“You’re always like this at the beginning of the semester,” Sugar remarked to me this morning, after another night of half-sleep. “You don’t sleep well, you worry, and you think crazy thoughts about death.”
“I don’t mean to interrupt you,” I replied, “but we should get up. The cat is crying at the door, and I’m pretty sure it’s because the other cat has had a heart attack in the living room.”
The beginning of the semester is always tough, especially when I’m teaching seniors, whose college degrees rest on my mandatory class, which they typically feel neither prepared for nor terribly interested in taking. Things even out by mid-semester, when they’ve gone through one draft of their final project and begin to sense that I’m not trying to ruin their lives, but the first day is Rough Sledding.
The class met for the first time last night, as the massive storm that has lashed us with wind and rain for the past two days finally blew out to sea. As often happens when the air pressure changes radically, I got a migraine — luckily a fairly mild one, but I was nonetheless exhausted by the time I’d fought the dread and resentment of my students and the malaise of the 2-hour ride home. As I sat down to eat the late dinner that Sugar had saved for me (Ain’t she grand?), I opened a letter from my mother, written on three index cards.
My mother’s letters to me usually begin “Dear [Bionic]” and then go on about what the cat has been up to, the etymology of a few surnames and maybe a fun double plural like “kine”, concluding with a recipe for some wheat-free item best used as a hockey puck substitute. This one opened:
[Bionic B. Mama] — Strong Family History of Breast Cancer.
…and went on from there, listing which relatives have had what cancers, calculating rates per generation and in total for the past three, breaking down rates according to numbers of cancers versus numbers of individuals with any cancer. Emphasis via underline abounded. DEATH was always written in all caps. At no point in the letter was I addressed directly or was anything other than cancer discussed. “Whichever way you view the #’s,” card 3 concludes, “THESE RATES (37.5%, 50%) ARE HIGH for U.S. women.“
(Yes, they are high. Yes, the information is useful to have all in one place — my mother has had to jump through hoops to be eligible for certain screenings and so on, and those hoops would be statistically more difficult for me to just through because I don’t have as many siblings (and therefore not as many “first degree” relatives). But…still.)