Join our amazing community of book lovers and get the latest stories doing the rounds.

We respect your privacy and promise no spam. We’ll send you occasional writing tips and advice. You can unsubscribe at any time.


Illusions of Certainty

Google+ Pinterest LinkedIn Tumblr

In high school, I would have this recurring dream. It would start with my mom and I driving on the freeway– which is strange because in my town you almost never need to drive on the freeway. It would be silent. And then, my mom and I would look up and realize that obstructing the road is a tall gray wall. And there was no time to stop, and we were driving too fast, and so we just held hands and waited to feel the crash. But it never came. Instead, we were greeted and consumed by a thick layer of ash. Eventually the smoke dissipated, and we just kept driving.

Most likely I would have this dream because when my mom was 12 or 13, Mt. Saint Helens erupted. From time to time, she’s told me small pieces of what it was like to live through that event, but she’s never told me the full story. “Everyone at school was talking about it.” She’d say if it came up in conversation, or “the ash lingered in the city for so long afterwards.” At the time she was living with her mom outside of Seattle. A couple of years before the volcano erupted, she was in a house fire. Her sister left a lamp on during the 80s when lamps got hot, she fell asleep and woke up just in time to make a safe exit but not in time to stop the fire before it got too big. A year or two after Mt Saint Helens erupted, as my mom was entering high school, she would find out her mom had cancer. Her mom would live through it, but this event would add to all the other reminders in my mom’s adolescence that life is fragile, like at any point you could crash into that wall, and maybe, that time, it wouldn’t turn to smoke. Unlike my mom, in my childhood and early adolescence I hadn’t yet had to live in a body that was tired from being taunted by death. My fears weren’t volcanoes erupting or the earth shifting. They were still just illusions that I could wake up from.

Until the summer after 8th grade when I knew something was wrong, I could feel it in how the air compressed me with its heaviness despite being sunny and mid-June. I could feel it in the way that my moms’ eyes linger on me as I left the house to go and hang out with friends. I could feel it that night at dinner as we gathered around our frozen pizza and side salad when my mom looked at my dad as to gain enough courage to tell my sister and me what I had feared already deep in my bones, she had cancer. We all cried that night. I remember my mom saying that most other families have already been burdened by struggle, and we should be lucky that this is our first. She was right, of course, we’ve lived a life of certainty. And how lucky we were; certain of having fights over who had to do the dishes after dinner, but we always got dinner, certain of having clean laundry done with the all-natural detergent that didn’t really work. Still, my mom insisted we go, certain that my parent’s love is unbreakable even though I just turned fourteen and liked to slam the door. All these certainties tied together tightly and held me close and made me feel invincible, but now a knot was unraveling.

The summer was stubborn. It dug its heels into the dirt desperate to not fade away. And I was desperate to go back to school. It’s not that I became numb to the fact that my mom was sick. Rather I didn’t know how to process. So I decided to distract myself. I kept my mom’s sickness a secret from my friends as if hiding it would make it less real. The first person I told was one of my friends when we were at her house. I didn’t want to say it out loud, speaking about it was like carving it into wet cement and agonizingly watching it dry; it’s permanent and now I have to watch as my mom’s skin becomes yellow and grey, and her hair falls out. So, instead of talking, I spelt it out with sign language. It took a while, but she finally got it. Her mom had died of cancer the year prior. I remember being at lunch with her during school. It was just her and I and we were talking about her mom. “She might live.” I said to try and console her. “No, she won’t,” she replied. She explained how she didn’t like when people told her that her mom might live through it, she wasn’t going to. It must have felt like a sharp sting whenever people said that to her- it was a string of hope that others could hold on tightly to for their sake, while choosing not to fully understand the severity of the situation. When I told her, we didn’t talk about if I thought there was a good enough chance of her surviving, or even what stage of cancer she had. Instead we talked about the little blue throw-up bags that the hospital gives to chemo patients.

School started again and my middle school friend group drifted apart and settled into their new high school identities. I fought with my best friend and so I ate lunch with my other friends instead. I spent every night at dance class. I was a different person in these places than when I was home. When I was not at home, I was a student that put too much importance on grades and was scared to talk to teachers. I took dance classes and participated in clubs. I would walk around my neighborhood at night with my friends and we’d watch the sun make the houses glow. But when I stepped back inside my house, the business of that day couldn’t distract me, and I was left with what I didn’t want to deal with. When I was home, I was someone who had to watch their mom fade into a person that I no longer recognized. Instead of understanding that I’ve been disillusioned by the certainty of life, and instead of realizing the moments we are privileged enough to share with those that we love should be savored, I built a wall between my mother and me. I understand now that this was my way of protecting myself from the unthinkable, but it spiraled into a deep sense of shame that found a home in my chest and nags at my heart whenever I forget to call my mom.

Now it was near the end of the school year. I was fifteen and learning to drive. I was no longer fighting with my best friend; we ate lunch together again. My biology class had an end of the year project on cancer, and I chose to research the type of cancer that my mom had. I finished my presentation and then cried in the bathroom. The consist layer of rain clouds that iced our city had lifted, and everyone else was excited for summer, but I still craved the feeling of comfort that the grayness provided. My mom’s second round of chemo came to an end, and I saw my mom bloom with the trees back to life. Right before school ended my mom was set to get surgery. She and I sat in the car again silently driving towards that wall, but this time we knew it was coming, and we knew that if the surgery went well, it could finally mean an end to all this.

The waiting room was busy, and this brought me comfort. Everyone in this room was spending their sunny spring day in the University of Washington’s surgery center. Everyone was watching a show or reading a book or talking to someone, and no one was fully paying attention to what they were doing because our minds were lingering on the what-ifs, and our eyes would dart up whenever a nurse would walk in the room. The surgery was set to last three hours, and five hours passed. I’m not an expert on surgery, but I did know that this wasn’t a good sign. It turns out that the person who was meant to tell us that she was in recovery forgot to and we had to wait an extra three hours of ruminating in the what-ifs, but my mom was fine. My dad got mad at the nurse who forgot to tell us she was fine, which was jarring because I’ve known him to get mad at a stranger other times when someone insulted Stevie Nicks. (I stand by him on both occasions)

We learned that they were able to remove the whole tumor, and now my mom could recover. I was expecting the feeling of relief to wash over me and make finally make me feel okay again. But that didn’t happen. Because despite my expectations, this didn’t seem like the end. There was no stamp or banner or bold writing that said, there is no more cancer, you made it! Congratulations! Instead, her treatment came to an end, but no one knew if this was really the end or if it was just a pause before it took her body again. When my mom was ten to fifteen years older than I am now, her mom’s cancer came again and this time it wasn’t forgiving. She died months after getting diagnosed.

For now, the wall that was ahead became ash and its remanence still follow me. I understand now that the earth is alive. It too is always in motion, settling into place and back out again. But unlike us, the earth will forever continue its change long after we’re gone. I hate to be, but a part of me is jealous. When you live a life of certainly you feel invincible, and this feels good, though that feeling is only surface deep. But when a reminder comes that even the sturdiest of trees will fall, it tethers you to what’s truly important.

Image by PDPics from Pixabay

Kari Thordarson (USA)

Kari grew up in Bellingham, Washington and now attends University of Portland as a psychology major.

Write A Comment