The De Rosa Foundation would like to share an essay authored by Pari Berk. She is a supporter of our foundation and a colon cancer survivor, whom we are assisting through our patient outreach program.
Ms. Berk is a remarkable mother, daughter, wife, friend and attorney who continues to inspire so many!
Myself, by Any Other Name
By Pari Berk
After cancer surgery I was fiercely determined to survive. That meant reconnecting to my essential self and shedding my ex-husband’s name.
I had a chunk of myself removed last month.
“Think of it as a marble in your sheet cake,” the oncologist said. That marble was a tumor in my liver, a serious situation, but at least I was a candidate for surgery. Recovering in Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, having just been filleted, solar plexus to navel, I exhaled into the plastic spirometer that measured my airflow. It felt like a miniature version of that strong man carnival game in which you pound a mallet to try to ring a bell.
Meanwhile, there was the quotidian task of managing my children’s calendars from my iPhone while texts, emails and Facebook messages flooded in, well-wishers checking up on how I was recovering.
When I messaged my ex-husband to ask if he could take our daughter to a birthday party, his reply popped back and there it was: his name, which is my name, too. Just as in elementary school choir: John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt. Except our name was Chang.
I thought about the liver surgery team fellow who did a double take in the pre-op room. He was looking for Pari Chang. He looked at the sign on the door that said “Chang” and looked at me, the non-Asian patient, and began walking away. “Hold up,” I’d called out. “You have the right room! My ex-husband is Chinese.”
“I was wondering,” he confessed, laughing. In a paper gown, with no makeup or jewelry and wearing my glasses (no contact lenses for patients headed to the O.R.), my last name felt like an accessory.
Post surgery, exchanging texts with my ex over kid-logistics, I considered the decision I had made 17 years earlier to take his Chinese surname. At the time, this traditional, wifely move felt radical to me because it signaled that I was part of a mixed-race couple.
Back then, at 27, I was experiencing some self-consciousness about my own origins. My father was a successful small business owner — a meatpacker — and though my parents were street smart and financially secure, to me, their know-it-all, bookish daughter, they seemed unrefined. I was eager to marry into my husband’s clan, a family of scientists and calligraphers, of professors and gourmet cooks. “Chang,” symbolized the reinvention of myself from Jersey Girl to pan-cultural sophisticate.
A line from the Lorrie Moore novel “A Gate at the Stairs” resonated for me: “I’d always been opposed to a woman taking her husband’s name, but when I changed mine, I suddenly knew the relief in such an act.”
Through the divorce, I held on to my married name like a tether to the family I’d made. Chang was on my driver’s license, my passport, and my children’s birth certificates. You come to own your name just as you own your own body. It is the skin of you, your packaging, your label and your presentation. I was channeling Erica Jong, another Jewish writer who’d divorced a Chinese man and kept his surname. Plus, it felt right to have the same last name as my kids.
“No one believes you’re my mom,” my almond-eyed son said once at camp pickup, wounded confusion in his voice. But the name was the proof.
Yet, recovering in the hospital, battling the Big C — and preposterously negotiating the chaperoning of a roller-skating party — I was fiercely determined to survive, which took reconnecting to my essential self. Frankly, the whole fact of this cancer, a malignancy in my colon that later metastasized to my liver, felt inconceivable. I was young and fit, only in my 40s, but apparently part of the medical conundrum du jour, the sharp uptick of colorectal cancer diagnoses in Americans under 50.
My Grandma Sooky would have had a psychological explanation for the target organ of my illness. “You’re eating your kishkes out over this divorce,” she’d have said, kishkes being Yiddish for intestines, or guts. Perhaps that old-world thinking contained a kernel of wisdom.
Jack, my partner of six and a half years, had long observed that I hadn’t wholly let go of my ex. He was right, evidenced by the fact that I had kept his name. In the midst of my cancer recurrence, Jack and I married. We felt an urgency to make our love official. As a bonus, he had excellent health insurance.
On our wedding day we sandwiched our visit to City Hall between a PET scan and a consult with a liver surgeon. I was literally radioactive when we said our “I do’s,” but I would have been glowing anyway.
The irony is, I never once considered taking Jack’s last name. I don’t think it crossed his mind, either. The young woman I once was, seeking otherness and urbanity, a striver with class insecurities, had evolved into a stalwart mother in New Jersey, raising her kids in her hometown with their grandma. The mettle it took for my parents to muscle into the middle class turned out to be my lucky inheritance. The woman Jack married is her parents’ daughter, Pari Berk
Home from the hospital, I made the name change Facebook-official and the likes poured in. Yet, when I broke the news to my 9-year-old daughter, she cried, and my 12-year-old son, in typical preteen fashion, sulked and gave me the silent treatment. No doubt news of yet another change was disconcerting to them during a month of uncertainty. I circled back to the kids separately a few hours later, though, and they seemed to soften, both uttering some version of, “It’s up to you, Mom.”
Lately, my son has been especially snuggly. My little girl has taken to leaving me inspirational messages on her chalkboard. “You’ll be OK,” my favorite one begins. “You will fight through this with all you can and with hope and determability, you can do … ANYTHING.”
Cancer can be a killer, but it can also be a clarifier. Changing my name back to Pari Berk feels like a kind of self-affirmation. It roots me. I lost a chunk of myself in December, but I reclaimed a piece, too.
Pari Berk is a lawyer and writer who is completing a memoir.