Six years have already passed. Six years during which she made a vow to this code of silence. If in Sicily, one does not speak of the crimes committed by the mafia, a code known as omertà; here in my house, my mother never brings up the terrorist attacks committed by those deadly cells in her breasts. Few words, even fewer tears, nothing of the internal struggles she faced. Every morning, she would take care of our lunch sandwiches as usual, dressed and wearing makeup, sometimes with a drain under her sweatshirt.
In two years, my mother entered the operating room a dozen times, at first for a mastectomy, then for several reconstructions. Each time, apart from the mastectomy, my brothers and I knew nothing. The only trace of an operation: an occasional oven-baked pizza cooked by my father.
It was only while growing older that the word cancer began to take meaning, associated with death, mental and physical suffering, and treatments as mutilating for the body as for the pocketbook. Ashamed, I barely dare to admit that I, at 11 years of age, had hardly noticed my mother’s fears, sufferings, and her mental battle against the disease. What had she truly lived through? Did she ever crack from the isolation and the silence that she imposed upon herself?
I imagine that due to her own fears of the uncertain future, she only wanted to protect her children by avoiding the subject, and preserving our usual, daily routine. Maybe it was also her approach to battling the cancer: denying it, refusing to be the patient in the wheelchair, waiting desperately in the lobby. I vividly remember seeing her furious against the absurdity of her friends, astonished to see her active around the house, telling her to take time to rest. She never allowed anyone to look upon her as “condemned”. In fact, to this day she still has trouble accepting her status of survivor, as if someone sought to brand her as having once been doomed to this horrible fate.
Nevertheless, her omertà is slowly chipping away. She sometimes brings up this passage of her life as a positive experience, having taught her the frailty of life, and to savor the small moments in life: a meal with her best friend, listening to my little brother practicing the same song for the hundredth time on his cello, reading a book, or nibbling on a chocolate bar hidden in the cupboard.
Someday she might read this essay. Maybe this scholarship will give me the strength to break the vow of silence she made concerning the disease. I hope she will understand that it is not by insensible voyeurism that I am writing this, but rather to convey an experience that I lived somewhat as a tourist and now shames me. A shame of not having been more present, a shame of not having held her in my arms more often, a shame of not having told her how much I love her.
Six years ago, my mother was 38, and I was 11. I didn’t see anything. I didn’t hear anything.
Most of all, I didn’t say anything.
Reprinted with permission by the author