnel cake while my mother-in-law was dying. Some vendors were donating money to breast cancer research while others were clearly profiting from the disease.
“It’s like a cancer carnival,” Brett said, as if reading my mind. “A breast cancer theme park.” It was so true. All we needed was a pink-ribboned Minnie Mouse to turn this into Disneycancerland.
And yet, my mother-in-law, wearing a pink satin ribbon on her coat, seemed to be…into it. But when I asked her if she was having a good time, she merely shrugged.
I kept my jaded opinion to myself. This wasn’t about me.
As the darkness fell, it was time for the parade of torchbearers to head down to the riverfront. My children and Brett and I waited by a metal railing along the route, hoping to catch a glimpse of GG (short for Grandma Gerstenblatt) as she walked by. By then, the temperature had dipped into the 30’s. The so-called motivational music was the theme song from Titanic. Titanic! What genius picked that? It had been a while since I’d seen that film, but I felt pretty sure it didn’t end well. For like anybody. Instead of feeling emotionally transcendent, I kept picturing Leonardo DiCaprio with icicles hanging from his chin slipping under the surface of the Atlantic. I took a cleansing exhale and watched my breath form a smoky ribbon. And then my mother-in-law marched by.
When I returned to New York, I felt so depressed. Why couldn’t I do a better job at rallying? Why couldn’t I just put on a happy face, stay positive and catch the spirit of breast cancer Octoberfest?
What was wrong with me?
And, moreover, what had gotten into Linda?
You see, the first time my mother-in-law was diagnosed with breast cancer, she wanted very little to do with pink culture. Fine, she would wear a little pink, but that’s because she always wore a little pink. (And decorated with more than just a little pink. The exterior of her home was painted that color. Oh, and the interior too. And the leather couch in the den? You guessed it.) So, if it wasn’t the color that sent her running, what was it?
Maybe it was a form of denial – like, if I don’t join the rally, then I don’t really have breast cancer. Maybe it was too overwhelming to look at masses of strangers embracing each other over a shared trauma and find a way in, while still keeping your selfhood intact. Because with the diagnosis of breast cancer -- much more than with any other disease – a woman becomes an unwitting part of the party and the voice and the cause and the race and the walk that has become de rigueur. She becomes a torchbearer.
And, in a way, so do the people who love her.
But an interesting thing happens when much of the battle cry is about getting your passport to survivorship. Since this incredibly strong culture has been built around “She-roes” - strong women fighting breast cancer so publicly - there is very little space for those who just want to rest. Those whose faith is failing. Those whose bodies just can’t keep up, whose lungs, as my mother-in-law’s did, begin filling up with fluid until it becomes impossible to breathe.
On July 16th of this year, Linda passed away. She was 63 years old.
The other day, I headed to Bloomingdales. I know this seems really off topic, but stay with me here. You see, Linda loved Bloomies. After treatment at Dana-Farber Cancer Center in Boston, she and my father-in-law, Steve, would head to Bloomingdale’s for some retail therapy and a frozen yogurt. Linda especially loved Bloomingdale’s during October, when it was all aglow with pink for The Cause, and when fall fashions were ripe for the picking. Last year, she and Steve read through their Think Pink catalogue in anticipation of a cancer-infused buying spree. There would be pink lipstick to buy and pink frozen yogurt in the café.
Only there wasn’t any of that. The store hadn’t received the items mentioned in the catalogue, and the yogurt was only available on Tuesdays.
They left the store with nothing but actual breast cancer.
When I walked into the store in White Plains the other day, I couldn’t help but think of Linda. I was immediately drawn to the middle aisle on the first floor, in that space between the escalators. An art installation is there, with cartoons by breast cancer survivor Marissa Acocella Marchetto. This artist calls herself, and the book that is being turned into a movie, Cancer Vixen. “Instead of seeing myself as a victim, I see myself as a vixen,” she writes. “If you can’t see yourself overcoming something, then you won’t do it.”
Excerpts for her cartoons adorn the walls. In one, the vixen stares down cancer, a tall figure shrouded in grey, like Harry Potter’s dementors, only curvier. “Cancer,” the caption reads, “I’m gonna kick your butt! And I’m gonna do it in killer 5-inch heels!”
Linda fought a brutal fight. And she loved her high heels. But one nasty side-effect of some chemotherapies is neuropathy that robs you of the ability to feel your feet. This happened to Linda, so that it eventually became unsafe for her to wear those beloved heels. And it eventually became too hard to kick cancer’s butt, even with a mother-in-law’s iron will.
I applaud people who use their negative experiences to fuel their passion for living. I love that so many breast cancer survivors feel motivated to help themselves and others in the fight. I understand that there is power in numbers, and that people need support when they are down.
But what ultimately motivated Linda to join the fight? To this day, I’m not entirely sure. She did not communicate her feelings well, which exacerbated my own confusion about how to act around her and whether or not to embrace the pageantry that went along with the breast cancer cause. Linda was a tough nut to crack. Sometimes, she seemed to be enjoying an event, while at other moments she seemed resigned, like she was acting out of a sense of obligation. But, in the end, I believe that she wanted to be helpful, and she wanted to be heard.
This October, both my sister-in-law and father-in-law will carry torches in Linda’s memory. Together we will walk in the Making Strides campaign in Providence with our GG’s Gang t-shirts. We will keep marching, and we will keep fighting, and we will wear our pink, because that’s the way Linda would have wanted it.