This week, my sister was asked to choose between her career and my safety. As I approach my sixth cycle of chemo, stressors like this coupled with exhaustion and bearing witness to the selfishness and ignorance of anti-maskers have made me prickly, chiseling my words into sharp edges. Right now, America, you need sharp words, direct answers, and hard truths. Too many of you have had it too soft for too long, and it shows.
We live in one of the 18 states a WSH (white supremacist house) document (not intended for public eyes) has labelled the red zone, which means there were at least 100 cases per 100,000 people in our state last week. This doesn’t come as a surprise to me given the anti-mask, anti-precaution culture in my area, and the fact that our state fully opened despite a surge in cases. If the force is denial, then the force is strong in my state as so many people try to hold on to life as it was before the pandemic. Their refusal to accept that life will never be the same is putting everyone in danger and is costing lives. But some of us don’t have the luxury of sticking our heads in the sand, as appealing as that sounds.
And so my sister was asked to make a decision she’s already had to make once. She gave up her dream job in 2018 so we could move back to our home state and help care for and treasure time spent with our mom. And now she faces having to give up her career altogether because there’s no way to practice it safely (for me) during this pandemic (we share a household, and she provides care for me during cancer treatment and for my mom, as needed), especially given the anti-mask, anti-precaution culture in this area as well as the explosion of cases.
My sister spent seven years in school for her career. She has over $60,000 in student loans as a result. She’ll lose her employer-provided healthcare if she doesn’t return. We both worry whether we’ll be able to survive if the pandemic continues to wreak havoc, unchecked by a reckless and fascist president (yes, fascist). But with tears in her eyes and tears in mine, she told her employer the risk is too high for her to return. If we don’t survive all of this, we at least won’t be willing participants in our demise. Fortunately, her employer agreed to extend her furlough a bit longer.
When you’re going through something like cancer treatment, you feel helpless in so many ways. You’re dependent on your support network to get to and from treatment and to take care of things like cooking and shopping when the chemo makes you so weak you can’t stand for more than 10 minutes at a time. This is why treatment providers won’t start treatment if you don’t have a support network. You can’t promise those who love you or even yourself that you won’t die. You can’t protect those you love or yourself from the trauma that is cancer. COVID-19 makes the helplessness worse as it further restricts the things you can do, and by extension, puts more pressure on your support network. And you have no control over others. As anti-maskers are happy to tell you, they have the freedom to do whatever they want, which puts you and your support network in more danger as their risky behavior causes cases to surge and deaths to increase.
In many ways, I’m helpless, but I’m also lucky. I have a support network. And I’m able to work from home. There are people who are high risk and essential workers who aren’t able to stay home. A person’s refusal to wear a mask could so easily and casually take their lives. What anti-maskers call freedom, I call murder. Yes, murder. Soft language protects denial and those with the blood on their hands.
My sister has sacrificed so much for those she loves, while healthy, able-bodied, entitled people complain about the inconvenience of a mask. Their refusal to mask up is ableism on a monumental but also a fundamental level. They believe they will survive infection, and they don’t care about those who won’t as long as they get to continue their life-as-normal. They tell those at high risk to “just stay home,” as if that’s a solution, casually voiding the rights of others while declaring their own rights untouchable. They declare the supremacy of their rights while telling BIPOC to follow the rules. They do whatever they want while declaring anarchists terrorists. They scream all lives matter when it’s clear they just mean their own. They say they live in a free country as secret police kidnap protesters in Portland and people have to put their lives on the line because the government has no plan to control the virus and would rather give bailouts to corporations than to citizens so they can stay home until the pandemic is under control.
Cancer and COVID-19 have allowed me to see the best in those around me. But also the worst.
I was recently unfriended and blocked by a family member after I commented on his anti-mask Facebook post that such posts encourage risky behavior and that anti-maskers make the world more dangerous for people like me. His comments became more and more unhinged with each person who disagreed (however respectfully) with his opinions. It was when I called him out on his sexist responses and deletion of my comments while shouting about freedom of speech that he blocked and unfriended me. In my absence he misgendered me and said he deleted all my comments because I have a “filthy mouth.” When my mom corrected him on my pronouns, he mocked me by putting them in all caps. When my mom called him out on his behavior, he unfriended and blocked her and then put “RIP” and her name on his post. Because of my mother’s precarious health, another family member thought this meant my mom had passed away and contacted her in a panic, and the fact that he posted such an insensitive thing given her precarious health hurt my mom. A family member commented on the post that the conversation had gone too far, and in the end, we’re all still family.
I disagree. I don’t think the conversation went far enough, especially since his censorship kept it one-sided. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned as a queer person, it’s that I get to choose my family. And I can leave behind toxic people who make the world more dangerous for me. People who gleefully and casually throw stones, seeking to harm. People who think the lives of those who are different and those who have cancer or some other condition that puts them at high risk matter less than their own. No, I don’t consider the person who unfriended me family or friend. His behavior has shown he’s neither.
Blood is not by default the strongest bond. In fact, blood is often used as an excuse to do horrible things. I owe nothing because of blood, and I share nothing with those who have no compassion for others. My family and friends list has gotten smaller but stronger since I was diagnosed with cancer. Those who are incapable of compassion and care need not apply.
Do you know what it’s like to have cancer? Do you know what it’s like to go through chemo? Do you know what it’s like to have cancer and go through chemo during a pandemic? Do you know what it’s like to do so and then see someone who calls themselves your friend post that your life isn’t worth their having to wear a mask, that you’re an inconvenience and should sacrifice yourself for their comfort, that your life isn’t worth them having to make even the smallest amount of effort on their part?
Come with me back to November. I’ll sit with you in a small room as a doctor tells you you have cancer and that it’s inoperable, a few days before your 35th birthday. I’ll hold your hand through one painful biopsy and then another and then another. I’ll wait with you in a large room filled with terrified and heartbroken people, holding my breath, as you get one scan and then another, wondering how much time I have with you and how big of a hole you’ll leave when I lose you. I’ll help you to your feet over and over as you recover from surgery. I’ll sit close as the doctor gives you six months without treatment. I’ll worry with you as each hospital bill arrives. I’ll watch nausea and pain and grief overcome you each chemo cycle, helpless to make it better. I’ll silently celebrate as the cancer starts to respond to treatment. I’ll give up anything for this progress to continue. I’ll drop my head wearily into my hands as so many around us ignore the scientists and doctors. I’ll watch, helpless, as the pandemic expands and threatens to swallow everything, including my silent celebration, our fragile hope.
Walk a mile in my shoes. Walk a mile in my sister’s. Maybe then you’ll put on a damn mask.