“Sept 16, 1991, Monday
The nerologist, Mr. Young, told me that I have a brain tumor. It’s the size of a nickle. They’re sending me for more tests this week … I’m kind of still in shock. I never expected this. I expected epilepsy or, may be nothing. Jenn took it hard. I did to, eventually. I was so scared at first that I was, or am going to die. Surgery sounds scary!, but the tumor is low grade.”
You can tell my diary didn’t include spellcheck or Grammarly.
Today is the 30th anniversary of my first brain surgery, October 18, 1991.
I was 15 years old. Barely two weeks into grade 10. Looking forward to figure skating and entering my intermediate/pre-novice year. Taking driver’s ed. Getting my driver’s license. However, that changed over night in mid-September after a seizure and a subsequent brain tumour diagnosis.
My mistake was pretending to be okay after that first diagnosis. Too often a child tries to be strong for their family and friends. We don’t want them to be sad, worried, feel more stress, deal with our pain, and so forth. With me, I felt like a burden because my parents needed someone to milk the cows, look after my four-year-old sister, find somewhere to stay in Winnipeg. The last thing they needed was a child rocking back and forth in a corner and blasting Metallica on their Walkman. I was more of a bubblegum pop girl, but still.
But I chose to pretend I was fine. I chose not to cry in front of my parents and friends. A couple of teachers wanted to start a support group for me. I chose to say no. The only time some of my friends saw me cry was my last day of school. We were on the bus, and one of my best friends was being dropped off. She hugged me and I could see her crying as she left the bus. I broke down. My other friends were saying, “You’ve been so strong, you need to cry,” and “Not many people would be able to handle this like you have.”
If they could’ve read my diary entries, they’d see I was stuffing my emotions.
My diary should’ve been about landing my double loop (alas) and worrying about exam exemptions. Instead it was, “I’m really nerseous inside, but if I act happy, no one knows.” My best speller certificate from grade three probably just burst into flames.
The entries should’ve been about crushes and figure skating competition placements and parties. But my 15-year-old reality was:
“Sept 22, 1991, Sunday
I’m off to the city tomorrow. I’ll get to know if the tumor is cancerous or not, and if I’m getting surgery or not. I’m going to expect the worset.“
The tumour appeared “benign,” the 1990s term for non-malignant. However, I needed surgery for confirmation and because it was pressing on the speaking and memory part of my brain. My two favourite areas.
Then we went shopping, and my parents bought me the coolest pair of overalls – and I tried the McRib for the first time. For awhile, I didn’t feel like the girl with a brain tumour. Just a girl with a kickass pair of overalls, eating a McRib and playing with her little sister in McPlayland whose only care was onion breath.
Temporary euphoria. Because I realized later, shit, I am the girl with the brain tumour who ate the McRib who has a pair of kickass overalls. Scheduled for brain surgery next month at the Health Science Centre’s Children’s Hospital. Before going to the hospital, I’d painted my nails a shocking hot red. Only to have a nurse give me nail polish remover. During surgery, they monitor the colour of your nails. Who knew?
I was in the OR holding room with my older sister, and she started to cry. I started to cry, but “I stopped because mom and dad came.”
That was written post-op. I had horrid writing because of the medications. My diary didn’t know for three weeks that I was alright. After my surgery, my handwriting was neater. Night and day. Being chased by a bear to petting a rabbit. Scribble on a page to writing on the line.
“Nov 5, Tues
Hi! How are you! I feel great! … My surgeon, Dr. Sutherland, said that I needed surgery! Everyone was so scared, I tried to hide it all … My surgery took 6 hours and 35 minutes.”
No one should stuff their emotions. By stuffing, I was storing up for the second brain tumour when I lost myself, pre-and-post op. With the second tumour, people also assumed I was fine. Even though for awhile, I stopped caring about my school work after surgery. Growing up, I didn’t have a curfew. My parents knew their kids were responsible. We’d come home at a decent hour. They didn’t bank on one of their darlings hanging out in another town until 3 a.m.
How did I mark today’s milestone?
I wrote this post listening to the Brain Tumour Foundation of Canada’s Spotify playlist called “Brain Music.”
When the foundation was asking for song recommendations, I requested “There Will Never Be Another Tonight,” by Bryan Adams. Our escape the stage song. Our “We have our diplomas, now run!” tune. As we walked in pairs from the stage, my close friends and, once we removed our cap and gown, we gathered together and burst into an impromptu dance, singing that song, showing off our garters. Wearing a garter is an American prom night tradition, plus we were closing a chapter and opening a new one.
And I celebrated by starting acting classes again with Rogues West (Vancouver) with Christiane Hirt.
It was a regular day, working towards my goals. Writing to music, and looking back on photos of the “garter dance.” Laughing because I’d cut the only photo of the nine of us dancing in half so it would fit into a graduation frame.
Today, I realize crying isn’t a weakness. Crying is something we’ve been conditioned to control. Some are uncomfortable around people who are unhappy or sad. But we can’t be human unless we experience each stage of emotion. Looking back, I would tell that 15-year-old girl, yes, you need a support group. Because you’re only 15, and this will impact the rest of your life.
Back then I understand the stress my parents were under. And I was forgotten in the mess because I pretended to be fine. It took time to learn from those surgeries.
Today, I’m just a woman sitting in front of a laptop, writing a blog post, recovering from a hysterectomy, drinking coffee at 11:30 p.m., who doesn’t stuff her emotions anymore. I feel the feels, as people say.
And I’m grateful.
Especially when I can reflect on thirty years.