Posted Monday, September 25th, 2006
I am fifty-two years old, unmarried and childless, and I’m driving my seventy-one-year-old, widowed mother to the Cancer Center for her chemo shot. Her breast cancer has metastasized. On leave from my job, I escort her once a week for the chemo and generally look after her the rest of the time. I take her to the park, weed her garden, clean her house, shop for and prepare meals. Sometimes on the weekends I can slip back home to Pittsburgh, check in at my office, but all week I am with her at her row house in Baltimore.
One morning in the bathroom a few months ago, when she was about half way through the first round of radiation, I heard her asking herself questions, and answering them. I remembered when my father used to do this, back in the sixties it was, when he'd lost his job. He never found another. He died, Mom said of a broken heart, about the time I graduated from college. I worried that this bathroom dialogue was a bad sign.
“What’s happening, Jeanne?” my mother said to the mirror.
“Your hair is falling out. You're skull is exposed,” her reflection replied.
“Am I going to be bald? Will I get a sunburn on my head?” Jeanne asked the foggy glass.
“You knew this when you started,” the same voice replied.
While she was in there, I pulled out the wig we had purchased together the week before. She doesn’t want to wear it. I’d configured a stylish looking head wrap for her earlier, but mostly she just went around bare-headed in the house and only dressed her head in false gaiety when we went out.
Now she is sitting beside me in the car, quietly, with her head swathed in the many-times washed but still colorful fabric, something I had saved from one of my trips to Africa. The doctors said she might get as much as three years from this treatment, but the imaging studies showed cancerous areas in her liver and spine. We have an appointment later in the week to talk to the people at the Hospice Foundation. I wonder why we are keeping this appointment at all if she’s agreed to that discussion.
The routine inside the Cancer Center is always the same, always cheerful. The nurses greet us by name and talk to my mother as if she might be deaf. It reminds me of the special English used in former colonies I visited as a representative of the World Bank, as if words articulated a little more loudly and a little more slowly will make English universal for any non-native speaker. Why do medical people do that? To me, they whisper as if what they’re saying is a secret to be kept from my mother.
Inside the cubicle, I help her open her loose fitting shirt so she can receive the shot in the port they have fixed to her chest. The skin is thin and bruises easily. Her ribs are almost completely visible through the shrinking soft tissue that hangs loosely underneath her now too-big cotton bra in which she no longer bothers to settle the prosthesis she was given. My mother was born in France and when she was young, she told me this matter-of-factly, she sunbathed topless at the beach at Saint Juan les Pins, at Antibes, below the Promenade des Anglais in Nice.. All that lovely flesh is gone now. I think of my own amplitude. I, too, was once slim, not as thin as she is now, but my body is aging into the gravity of menopausal relapse as hers is shrinking closer and closer to the bone on the opposite side of the estrogen void. I know it is only a matter of time before my breasts will flatten against my sides without ever having nursed a child, and I will have no daughter to attend me. I wonder, for just a moment, if I made that decision as consciously as I thought I had done, if I might have missed something.
Now she is comfortable and ready. The Nurse comes in to administer the shot. It doesn’t take long, but I still cannot watch and turn to the window, leaving my hand on my mother’s shoulder. I’m not sure if it is to comfort her or me.
While I’m waiting I think about the projects I’ve handed off to a colleague and wonder how things are going. I miss that place in my life, the flurry of ideas and the discussions, resolutions, a plan formulated, a process initiated, a product launched. In my world destinations are important; they signify accomplishment. In my mother’s the end is nearer and nearer and it does not have this sense.
“There you go, Jeanne,” the nurse says in her icky-sweet voice. She’s someone we haven’t often seen in our routine visits. I bristle at the intimacy. Why can’t at least the ones who don’t know her well, call her Mrs. Reynolds? Is getting old or being terminally ill a reason to deprive people of the dignity of formal address? And how well can they think they “know” her anyway? Maybe I’m old fashioned, thinking of her this way, as needing this small protection. Perhaps these elements of politeness are no longer something she notices.
She is dressed again and we make our way back to the car. I ask her if she’d like to go out to lunch today. She says no, she’s a bit tired. She’d like to go home. I tell her I’ll make a light salad with smoked salmon and reheat some leek soup for lunch. She says that will be fine and dozes off in the car.
Once we are settled in the kitchen, I get out the salmon and ask if she is up to lifting the slivers onto a plate. She takes the salmon in its open package and begins gently lifting the layers of pink flesh.
The soup is starting to simmer and I turn it down. A soup with milk in it can boil over or burn in a hurry. I think about this and look at my mother with her headscarf coming undone at the back of her neck. She was never a milk-based soup, never frothing up at my brother or me or my father. Ah, yes, I must call Bill. He left a message yesterday. Bill is a reporter on assignment in Iraq. We worry about him, but he seems to manage pretty well. He’s not married; he was, but they divorced. Bill is a milk-based soup. Like my father, he can lose his temper. But there is a difference between a sudden squall and the relentless wind of disappointment some people suffer. We were spared that, and I am thankful.
“After lunch, Mom, we must remember to call Bill.”
“Right. How is Bill?” I can still hear that little bit of an accent, she pronounces his name
“He called yesterday and we are to call him back today and we’ll hear all his news.”
“Will he be home soon?”
“I don’t know. We can ask him this afternoon.” My mother misses Bill. They have always been very close. He is younger than I am by four years and when our father died he was still in high school. He stepped up to help our mother and she has always been grateful to him.
“Oh yes. Of course.” She stands up, leaning on the table. “I think I’ll just go and lie down a while.”
I turn the soup off after a moment to follow her upstairs, leaving the salmon on the cutting board not yet turned into the salad. When I get to her room, she is not there and I look first for her in the bathroom. Then I notice the door to the rooftop deck is open and I push past it, worried. As I climb to the aerie she had built for herself a dozen years before they were popular all over the city, I see she is there, sitting on her chaise longue, facing away from the steps and into the sun. Relieved, I step toward her. When I come up behind her, I see that she has removed her shirt and her bra. She is sunbathing topless. She reaches to adjust her chair so it will recline further. I help her and as she lies down again, her single breast slips into her armpit. She opens one eye and squints up at me.
“Try it,” she says, “You’ll like it.”
I turn the other reclining deck chair toward the railing, which is covered in vines, clematis and ivy, and sit down. Her eyes are closed and she is smiling as if she is daring me to take off my shirt. I begin to unbutton myself, slip the shirt off and lean back, closing the sun out of my eyes. After a moment I look over at her face, serene, and I too take off my bra, letting the flesh fall away from the center of my chest. The sun warms us both.
Comments [post a comment]
Posted by Anne Bauer on Monday, September 25th, 2006 at 7:18 PM
A beautiful, rich story.
Posted by Miriam Kotzin on Monday, September 25th, 2006 at 8:47 PM
This is a wonderful story, so much in it, from the bathroom dialogue, through the description of how the medical personnel speak to patients and to their relatives through the image of the milk-based soup. Wow!
Posted by Phyllis Link on Monday, September 25th, 2006 at 8:53 PM
Lovely. For such a traumatic experience the ending is beautiful.
Posted by Jason Shaffner on Tuesday, September 26th, 2006 at 7:22 AM
A wonderful story from start to finish.
Posted by Margot Miller on Tuesday, September 26th, 2006 at 11:44 PM
Wow, thanks to all of you!
Posted by Donna Levy [ firstname.lastname@example.org
] on Wednesday, September 27th, 2006 at 6:59 PM
It's been a long time since a story has made me cry as yours did. I was deeply touched. Thank you from my heart. Donna
Posted by Marie Shield [ email@example.com
] on Friday, September 29th, 2006 at 10:33 AM
Touching and wonderfully written. So much of it I liked, especially the ending.
Posted by Pamela Tyree Griffin [ firstname.lastname@example.org
] on Sunday, October 1st, 2006 at 11:00 AM
This is beautifully written. Thanks for sharing.
Posted by In Transit [ email@example.com
] on Monday, October 9th, 2006 at 8:39 PM
Here I am being the only male (Ooops there is but one) to comment, I just came out of a sauna at my country home where I only have a very slow dial up.
Breast Cancer is something that is much on the forefront of society's mind, it touches us all in differing ways.
In the past few weeks I have been involved in 3 BC fund raisers.
I was in Budapest recently and had lunch with a business friend, who I have know for several years. After the third Unicum (herbal aperatif) she had tears, and started to recite her recent battle with BC. One was removed, and the regimin that she is on, has resulted in at 39, she is now post menapausal. She kicked out the father (a drunk) of her daughter years ago, and the tears were compounded by her whispering "how is any man going to look at me again... I want to be held..."
Young Ladies, continue to scream out, until MEN finally Get It!
Do not be shy, do not be embarrased, YOU ARE SUVIVORS!
Well written... a story of life!
She was held, as she left me the hotel, and she will be hugged again and again...
Posted by Lucy Stevens on Wednesday, October 11th, 2006 at 10:51 AM
Very poignant and touching. Great details. Impressive!