by Shannon Frost Greenstein
“I love you!”
My friends laughed as only sixteen year-olds can, but I wasn’t embarrassed. My mother and I were as close as any single parent and teenage son could possibly be, thanks to our shared trauma; thanks to my father.
I flashed her an ASL “I love you” through the window as our car peeled away, but I was too excited about the concert to remember her appointment the next day.
That was our last pre-cancer ‘I love you.’
“It’s cancer, Lee. But the doctor is very good, and he says…”
I tuned out the platitudes that followed, false promises that are probably delivered unto every new cancer patient on the planet. It made no difference to me that five-year survival rates were increasing; I couldn’t care less about reframing things to take it “one step at a time”; I didn’t believe a positive outlook was, in fact, my mother’s best weapon.
The best weapon for my mother, I knew, would be one of the miracles they were brewing at the University of Pennsylvania which kept putting our city on the news. I also knew there was no chance a single mother with no insurance would end up with the Dom Perignon of chemotherapy.
Finally – when she had trailed off about how it might sound like a lot of radiation, but really wasn’t that much – I spoke up.
“What are we going to do?” I asked her.
She reached out and touched my cheek.
“Whatever we have to.”
I’ll cut out the months of tears, fears, pain, and mortal terror. If you’ve been a cancer patient or know one intimately, I won’t be telling you anything you don’t already know; and if you have no previous experience, nothing I can say will convey it properly anyway.
Her funeral was at St. Timothy’s, just like my First Communion and my baptism; the home-away-from-home where I was a student in the parochial high school. I suppose I could have just left Civics class and walked across the quad to the chapel for her funeral, but I wasn’t at school that day. I had essentially stopped going to school, to be honest.
I no longer saw the point.
One day, in the nebulous period of months after her burial through which I traveled in a fog, the phone rang.
“May I speak to Lee?”
“Lee, this is Father Hannigan.”
My principal had reached out several times, but I had successfully avoided him amidst the flurry of social workers and family court and moving in with my aunt.
“We’ve missed you at school,” said the priest mildly.
“I’m not coming back. I’m getting my GED.”
“You know you’re welcome here, Lee. We have scholarships to cover your tuition.”
I sighed, wishing I had never picked up the phone.
“Thank you, Father Hannigan, but no,” I managed. “I just can’t go back to St. Timothy’s.”
“You know, Lee…,” he started, and then started again. “God is here for you, if you turn to Him.”
With that, the magma long-simmering in my subconscious finally erupted in a volcano of anguish and rage.
“No, Father,” I spat. “God is dead.”
Tears coursing down my face notwithstanding, the schadenfreude of his discomfort was making me feel something almost like happiness for the first time since my mother’s funeral. Those precious drops of dopamine hit my nervous system, and in the span of a heartbeat, I was illuminated from within.
“In fact,” I told the aching silence, “I don’t think there has ever been a God at all.”
I felt cleansed with this revelation; I felt nearly exorcised of grief.
“Thank you for calling,” I said finally, not without kindness, as the seconds stretched on. “Thank you for giving her a lovely funeral.”
I hung up the phone.
I stared out the window.
I let myself remember my mother; her plans for my life; her dreams for my future. I let myself think about a lifetime without her. I let myself think about tomorrow.
I opened my new GED workbook.
That’s how I became a surgical oncologist at U Penn.
And that’s how I lost God.
Shannon Frost Greenstein (she/her) resides in Philadelphia with her children and soulmate. She is the author of “These Are a Few of My Least Favorite Things”, a full-length book of poetry available in March from Really Serious Literature, and “An Oral History of One Day in Guyana,” a fiction chapbook with Bullsh*t Lit due in late 2022. Shannon is a former Ph.D. candidate in Continental Philosophy and a multi-time Pushcart Prize nominee. Her work has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Pithead Chapel, Bending Genres, and elsewhere. Follow Shannon on her website at shannonfrostgreenstein.com or on Twitter at @ShannonFrostGre.