Cancer and the Monolith, Part 1: Not So Good
“Not So Good”
I’ve learned more about living and dying over the last year than in any other. Why? My mom, my only living family member on this continent, is dying. In March of 2019 she was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer. And at 73 years of age, this isn’t one you “fight” as much as draw out.
She found out because she developed difficulty eating — the cancer had so thoroughly spread that it was starting to block her ability to take down food.
I didn’t find out for weeks because, in the way a tough single mother who built a successful career does, she kept the full weight of it to herself. Until one Saturday I called to see how she was doing and she said three words I’ll never forget: “not so good.” “Not so good” isn’t an idea she’s ever let herself think as much as say.
It turned out “not so good” wasn’t not so good but maybe within a month of dying. My “auntie” — in the East and South Asian sense — called the same evening as “not so good” with a very clear message for me: “Charles, get your ass down to Los Angeles now. Your mother is in terrible shape and we don’t know how long she has. I told her I would drive her to the ER tomorrow morning if she gets any worse, but it’s not looking good.”
I walked back into dinner with my dear friend and business partner, Derek, at a complete loss for thoughts. “Derek, I don’t know what to do. Please help me think. I can’t think. I don’t know what to do.” As we do in our work together, we triaged the situation as rapidly and thoroughly as we could.
> “Do I drive down tonight?”
“No. Have a full meal, pack your bags, and get a full night of rest. Drive first thing tomorrow”
> “What about our clients?”
“Email them tonight. Tell me what’s going on with all of them. I’ll cover for you.”
Sunday morning I rushed down to Los Angeles with my office in a bag and two weeks of clothing in a suitcase. I’m glad I packed enough of everything — the next months were ones I can only describe as harrowing.
She spent 21 days intubated, receiving IV nutrition, enduring a series of surgeries to unblock her stomach while going through a battery of tests to figure out exactly what type and how bad the cancer was. I was working from the cafe at the hospital throughout.
“It’s definitely ovarian cancer.” And a few tests later, “No wait, it’s breast but it’s in the ovaries and stomach.” A few days later, “The brain scans are back… I’m so sorry, it’s also in her brain.” And yet a few weeks later as her skin started to yellow, “It’s blocking her liver. She’s developing Jaundice.” She spent another 40 days over six months in and out of the hospital while narrowly dying from the condition.
I sold my condo in SF, moved back into my childhood bedroom, and Derek and I found a way to make our company thrive as a remote-first organization. My mother made it to her 73rd birthday last week and is still with us as of this writing.
Growing up it was abundantly clear if I didn’t create family on my own terms, one day I wouldn’t just be lonely but truly alone. This Thanksgiving reminded me that won’t happen, and even more than that, I feel an abundance of love and connection I couldn’t be more thankful for.