After cancer diagnosis, talk came more easily on Roller Coaster Road

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By Alexandra Sobiech

Alexandra Sobiech is a senior at the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, studying journalism and English. She is a source in MPR News' Public Insight Network.

Cancer is the combination of many things, not just the tumor. It's the antiseptic wipes in purple containers, soppy bloody nose tissues piled high in the bathroom trash can, skin cleanser called Hibiclens, prayer cards of St. Peregrine and toenails with white stripes from chemotherapy.

It's also the combination of many events: my dad telling me he doesn't see the point in praying to a God that wants to kill his 15-year-old son, my brother Sam swearing to me that he will never come home when Zach is gone, finding my mom sprawled on the floor crying. Even if my brother died, she told me, she thanked God for every day she knew him at all.

One night, not long after we found out that my brother might have five years to live, I saw the words "F*** Cancer" etched on the bottom of my 11-year-old sister's bunk bed. I was impressed she could use that word in context. But my sister had explained it as well as any of us could. The formula for expressing cancer is basic. Expletive + Cancer.

For some reason, though all us siblings were close, my father said I was the one who would have to get Zach used to the idea of cancer — as if it were a cold pool. I'm still not sure why he said this. All I know is that I took it in and eventually took it on.

The venue became the road. Despite the cancer, Zach was determined to get his driver's license. He would always ask me to drive with him. I always went.

The most illegal thing my brother did was tear down the highway that he and I called Roller Coaster Road going 60 in a 30 mph zone. When your diagnosis is three months to five years, any range between numbers means little. You die or you live. Sitting in the passenger seat, I'd say, "Watch it, Zach, slow it up ... don't want to get pulled over." He'd smile, even as I felt the car losing its grip on the road. "I've got it, Al," he'd say.

Winding curves, hills and bumps, a little ice, trees passing in a blur of black silhouettes — it was all very clear to me that he did not have control. But I would always stay calm, hold my breath and let him go. I was, after all, the cool older sister, the inspiration, the one he could talk to about matters of life and death, God or nothing, fear and strength, keeping it in the present.

The drives were excursions in risk, in life. Sometimes, even in the middle of winter, we'd roll down the windows about halfway. He'd let go of the steering wheel and flail his arms like Gumby, his 6-foot frame hunched over in our 1997 Geo Prizm. We listened to loud techno CDs. He shared his quirks, like the defective plastic spoon broken and sharp like a knife that he had stowed in the glove box for years.

"Look, Al!" he'd say whenever I pulled it out. "It's a spife!" Every time he showed me, I pretended I hadn't seen it before. He would grin, one of his front teeth slightly bigger than the other. He had opted out of braces so he could use that money for college. Whenever I put the spife back in the glove box, I thought, I'm keeping that in there forever.

And every drive was a chance to talk about the deepest matters. I would always ask him about his feelings, his fears and his doubts about God. Once, when I could not offer anything that seemed to comfort him, I asked him to be sure to come back and visit me after he died, to tell me everything. He turned his head to face me and said, "You're not the first to ask that. Don't worry, I will."

By that time we were back at the house. He shut off the car and we sat in the cold. Neither of us, it seemed, wanted to get out first.

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