My father always says the first sign that you’re growing old is when you start your day reading the obituary section of the newspaper just to see which of your friends died overnight.
I’m not there yet, thankfully, though I confess I still hold my breath a little whenever I’m about to open the morning’s newspaper. You never know what shock awaits you. I’m still traumatised by the Whitney Houston headlines.
I bring all this up because a few days ago, my cousin Jane sent out a group email to the cousins that her brother Max has thyroid cancer. “They removed a big tumour from the left side of his neck last week and they did a biopsy on the other side and confirmed it was cancer.”
I must have stared at the email on my computer screen for ages. I read the words but for some reason, I just couldn’t translate them. For starters, Max?
You know how in every family there’s always some cousin who is such a super-achiever he makes all the other parents secretly insanely jealous because their own kid is so lazily stupid by comparison? In my family, that cousin is Max. Thanks to his French mother, he’s tall, has wavy hair, sculpted cheekbones and the kind of nose that drives Korean pop-stars to their plastic surgeons for something similar. He also runs marathons, speaks four languages, went to Yale medical school and just got engaged to his childhood sweetheart. He’s also very nice which makes hating him – the way we Hahn cousins are all united in hating our other cousin James – just impossible.
In other words, stupid mundane things like cancer don’t happen to people like Max. Especially not at this age.
“What do you mean they removed a big tumour from the side of his neck?” Amanda asked when I showed her the email?
“It was the size of a fist!” I told her.
“How did it get to the size of a fist in the first place?” Amanda asked, demonstrating once again the forensic skill that had catapulted her to the top of her class at Harvard. She threw a meaningful glance over at Saffy. “Wouldn’t you already be worried when it’s the size of a soya bean?”
Saffy’s magnificent bosom inflated. “Excuse me, but are you still going on about my embolism?”
“Saf, it was a pimple! You made us take you to the ER!”
“Well, I wasn’t to know that!” Saffy replied, her face turning pink.
“My point is, shouldn’t your cousin have gone to a doctor by the time it was the size of a walnut?”
“He probably didn’t think it was anything,” I said. “He once fractured his ankle halfway through the Boston marathon, but he just kept on running. He has amazing mind control. Well, I guess you’d have to,” I added, “if you had to grow up with that witch of his mother. The things she said and did when they were growing up! Our nickname for her is Cruella de Chen!”
“Oh, that mother of his,” my mother repeated when I rang to talk about Max. “I was telling my TCM sinseh about her and he said that when you have major illnesses in your throat area, it’s because of all the things you’re holding in and not saying! I’ll bet Max has had a lot to say about that dreadful Marianne over the years but he’s just kept it in, that poor boy, and now it’s manifested itself as a tumour!”
In the background, I heard my father yell, “Oh, for goodness sake, Mei-ling!”
The sound on the phone was muffled by a hand fumbling over the microphone, but you could still hear my mother’s voice penetrating through. “Stop eavesdropping! You’re late for your golf session!”
I remembered something. “Oh, Amanda wants to know how Max could have had a tumour the size of a fist growing on the side of his neck and not know about it.”
“Well, it’s the thyroid, so I think it was all below the surface,” Mother replied. “I don’t think it was like bulging out of his neck.”
When she heard this diagnosis, Saffy was horrified. “Oh my God! You mean we could have all these things growing inside of us and we wouldn’t know?”
“It’s just like in ‘Alien’!” Amanda sighed, her eyes wide.
Meanwhile, Jane reports that Max has gone off camping in Maine with a group of his friends.
“God, he’s so butch!” Saffy said in admiration. “If someone told me I had cancer, I’d be in hysterics.”
“Like you did when the ER doctor diagnosed your pimple?” Amanda asked.
“If I ever get throat cancer,” Saffy threatened, “I’ll know who to blame!”