It is, in my experience, impossible to meditate on a paper cut.
When something hurts, it hurts, and that’s actually just life in the goddamn moment.
What do you do when you get a paper cut and it really hurts? You curse. I mean, I spent years trying not to curse, because kids. Plus, cursing is negative and profane. But you know what? I think it helps me to curse. I decided to go with what works and I made one of my New Year’s Resolutions “curse readily.” When it hurts, I just let it out now. I don’t keep my curses bottled up inside.
“Mommy’s hair is gone because she has cancer,” Winnie, age five, informed me.
She was at my house to play one Saturday morning. “Do you miss her hair?” I asked.
She nodded, tearing up. “Girls are supposed to have hair,” she explained. Her big blue eyes widened for emphasis.
“Mommy’s hair will grow back,” I said. My friends were counseled to talk about the periods Mommy wouldn’t feel well from chemo treatments as brown days. “Mommy’s having a brown day,” I said, as if Winnie hadn’t noticed.
Brown days. Brown crayons. Breaking crayons.
I hugged her. Winnie wanted to be included by the bigger girls, who did not want to play with her; she wanted to get seconds to get thirds to get hugs to get reassurance that everything and everyone will be all right. She wanted to ban brown days forever, to break every single brown crayon.
When he first called from the hospital waiting room about his wife M’s breast cancer diagnosis, still without stages or numbers or treatment plans, it loomed instantly, amorphous and unknown, like a threatening storm cloud. “Out of the blue” is an odd phrase, and yet it worked, except I remember that day was cloudy. Stunning bad news doesn’t fall from gray skies. Stunning bad news fit the foreboding scene, though. Dampening clouds pressed in with a stranglehold. I couldn’t promise any damn thing, obviously. I listened. I hurt with him. To love friends sometimes means to hurt with them, and to hold onto that hurt.
My feet gripped the hilly sidewalk. I sent her a text. M texted back, seriously WTF right? That became the mantra: WTF. It was the correct mantra.
What I really wonder though is what helps, what really helps. You get into big-ticket problems and everyone tells you what you should do. Cancer is about as big as it gets. Everyone has an opinion about meditation or drugs or environment or the messed up way we don’t care for ourselves and really? You are in brown days with kids who need play dates. You are neither an environmental warrior nor a sudden yogi.
Anyway, other things seem (maybe are) smaller. Hangnails. Stubbed toes. Paper cuts. Splinters. Knotted neck muscles.
Things I’ve cursed in recent years include but are not limited to cancer:
High school administrators
The sham our country calls health insurance
Political arguments on Facebook
Snow and winter
Staff development days
January crowds at the gym
Other health crises
Poor administrators of all stripes,
And laundry—I have cursed laundry, which isn’t really what I curse when I curse laundry. Laundry is shorthand, metaphor. What I curse is how burdensome the freight of everyday responsibilities can feel. Sometimes, what’s most crushing is the place where the mundane and looming converge—and I often happen upon it with a laundry basket between my arms. I know the angle my arms need to bend to carry that sucker as well as I knew how to hold my babies through interminable nights.
Laundry is also why I sprained my ankle on a snow day. Because we were stuck inside the first and second days post-winter break, I tackled the laundry in the bottom of the hamper, the long neglected, overdue, already outgrown laundry. That’s when I tumbled. My breath was gone; my ankle flipped—searing pain in one nanosecond. I was twisted on the inside, and I screamed. I knew I was in trouble. Three days with ice and ibuprofen and elevation and longer in an ace bandage, which I MacGyvered with a pair of red tights I plan never to wear again—not that I’d worn them for.
In the midst of so many bigger things I cursed myself for freaking out about my stupid sprained ankle. I laughed at Lisa Kudrow’s absurdity in Web Therapy and felt only slightly less pathetic as a human. Fuck the sprained ankle. Fuck cancer. Fuck the big things. Fuck my family for freaking out about me lying down for three short days.
At the time I’d been doing yoga for about two years. I waited a few weeks to return to yoga class. Even after I could walk and work out, it turned out that my ankle hurt the most during yoga class—during the warrior poses and anything that had me sit with the top of my feet on the floor, which is to say my ankle hurt during yoga class, a lot. Ostensibly, the ankle is why I stopped.
It wasn’t just that, though. After those three days to elevate and ice my ankle nonstop, I realized that simply to sit with everything felt terrible. Take the ankle pain away from the yoga equation, it still felt terrible to be there with all that silence and stillness. However good it was for me, however much I should sit with what was hard, I felt terrible in that pristine space. So, I stopped.
I still wonder sometimes whether yoga or meditation would help more than cursing. I drew the conclusion that for now, cursing works better for me, and I haven’t wanted to take a yoga class since.
When things are hard, rather than fight, go with the bad—ride the current because you can’t swim against it—but when things are easy, go with the good. The hard stuff showed me this. If I’ve changed my tack, it’s that I aim for comfort a little more, challenge a little less. I like peanut butter and I like carrots. I always have. Like Frances of Bread and Jam For before she began to eat everything, I appreciate that comfort foods exist because we take comfort in the beloved.
A year later, M and I still curse over text. Now, we just complain about the husbands and the kids.
It was May 22 when Alan died last year. Everyone around me was amazed by how well I managed, but that’s because they didn’t know the whole truth. By June, a little man had set up shop inside my chest. To be clear, the little man doesn’t live in my chest—he doesn’t have groceries in the refrigerator or put his feet up on the coffee table at the end of the day. To say he works there would be more accurate. The most surprising part of it all is when I look in the mirror: My husband is gone, my body harbors an invader, and I hardly look any different for it. I can see why people might think I’m fine.
I have never heard the little man say anything, not even a sigh, but I feel him. He’s the busiest when I miss Alan the most. I don’t know what his full job description states, but I have a good idea. His job is to ensure I feel everything I can’t show: the homesickness for a place I can never return, the crushing weight underlying the finality of it all. To get his point across, he launches intermittent campaigns throughout the day—“grief attacks,” I call them. Sometimes the attacks are big and violent, forcing me to crumple onto my couch, blinded by tears. Sometimes they are small, squeezing all the air out of my lungs. At first, living with the little man frightened me, but over the past nine months, we’ve learned how to co-exist. When he wages his attacks, I can only let him.
I alluded to the little man in the very beginning, back when people were still dropping off casserole dinners. They nodded with their mouths turned upside down and tried to imagine what it must be like. But after a while, everyone went back to their normal lives. I couldn’t blame them. I tried to, too, but nothing felt normal anymore. People stopped asking about the little man wreaking havoc in my chest. They wanted to know about my vacation plans, work, my new haircut. I brought him up less and less until I eventually stopped talking about him.
This morning, the little man is very busy, making it hard to get out of bed. My body feels twice as heavy as normal, as if long, lead bars now occupy space in each of my limbs. The bars don’t take up all the space in my arms and legs, but they don’t rattle around either. They’re heavy, after all. The little man shields his eyes with his hand, looks up, and frowns. Dark clouds are in the forecast, threatening rain. They’ve been brewing in my head over the last couple of days. I roll over onto my side, summoning the energy to get ready for work, and feel the lead weights follow a second later.
I work at a mid-size tech company in Mountain View, California, where I do B2B marketing. Mostly that means putting together PowerPoint presentations that the sales team use to pitch solutions to clients. It sounds straightforward enough, but somehow my days are full of back-and-forth email exchanges, meetings, and rough drafts. Everything takes longer and involves more people to complete than you’d imagine. For instance, this morning I am in a meeting with eight people to discuss logo designs and venue possibilities for an upcoming event. Two people present in the meeting, one person makes the decisions, and the rest of us are just along for the ride. The meeting eats up an entire hour of everyone’s day. Normally, I would get antsy thinking about the other things I could be doing in that hour, but it’s hard to care with the little man going on as he is.
It’s strange being at work in the middle of one of his violent attacks. All my Alan memories, the sad ones reserved for when I’m alone at night, bubble up dangerously close to the surface. I look around the room in a slight panic, but no one is paying any attention to me. All eyes are focused on the screen at the front of the room. I sit back in my chair and try to focus on the presenter’s explanation of this particular logo’s type treatment.
After the meeting, I go back to my desk, and, in an attempt to keep the grief attack at bay, I scroll through the endless emails that have poured in over the weekend. I delete the ones that are spam, ignore ones that require nothing of me, and flag the rest to respond to later. Some emails are marked with an exclamation mark to denote the urgency of their contents, but after reviewing them again, I decide they can wait and begin making my list. Every day I make a to-do list. First, I write down each task that I need to complete. Then I go back through the list, writing a number next to each item according to its deemed priority. Priority assignment is based on the project requester, the deadline, and the number of people depending on it. These are just loose guidelines, though. Sometimes I’ll assign a task a higher priority just because I feel like working on it at the time. It’s funny because they’re just numbered items on a piece of paper, but as soon as I finish making it, I can focus. Without it, the fear that I’m overlooking something else more important that I should be working on creeps in and paralyzes me.
I have only prioritized about half of my tasks when I can feel my resolve crumbling at the edges. I catch myself slipping and hope the little man doesn’t notice. The little man, however, doesn’t miss a beat and seizes the opportunity to make inroads on his attack. He pulls me in, and I am helpless to stop it.
I am back in our living room on that last day. Alan is lying in his hospital bed, next to the fireplace. He’s moving his arms and muttering words under his breath, as he has been for the past week. This morning his lips are the slightest shade of blue, his breathing has changed, and his knees are purple. Everyone else had missed it when they’d left for my sister’s college graduation that morning. But I saw it. I knew everything was about to be different.
I call hospice and talk to the nurse manager, explaining the changes in his condition. When I mention his purple knees, she pauses. Purple knees, I learn, are a sign that your time together is almost up. I ask the million-dollar question we’ve been asking ever since he was first diagnosed: How long? The nurse manager tells me she’ll send someone who’ll be able to assess the situation and give me a better timeframe. I hang up the phone. I don’t know what to do, so for the moment, I do absolutely nothing. I have never known Alan’s knees to be so telling.
After I gather myself, I break apart again, crying in the chair next to Alan’s bed. I’d been preparing for this moment, but I’m not ready. I don’t even know if now is the right moment. If he has hours left, I should say goodbye now, but if he has days left, shouldn’t I wait? The silence settles over us like a heavy layer of dust. I decide to say goodbye now, just in case, but everything that comes out sounds stupid. My voice isn’t my own.
Finally, I lean into his ear and whisper. It sounds better when I don’t have to hear that voice that isn’t mine. I tell him how much I love him, that I’ll be okay, that he can go if he needs to. I read in one of the booklets hospice gave me that it’s important to “grant permission” for your loved one to let go. I don’t believe myself when I tell him I’ll be okay, but I hope they might be the magic words to bring him comfort. I sit back down and stare into his face, convinced I’ll see something register. But if it does, I can’t tell. His expression is unchanged, his arms still moving—
A steady stream of people walk by my desk. I look at the clock in the corner of my computer screen. Lunch is fifteen minutes late. It’s normally served at eleven-thirty, and if it’s not served within ten minutes of that, people go crazy. That’s a slight exaggeration but not by much. Fearful that we might never eat again, people begin lining up in the cafeteria as if somehow that might help. I check the lunch calendar I keep pinned to my wall. Today we are having lunch from a restaurant named Pizza?. There is an actual question mark in the name.
The food finally arrives, and I can hear the soft roar in the cafeteria from my desk. After enough people walk past me with salad and pizza slices piled high on their plates, I walk to the kitchen to see what’s left. I place two slices of veggie pizza on a paper plate, fill a cup with water, and head to the lunch table where I usually eat with the rest of my team. At the last second, I think better of it and make a beeline for my desk. I don’t have the energy to make conversation today.
It makes people uncomfortable when you just sit and listen. Most people need to fill the empty space with some kind of noise. In my experience, it’s only a matter of time before people run out of things to talk about. They start asking questions they already know the answer to or bringing up inconsequential topics. I find myself repeating things I already said or feigning interest. Short of wearing a tee-shirt that says “I don’t feel like talking, but I like sitting with you,” the only thing I can do is watch more movies. Whole worlds unfold in front of me, and I don’t have to say a word. And sometimes, though not always, movies can make me forget the little man’s even there.
My favorite movie genre is science fiction, especially those of the apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic variety. People think it’s somewhat strange, but when your husband dies at thirty-one, the idea of everyone else dying en masse, holds a romantic allure. Almost every night, I watch a movie—sometimes even two or three. A part of me wonders if I’m abusing them, like an illicit substance. I’m sure a psychologist would ask if my movie-watching negatively affects my everyday life. I suppose it doesn’t really, except it irritates me to participate in conversations when I would much rather have them play out in front of me like on a movie screen. That might be one negative impact. But you never hear about movies ruining someone’s life, do you?
If I could only watch a movie right now, it might help me deal with the little man. But, being alone at my desk with only my veggie pizza to occupy me, I know he won’t let me off easy. As I chew, he taps around my right lung like he’s testing the quality of a cantaloupe. When he hears a sound that pleases him, he uses one hand to mark the spot and, with his other hand, removes a tiny straw from his back pocket. He raises it high above his head, then swiftly brings it down, puncturing a hole in my lung. I let out a small gasp. It’s a small straw, but I can feel the air escaping through it.
I wonder if this is how it feels to have a collapsed lung. I know two people whose lungs collapsed: my friend Sue and a co-worker’s boyfriend. Neither of them even knew it had happened. Sue found out during a check-up the day after getting a lung mass the size of a golf ball biopsied. She says she didn’t feel a thing. The co-worker’s boyfriend was in college at the time, partying at a hotel in Mexico. He fell off the third-floor balcony and, if you can believe it, was picked up and carried back to his hotel room where his friends tucked him into bed for the rest of the night. It was only the next morning, after he’d been taken to an American hospital by medevac, that his collapsed lung was discovered and a steel rod was placed through his body. Still, I think the average individual would feel something if his lung collapsed. Shortness of breath to say the least. So maybe it’s like this: You feel a collapsed lung, unless you have bigger things to worry about. Like the possibility of lung cancer or a broken back.
Speaking of bigger things, the little man has finished with the straw, content with its placement, and is walking around with an Allen wrench. I’m impressed by how much he’s able to store in those tiny pockets of his. I watch him scramble around, kneeling down to tighten screws in three separate places, knitting my ribs closer and closer together. When he is satisfied, he slips the wrench into his back pocket where it disappears with the rest of his toolbox contents. He wipes the sweat off his brow and admires his handiwork. The tightness in my chest is even more pronounced now. I swallow my last bite of pizza and it settles like a lump in the back of my throat. The combination of the straw in my lung and the bolts in my chest makes it incredibly hard to sit up. I want to writhe around, to shake the little man loose. Or at the very least, I’d like to lie down.
Maybe I will just keel over and die. You hear about that, don’t you? It happens all the time with older couples: After years of marriage together, one dies and the other, perfectly healthy, save for the usual creaks and aches that old age brings, follows shortly after. I used to think maybe I could be so lucky. I’m sure my friends and family worried for a while that I might do something stupid to harm myself, but I’m afraid of pain and suffering. I’ve seen enough of that. However, if I could somehow relay the message to my heart to just stop beating one day, that wouldn’t be such a bad deal. Nice and neat. To pull off such a feat must require a tremendous amount of trust and coordination between organs, the kind that only comes after spending a lifetime together. That’s the only way I can explain why only older people die of a broken heart. Young people just aren’t there yet with their anatomy. Even if they tell their hearts to stop beating, there’s no way for their hearts to know how serious they are.
Sitting at my desk, I can’t move around too much or lie down, but I need to do something or else I might implode. I could cry. I’ve cried at my desk before, the kind of tears that are hot and silent. But I don’t trust the character of these tears today. I feel them swell inside me, a water balloon the little man has filled too full. It threatens to burst at any minute. I throw the rest of my lunch in the trash and try to get it together.
“Sobrina?” My boss Lisa calls me from two desks away.
“Yeah?” I look up. The little man pauses.
“Can you come take a look at this?” Lisa asks.
I get up and walk towards her. Because I don’t know what else to do with it, I bring the water balloon with me, gingerly carrying it in my hands.
She whips around and smiles at me. I nearly drop it.
“I thought that meeting went well today. Do you?” Lisa asks.
“Yeah, I thought it went well, too,” I say.
The water balloon is shaking. I look down and realize my hands are trembling. I want to tell her everything—that I can hardly breathe today, that the water balloon might pop at any minute. I open my mouth, but before I can get a word out, she turns back around to face her computer screen.
“I’m just recapping the discussion in an email to the group. Am I missing any next steps here?” Lisa asks.
I swallow hard. The water balloon in my hands creates a space between us so I lean in closer to read her screen.
“I think you got it all,” I say.
“Thanks.” She smiles warmly and goes back to finishing her email.
I have one more meeting before the day is over. This one is with my marketing communications team, a sub-group within the larger marketing department. We meet once a week, usually on a Monday, to provide status updates on our projects. Sometimes we’ll show each other what we’re working on. We go in a circle, one by one. I try to focus on what my teammates are saying, but it’s hopeless. I sit quietly, taking shallow breaths in an attempt to keep everything inside.
“And how about you, Sobrina? What are you working on?” Lisa asks, pulling my attention back into the room.
A lump rises in the back of my throat.
“This week…” I trail off. I look down at the to-do list I’ve been working on all day. Just read off the list, I tell myself. “I’m working on the positioning for the new media product.”
Lisa nods and jots it down in purple ink on her clipboard.
I shift in my seat.
“And I’m working with the design team to finalize the retail brochure,” I say.
The water balloon has stopped quivering quite as much. I place it on the table next to my notebook so I can read through my list faster. I’m surprised that it stays put and doesn’t roll off the edge.
“I was hoping to share our editorial ideas with the PR team this week. Did you get a chance to review those?” I ask Lisa.
“I’ll make sure I look at those,” Lisa says, circling a note to herself.
“And that’s it,” I lie. I need to get out of the room. I can feel the little man boring holes in my chest, and I’m certain everyone can see my discomfort. When I look up from my list, though, everyone is buried deep in their laptops. Lisa retracts her pen and places it back down on the table, concluding the meeting.
Nobody can see the little man like they would a scar on my forehead. But he’s there in my chest all the time. So it’s just me and him. Me and him and the lonely thought that Alan would know but will never know. He would understand in the same way that he understood when we watched the movie about the retired couple visiting Paris. They go away together in the hopes of sparking romance in their tired marriage. It’s just a movie, of course, but watching them wandering through the cobblestone streets, arm in arm, made me feel a terrible pinch inside. I wanted to be in the middle of all those lights, walking on those streets, feeling Alan’s arm wrapped around me. I wanted all of those things I thought we would have. I hated the old couple.
I looked at Alan asleep next to me, his face and body a shadow of what it used to be. He looked so peaceful, even though I knew seething pain waited for him just around the corner. The tumors in his pelvis ate away at his sacral bones, and physical activity as simple as shifting his weight had become a burden. It hit me that we would never adventure to a new city again, at least not in this life. Bitter tears rolled down my cheeks in disciplined silence. I was Alan’s cheerleader, his eternal optimist—that was my job. He could never know about my fears and doubts.
As I cried, hating that old couple—hating all old couples—Alan’s hand reached out for mine. I turned, surprised he’d woken up, to see his blue eyes fixed on me. I tried to stop crying, but I couldn’t. He held onto my hand, patiently waiting.
After a minute, I told him, “I just always wanted to go with you.”
“I know,” he said softly.
SOBRINA TUNG PIES is a writer and tech marketer living in the Silicon Valley.
When my mother found out she had cancer, she said she wanted to do two things when she got better: learn to play the piano and get a bird.
“A bird? Why?” I asked, remembering the nasty parakeets I’d had as a child who kicked feathers and birdseed shells into my underwear drawer.
“Well, I have a friend who has this really beautiful bird, and I’d like to have a bird like that.”
I rolled my eyes, a childish act, that, at twenty-seven, I was probably too old to still be doing. It was so typical of my mother to want something simply because it was beautiful: bird as objet d’art. Her desire—requirement, really—for things to be aesthetically pleasing was not a trait we shared.
In the emotionally chaotic days after her cancer diagnosis, it still seemed reasonable to make plans for the future. My mother would stagger her chemotherapy treatments with her schedule at work. We located the city’s best wig store. She ordered shelving for her new apartment. And she was going to break up with her boyfriend, Steven, because, although he was nice, she said, “Nice is not enough.” She would stop postponing joy and make the time for things she always seemed to be putting off. So if a bird was part of the life she imagined for herself in her post-cancer future, who was I to argue?
Can we ever think of our mothers as unfinished? When we are children, they are whole and entire. Everything that was meant to be for them has come to pass because it has brought them to us. But in time, we come to see our mothers as women with paths not taken, connections not made, choices left somewhere in the dust of the past. After my mother’s death, I often imagined the turns her life might have taken had she lived: a new man, maybe not so nice but right; weekly piano lessons in her apartment surrounded by her lovely things; a beautiful bird inspiring her. It was all so close, and yet beyond her reach.
I walked into the garage to grab a box of waffles from the freezer. The birds—barn swallows, we’d learned from Google images—were flying in and out, tending to the nest they built in our garage each spring. My children and I loved to watch their life cycle play out, while my husband, Ken, was less tolerant of the feathers and the mess. Every morning he ran out in his suit and tie with a bottle of Windex and a roll of paper towel tucked under his arm to clean the poop off his car. But he softened eventually, as he did with most things involving his family.
On this particular morning, the baby birds were chirping frantically, opening their tiny beaks so wide the nest looked like one big mouth. There were five babies this time, the most we’d ever had, and the parents seemed more agitated than usual, if such a feeling could be ascribed to barn swallows. Every time I walked through the garage, they swooped down at me, coming so close I was afraid of an Alfred Hitchcock-like encounter.
I stepped over a pile of desiccated dragonflies and saw that one of the baby birds was lying on the ground. I was surprised to see it there, like I’d somehow forgotten that these birds weren’t here for my family’s amusement alone; this was the circle of life, the universal struggle for survival writ small, the real deal. The bird looked dead, so I grabbed a shovel to scoop it up. But as soon as I touched it, it scooted away. Fuck, I thought. A sick or injured bird seemed far worse to me than a dead one. If it were dead, I could toss it into a bush. But a bird in crisis: That shit needed to be dealt with.
I went inside and Googled, “how to get bird back in nest.” I read that birds don’t always fly straight from the nest. Sometimes they need to hop around for a few days on the ground or on low branches while getting acclimated to flight. Since the parents were still around and the bird was fully feathered, I should just leave it alone. Leaving things alone and letting them sort themselves out—that I could do.
When I returned to the garage, the bird was still on the ground. I looked up at the nest and saw the four tiny faces of its siblings poking over the edge, the tips of their beaks joined together in a line of collective worry.
My mother learned she had cancer on a Monday. A colonoscopy she’d had the week before had revealed a large mass in her colon, and she was scheduled for surgery that Friday, the day before Memorial Day weekend. Looking back, the speed with which her surgery was scheduled, plus the fact that it was happening in a New York hospital the day before a holiday weekend, should have clued me in to the urgency of the situation. But, like most things involving my mother’s illness and death, I only made sense of things later, when everything was over.
My mother spent the week before her operation organizing and making plans as if she were getting ready to go on a trip instead of to the hospital for a bowel resection. I stopped by every night, bringing Chinese food, which only I ate, and searching endless iterations of “stage three colon cancer” on her computer while she sat on the couch with our cat, Firecracker. What I read scared me: The five-year survival rate for my mother’s disease was low, less than fifty percent, depending on how many lymph nodes were involved, which we still didn’t know. But if my mother was concerned, she kept it to herself, placing the bulk of her worry on the cat instead. He was lethargic, not eating that much. She brushed him over and over until the wire bristles were matted with thick tufts of silvery grey hair. Then she would throw the wad in the trash and start again.
I had burst into tears when my mother first told me, over the phone, that she had cancer. I could tell my reaction had frightened her—such an outward display of emotion was uncommon in my family—so I pulled myself together and tried to ask clear-headed questions about next steps. I decided to act as though everything was going to be fine and that this was just a temporary inconvenience, something to get through. My mother acted the same way, as did the rest of our small nuclear family: my father—from whom she was separated but still close—my younger brother, my mother’s sister, Marianne. If privately we were frightened, we kept it to ourselves. We worried about the cat.
One night, as I walked to my mother’s apartment, I saw a dead pigeon lying in the middle of the sidewalk. It was in a fetal position, although I wasn’t sure that term could be applied to pigeons. What did they look like as fetuses anyway? All I knew was that in all my years living in New York, I had never seen a dead pigeon. I thought immediately of the bird my mother had just spoken about. I didn’t believe in omens, but I was convinced this was one. I looked at the bird for a few moments and then continued down the block. I didn’t tell my mother about what I had seen.
An hour after I found the first baby bird, all five were on the ground, huddled together near the freezer. I called Ken.
“Can you get them back in the nest?” he asked. I could hear street sounds in the background placing him in the city, far away from the life-and-death struggle taking place in our garage.
“Are you kidding?” The nest was a good ten feet off the ground. “I’ll kill myself getting up there. Besides, they’re fully feathered. They’re supposed to be flying.”
After my mother’s death, I became extremely sensitive to birds. If I saw a dead one lying in the road, I would become certain that something terrible was going to happen. Ken would have to grab me and say, “It’s just a bird, Daisy. It doesn’t always mean anything.” And after a while, I convinced myself he was right: It was just a bird. And yet, standing here with broken birds at my feet, that feeling of doom flooded over me again. Perhaps Ken sensed my old worries surfacing and was trying to calm me down.
But there was also a part of me that was annoyed by the entire scene. I wanted the birds to do what they were supposed to do, without my help. They were supposed to jump out of the nest and fly, not cower pathetically on my garage floor.
“Well, what do you think we should do?” he asked.
“I don’t think we should do anything. If they can’t even make it out of the nest, they have no chance in the wild. There’s nothing I can do.”
When I was nine years old, I found out that my mother had been engaged to someone before she’d met my father. His name was Leif, and he was Swedish, like her. “If you had married Leif,” I said to her, “I’d be Swedish!” This felt like magic. If only I could be Swedish like her, I’d know how to knit and crochet and speak Swedish, that secret language she spoke only with my aunt or with the au pairs who lived in the room off our kitchen. If my mother had married Leif, I would finally have access to the part of her that had always been a mystery to me: the her that existed before I did.
“If I had married Leif,” she said, bringing her long, thin cigarette to her lips, “you wouldn’t exist.”
After ten days in the hospital, my mother came home. The surgery was grueling, but she didn’t have to wear a colostomy bag, which pleased her. She wasn’t well enough to return to work or to begin chemotherapy. She didn’t talk about getting the bird anymore, and Steven—poor guy—was still around.
We were taking things day by day, absorbing one bit of bad news at a time, nibbling on it like a dry biscuit, and then opening our mouths for the next bite. The mood in her apartment was somber. My fifty-six-year-old mother, who a few months earlier had celebrated New Year’s Eve with friends in St. Barth’s, needed help getting in and out of the bathtub.
“You have to get her over to Sloan-Kettering,” her friends told me, certain that the right doctors would be able to help her. They didn’t understand how sick she was, I said. She didn’t have the time or strength to doctor-shop. The ways things were going, it didn’t seem like anyone could make it better, maybe just different versions of bad. I was tired of listening to these pushy New Yorkers who thought they could control everything, that I could control everything. I didn’t want control, not over this. I wanted someone to tell me what to do. So I focused on managing her pain medications and sticking to the doctors’ instructions. Try this, then that, they said, and I did. I was always good at following the rules.
One night, while Marianne was visiting, Firecracker, the cat, collapsed.
“Do something!” my mother shouted, so Marianne shoved him into his cat carrier and raced across town in a taxi to the emergency vet. He was dead by the time she got there. Marianne, always so fragile, was traumatized, weeping as she told us how she had looked into the carrier and seen Firecracker lying on his side, his eyes bulging, tongue protruding from his mouth. I wanted to kill her.
“I think he died instead of me,” my mother told me the next day, a shadow of hope passing across her face. Her high cheekbones were as hard as rails beneath her pale skin. I was surprised to hear her speak so magically, surprised also to hear her mention the possibility of her own death. But maybe she was right. Maybe Firecracker and the dead bird hadn’t been bad omens but offerings. This made perfect sense.
After school, I took Ellie and Sam to the garage to see the baby birds. They were still on the floor, tucked beneath the curve of my car’s tires. I could tell, although the kids couldn’t, that two of the birds had died. The once-charming experiment was no longer so charming.
“Why won’t they fly?” Ellie asked, her eyes wide with concern.
“I don’t know,” I said. “But they have to. If they don’t, they’ll die.”
When Ellie and Sam went back inside, I tossed the dead birds into a bush. I wasn’t sure what to do with the other three. If I left the garage door open over night, the parents could tend to them, but I was worried about predators. I decided to close the door and hope for the best. Would they really starve in one night? I brought out an aluminum tray of water, although I wasn’t sure if they needed it or if they could even reach over the lip of the tray. I watched them as they sat there, not even moving toward the water, and I decided I didn’t like them anymore. I wished in equal measure that they would leave or die, anything so that I didn’t have to deal with them anymore. I just wanted it to be over.
By July, my mother was back in the hospital. After several tests to determine why she wasn’t getting better, the doctors discovered that the diagnosis of colon cancer had been wrong. She had neuroendocrine tumor, a rare and aggressive form of cancer that had spread throughout the lining of her abdomen, including into her colon. We had lost precious time fighting the wrong cancer.
During this time, Ken and I left my mother in the hospital to go to a Yankees game. My mother was on the phone with J. Crew ordering a birthday present for Steven, and I lingered in the doorway listening to her chat pleasantly with the woman taking her order. I doubted she had any idea my mother was calling from a hospital room or that she would die so soon after the clothing arrived that Steven would be too shaken up to ever wear it. I worried for a moment about leaving, but my mother waved me off. “Go,” she said, the phone tucked between her shoulder and her ear. “I’m fine.”
Ken and I took the train up to the Bronx and, as we walked down from the subway platform, we saw a pigeon lying on the stairs with its wings spread open like a book. The crowds of people on their way to the stadium stepped carefully around it.
I stopped walking as soon as I saw the bird, tears streaming down my cheeks. “Oh, Jesus,” I said to Ken. I doubled over, suddenly out of breath. “What the fuck is that?”
He calmed me down, and we stayed for part of the game. But when we walked back a couple of hours later, the bird was still there, still breathing, its tiny chest rising and falling with great difficulty. Someone had propped a piece of newspaper around it, a tiny version of a hospital curtain. I wanted to smash my foot down on its ribcage. It was the most horrible thing I’d ever seen.
We went straight back to the hospital and found my mother talking to one of her doctors, the only one who had known her before she got sick. The steady drip of pain medication had improved her mood, and she seemed closer to her usual, upbeat self. On his way out, the doctor pulled me into the hallway.
“Do you know how serious this is?” he asked, and I think I kind of nodded, although I really have no idea. And then he apologized to me, either for what had already happened or for what was still to come; I think he had tears in his eyes. But he didn’t go any further. Perhaps he could tell that I couldn’t grasp what he was saying, that his words had barely touched the protective net of my consciousness. Everything I came to understand about that conversation, I filled in later.
The next morning, I walked into the garage brandishing a snow shovel. I tapped the ground next to the birds and shouted, “Let’s go!” It was a beautiful, sunny spring day, and I had decided it was time for them to fly.
With me and my shovel behind them, the three birds hopped out of the garage, across the driveway and onto the grass. Just seeing them against the backdrop of green, with a little sun on their faces, made them look better. One of the birds kept moving away from me, picking up speed until it was off the ground and flying. Not very high, and not very strong, but flying. I watched it cut a jagged line across the lawn and out of my view.
I crouched down next to the other birds. They looked terrified, shocked, their spindly feet as delicate as toothpicks, their coats more fluff than feather, and I realized I wasn’t scared of them anymore. They weren’t a bad omen or a harbinger of death at all. If they represented anything— and I wasn’t sure they did—it was the future my mother had planned for, the one in which she got an exotic bird and redid her kitchen and lived to see her grandchildren. It’s just what we do, plan for a future we know is not guaranteed because we can’t live any other way. And look how fucking fragile it is.
Shelley was the astrologer for British Vogue and a friend of a friend of my mother’s. When she came to New York, my mother sometimes went to her for a reading. A couple of months after she died, Shelley offered to read my chart, gratis. I asked her if she had been able to see my mother’s death on her chart during her final reading. I was pretty sure I knew the answer, but I wanted to hear what Shelley would say.
“Not exactly,” she said. “We might be able to see that there will be a transition, but we can’t tell if that transition will be death or not because in astrological terms, everything is continuous.”
Despite everything, my mother’s death, when it finally came, surprised us all. Just the day before, her oncologist had ordered a course of chemotherapy. A young resident had come by earlier that week to refill a prescription for the eye drops she used to control her glaucoma. Now they were telling us there was nothing else they could do.
It was evening, about eight o’clock. The hospital air-conditioning was on full blast, and I was freezing. My mother lay in bed, unconscious, surrounded by photographs I had taped to the wall behind her, proof to everyone who cared for her that she really had once been a person. One of the pictures had been taken on New Year’s Eve. In it, my mother stood with one foot crossed in front of the other like an actress posing on the red carpet. Her painted toenails peeked out of her pink, sequined slide.
My mother was really gone by then, her breathing labored, the smells appalling and vile. We had already sat in another room with her doctors and hospital administrators who had reviewed her DNR orders. I was the only one who spoke. I signed whatever it was we were supposed to sign. My father seemed folded in on himself, my younger brother shocked into silence.
We went back into her room. Steven and Marianne were there; Ken, too. There weren’t enough places for all of us to sit so I leaned awkwardly against the side of the bed, stroking my mother’s hand. I wondered if I was supposed to stay there until she died. I became acutely aware of the woman she was sharing a room with and thought how terrible it must be to room with someone so close to dying. Then I was annoyed with myself for worrying about her when I should have been thinking about my mother. The thought of staying in that room until my mother died became unbearable. My teeth were chattering, and all I wanted to do was lie down. So I kissed my mother goodbye and walked out into the hot, humid July evening. I planned to come back in the morning, although by then she was dead.
The birds didn’t seem in any rush to go anywhere, so I sat there, letting the weak spring sun warm my back. I thought about how tenuous our hold on life is, how easily the thread is snapped, despite everything we think holds us here. We fall from the nest, unable to fly, powerless to fight the gravity that pulls us down; if we’re lucky, our parents stick around to feed us dead insects. Perhaps there are no omens, nothing to let us know that bad luck—or worse—is around the bend. Nothing had prepared me for my mother’s death; the only signs were the ones I had chosen to ignore.
Then I stood up and walked away, leaving the birds on the grass. I needed them to do what they were supposed to do, without me, just as I had needed my mother to complete her journey so that I could continue mine. She never got the bird she planned for, but I got five of them, birds that grew in the cradle of my garage. Some died early, others clung to the earth beneath their feet. But one flew.
DAISY ALPERT FLORIN is a writer and editor. Her essays have appeared in Under the Gum Tree, Halfway Down the Stairs and Brain, Child, among other publications. She lives in Connecticut with her family. Read more at www.daisyflorin.com.
1986. I was sixteen, and I was spending the night alone with my boyfriend, M. We were at his house, but his parents were gone. His father was dead, actually—he’d died several years earlier of cancer. He’d been forty-two, which sounded old to me, but everyone remarked on how young it was. It’s younger than I am now. His mother was out of town with his sister. My parents were divorced, and I was playing them against one another; each thought I was with the other, and their inability to speak to each other without shouting was, for once, working to my advantage.
So we were alone. And young, and inexperienced, but safe. His house was on a dead-end dirt road and no one was around for miles. It was summertime in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. The August evening air was already crisp, and we were snug in the tree-hidden house at the end of the drive. No one knew what we were doing. Not even us.
M had shoulder-length hair and spent the summer in bare feet; his soles were calloused. He had ice-blue eyes and a quick, wide smile. He was skinny and a little nerdy; I was a sucker for smart and funny. That never changed. He loved comic books and the Beatles; a homemade Beatles cassette was on constant play in his car, a red VW Rabbit that he drove barefoot, and where we spent hours parked. The White Album. Revolver. Sgt. Pepper. We leaned over the stick shift and put our hands in each other’s shirts, longing for more privacy, more space. Now we had it. M also loved old movies, which is why we were watching The Man Who Fell to Earth when we first got completely naked with each other.
In 1986, VCRs were still kind of a fancy thing to have in the rural place we lived. Neither of my parents’ households had VCRs. But they were mainstream enough that there were plenty of movie-rental joints, including one at the arthouse cinema, which is where we found the David Bowie classic. I had been in first grade when it was originally released; a lifetime ago. It was still early evening when we popped the tape into the VCR, but the sun was setting. It was late summer in Vermont and the crickets were just warming up, reminding us that soon school would start, soon our parents would get wise, soon we wouldn’t be sixteen and seventeen anymore.
I was surprised to see what Bowie looked like, white and redheaded and young, his eyes fierce. He’d recently made his comeback in popular culture, and in 1986 he seemed so old to me, so grownup in his suits and his dress shoes, doing his improbably debonair dancing on MTV next to Madonna and Bruce. Bowie was younger in the eighties than I am now. But in The Man Who Fell to Earth, he was younger still, and looked more like me and my seventeen-year-old boyfriend—smooth, pale, unlined. Newly emerged, on a strange planet.
I remember almost nothing else about the movie. Shortly after the opening credits rolled, M traced my arm, starting from the spot where my collarbone connected to my shoulder and slowly making his way to the tip of my index finger, and my insides turned upside down. I hadn’t known a single touch could do that. I rolled over to face him and melted into what we were really here to do, which was to find our way in new territory. And the movie played as we removed one article of clothing at a time, exposing bare expanses of taut young skin, smooth and warm.
By the time the movie ended, we were both fully nude and it was time to do what we were pretty sure it was time to do. M began unwrapping the condom. I was shaking head to toe. I wanted to and didn’t want to. I couldn’t look M in the eye, suddenly aware and embarrassed of my youth. And then M gave me an out. “I think this may have expired,” he said. “It may not be safe.” The condom.
“Maybe we shouldn’t do this, then,” I said slowly.
“Maybe not,” he agreed. And then I could look into his ice-blue eyes again. It wasn’t just me who needed the out. Neither of us were ready. I was a little disappointed—I hadn’t yet arrived where I thought I was headed. But mostly I was relieved and grateful to be in a safe place with a nerdy boy who was content to kiss and touch and laugh with me for the night.
That night I looked through the skylight at the moon, round and unusually red, and thought I could never be so happy ever again, never feel so much again. I wouldn’t lose my virginity for a couple more years, but something had shifted nonetheless. My heart drummed in my chest, strong, insistent, never-ending, ever-expanding. But I was sixteen, and I didn’t know anything. M and I broke up shortly after school began, several weeks later, off to explore new lands, gaining fluency. And now Bowie is gone, also cancer, leaving the world decades older than M’s father did, but now that seems too soon to me, too. My parents found a way to speak to each other again; my father visited my mother on her death bed last fall, also cancer. And I am older than I ever imagined being when I was sixteen and had just fallen to Earth and had so many roads open to me and so much time that I could pause a while before deciding which one to take.
NAOMI SHULMAN is a freelance writer in western Massachusetts. Her work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, Cognoscenti, Yankee, and on New England Public Radio, as well as the 2014 anthology The Good Mother Myth. Follow her on Twitter: @naomishulman.
We are clearing out his apartment, sorting papers and photographs, and bottles upon bottles of medication when my sister, Rebecca, asks for one more favor. The mortuary has called and said her ex-husband’s ashes are ready for pick-up. Can we please go with her? She isn’t up for a solo trip.
It’s two days after her wedding, which was one week after her first husband’s memorial service. The entire family is still reeling from the juxtaposition—it was all we’d talked about before, during, and after the actual wedding celebration. In conversation we’d put air quotes around “celebration.” We used anger and sarcasm to mask our sorrow and confusion.
Rebecca hadn’t known her ex-husband was going to die the week before her wedding when she’d planned it, of course. She’d gotten engaged almost immediately after the divorce had been finalized, while Charles was undergoing chemotherapy; but she was living with her boyfriend already. We all knew a wedding would happen sooner or later. “But why couldn’t it have been later?” our mother had asked me, crying, the day before the wedding. “Much, much later?”
I had no good answer to give her.
Now, two days after living through the wedding, we go out to lunch first before visiting the mortuary to pick up Charles’s ashes. While we eat Rebecca wants to talk about her wedding. What did Mom think? Did it go okay? I take a big bite of fish and chew, ruthlessly leaving my mother to answer.
“That was the most beautiful wedding dress I’ve ever seen,” our mom says tactfully. She always starts with a positive statement unless we’ve really pissed her off. I shove in a bite of mixed vegetables because the critical portion of Mom’s sentence is about to arrive and I want a physical excuse (my mouth is full!) not to intervene.
Focusing on my food helps me not think about Charles. Two weeks after his death I’m still accustoming myself to not thinking about him. While he was sick, then sicker, then dying, he took up so much space in my thoughts. My life was planned around chemo trips, emergency visits to the doctor or the ER or just the grocery store and pharmacy runs. For the last few months, whenever the phone rang, my heart filled with hot liquid and my fingertips would go numb.
It wasn’t just worry for him, dread for the end; I was so damn tired—it was dread that it would never end that seized me. Sometimes I’d worry that I’d never stop feeling guilt for my relief at it ending and anger for my guilt—it was much easier to be angry at my sister. It is much easier to keep eating instead of acknowledging how I feel at all.
They have stopped discussing the wedding dress. It was a beautiful dress, like something a classy lounge singer would wear in the 1940s. If Rebecca and I had figures even remotely similar—she got the butt, I the boobs—I’d steal that dress, dye it black or scarlet and wear it to her next wedding. But the conversation has moved on from the dress. My mother is expressing her displeasure with the ceremony. “It was all Cheshire, all the time.”
Our family wasn’t included in any aspect. The groom’s niece and nephew sang. The groom’s sister (not our eldest sister) was Matron of Honor. The groom’s family composed two-thirds of the guests and as for those speeches… Well, “inappropriate” is too mild a word. Did Rebecca know that the two of her kids who’d come to the wedding (her oldest daughter flat-out refused) wept through the Best Man’s speech when he’d revealed that my sister’s affair with her new husband had been going on for two years longer than anyone had known?
“I didn’t know the kids cried!” my sister says. Here’s the weird thing, though—she isn’t upset that Mom is displeased with her. Normally Rebecca does not take criticism well. Off-hand comments that our other sister or I would shrug off have been known to send her, this new bride, into her closet to indulge in angry weeping. A chance directive from our mother, something about keeping cats as indoor pets, led to my sister not speaking to Mom for two years. Two years of silence for saying, “Keep your cat away from Rachel, she’s allergic.” But bashing the wedding as inappropriate, liquor-soaked, and hurtful? My sister is fine with it. No, it is weirder than that. My sister seems pleased.
Don’t get me wrong—she’s not happy. She defends the liquor consumption. She defends the inappropriate speech by blaming the liquor consumption, and she defends the lack of her family’s inclusion by offering, “Well, everyone is so sad because Charles died—I didn’t think they’d want to be included.”
Choking laughter overtakes me. I cover my mouth with a napkin. My mother slides my water glass closer, and my sister pats my back. I laugh harder. Tears are running from my eyes. They start to laugh, too. Other restaurant patrons are staring.
None of us wanted to be included, I don’t tell Rebecca. None of us wanted to fucking be there at all. Her daughter was the only honest one. We’re all wiping our eyes now and we don’t have to say anything.
We don’t have to say that we are angry that my sister remarried a week after her ex-husband’s funeral because she knows. I don’t have to say that I’m laughing because her reasoning is always so self-centeredly skewed because they both know. She doesn’t say that she’s pleased that Mom is unhappy with her and critical of her wedding and her general behavior these last few years because we know. Rebecca knows that we forgive her and she knows that we forgive her because we know that she is never going to forgive herself.
After a lunch like that, it’s understandable when we get in the car and Rebecca starts it, she has a brief freak-out. “Oh my god! I don’t know where we’re going! I mean, I know where the mortuary is, but not how to get there!” There is a shrill lining of panic around her words, and the air in the car tastes like chewing on aluminum foil.
Our mom pats her shoulder, not knowing what to say, what directions to offer, but recognizing panic. I back-seat-drive to the location. From spending time with Mom when she lived here, as well as Charles, I am more familiar with Hemet than my sister.
It’s an ugly city. The cracked, ill-kempt streets are laid out in a tidy grid, but it seems that if one drives too far in any direction, one hits the same boggy agricultural field. The air is brown and fetid from smog and pesticides trapped in this weird little valley populated mostly by the elderly. Traffic is both slow and erratically dangerous. Sometimes in my dreams, I drive the city’s streets, a sick animal in the backseat that I can’t clearly see or reach to comfort, its whimpers of pain forcing me to wake myself up to avoid crying myself.
When we reach the mortuary, there is an atrium filled with birds. A faux-desert scene houses little pheasants, and tiny roadrunners wander forlornly, glassed in on all four sides. They can never not be on display, but Rebecca is happy to see them. She likes birds. Watching them calms her. We wait in a musty room. I poke around, examining the literature, how the place is decorated, and what is stored in the credenza against the wall (mostly off-brand tissue boxes and religious bookmark looking things I don’t understand). I am writing a novel that is set in a mortuary; I can use this.
A man comes and shows us to a room where a wooden box sits on a table, shrine-like. We all back up. We put our hands behind our backs. No one wants to take it. We engage the man in conversation, admiring the box without actually looking at it. We all three flirt with the man; we are expert flirters. My mother and sister share a flirting style, I see for the first time. They cajole and flatter; there is a tone in their voices not normally heard, like jollying a petulant child out of his mood.
Finally, Mom tries to take the box. She is the brave one. It is too heavy for her. I help the man set it into a red velvet bag and he puts in into my sister’s arms. She does not look comfortable with this. We walk out to the car and I get my mother settled in the front passenger seat, and my sister sets the bag containing the box on my mother’s lap. My mother rhythmically pats it, as if comforting a fussy baby.
Mom agrees to take the box home with her and put it in her closet next to our stepfather. They can hang out. No one mentions that they never really got along while they were alive. At Charles’s sadly empty apartment, where Rebecca drops us off and Mom and I climb into my car, I belt the box into my back seat and start home.
Mom is unusually silent. This is understandable, I think, and a bit of a relief after the tense day. Up in the mountains she says, “You’ve come full circle. You were his ride when he found out he was sick. Now you’re his ride home.”
We are in the highest part of the mountains. We have been climbing the twisting, looping, steep, two-lane road, and then the top opened up to a stunning view—any way we look is stark California mountain. Here, on this flat opening amongst them, we seem higher yet still protected by ranges surrounding us.
I pull over because I can’t see out of my tear-filled eyes and am having trouble getting air. I’m parked on the side of the road, gasping, feeling like I’m about to vomit. My mother is apologizing and I look out the window and realize where I am. This is where I stopped to talk to Rebecca on the phone that horrible day. This is where I talked to Charles after her, reassuring him it wasn’t all a nightmare, the cancer wasn’t a mistake that my sister had the power to make him “take back.” Years before that, this is where I used to stop and vomit when my body was flush with hormones, natural and injected during my decade of infertility treatments. I am beginning to hate this beautiful spot.
“I am ready to go home,” I say. “I am ready to be done.”
My sister puts her head through the open passenger side window and says, “My husband was always a pain in the ass. Why should he be any different now that he is dead?” And she gestures to the backseat where the wooden casket containing his ashes has been sitting all this long, hot afternoon, carefully belted in.
This is the fourth stop we’ve made in our search for a decent spot to illegally scatter his ashes. Charles chose this road in a remote part of Riverside County, telling everyone who’d listen he wanted to be “thrown to the wind” here. But he never went into specifics. He never said exactly where, he never said why, and we’re wondering if maybe chemo brain was responsible for his decision because this is a damn-awful place to drift into the wind.
August is the worst of the summer months in Southern California. June and July have sucked any moisture gone, so August is lip-cracking dry and the intense heat casts a yellow glare over the afternoon. It feels like the sun is personally angry at us, driving all over these dusty roads, and has persuaded the wind to join him in tormenting us as it swirls and eddies in mini-dirt devils, flinging gravel at our toes exposed by inappropriate sandals when we dare to leave our vehicles.
The first stop we made was above a house surrounded by dead cars and some very mean looking dogs. The second stop was next to a gun range where armed rednecks were actively shooting. The third stop, we realized was outside of Charles’s specified location and his three grown children got into an argument over whether proximity mattered.
This fourth stop is a dirt fire road clinging precariously to the side of a slippery, dusty mountain, ruts and boulders line the edges. We are caravanning and my sedan doesn’t fit on the road. I am perched half in the two-lane, busy highway. My elderly mother is in the passenger seat. Even with the a/c turned all the way up, she is red and sweaty.
“Are you getting out?” Rebecca asks. I think our mother is about to cry.
“Take the ashes,” I tell my sister, leaning into the backseat to pop the seat belt loose. “I’m taking Mom home.”
“You’re not staying?”
“We’re not?” Mom asks, and she smiles at me in relief. Her back is to my sister, who doesn’t see the smile.
“I can’t drive up that road, Mom can’t walk it, and look at her”—Rebecca does and my mother flips open the visor mirror to see herself. “I think she has heatstroke. She’s seventy-four. She’s too old for this shit.”
My sister laughs while my mother nods seriously. “I am too old for this shit.” She starts to cry and my sister hugs her through the open window and kisses her goodbye.
My sister won’t take the ashes. She calls for her middle child, who calls for her boyfriend to carry the pretty little casket. I loan them my pocket knife. They look confused.
“There is a plastic zip tie on the baggy inside,” I explain. “You’ll have to cut it loose.”
I discovered this at the first stop when everyone except my oldest niece’s husband ran to look over the edge of a cliff rather than deal with the ashes. My nephew-in-law, a sweet boy from Kansas, only shrugged when I snarled, “Why the hell are we the ones dealing with this?”
I was shocked out of my irritation by the contents of the baggy. What had once been Charles was now strangely dry, chalky dust with surprisingly large shards of bone in it. I shifted the sealed bag in my hands, listening to the rustling, slushing noise, examining the end sum of my friend. When I was growing up, Charles was so handsome, he was the standard by which I judged all male beauty. Now that beauty, whittled away by his cancer, is reduced to the contents of this gallon-sized plastic bag.
There was one shard of bone, not quite arrowhead shaped, a littler smaller than my littlest finger. I planned on slipping it into my pocket when no one was looking. I wanted to keep it. I wanted to carry it in my mouth.
But Charles’s children decided to move on—they didn’t like the junk-yard look of this stop and I had to force the ash-baggy back into its covering box, shaking it roughly like a colander of pasta to make it fit. Several family members watched, but no one offered to help.
By the fourth stop, by the side of the road, I am ready to hand over the ashes. I am ready to go home. We call good-byes and love-yous out the window and drive away. “I’m sorry to make you miss it,” our mom says.
“I’m not,” I reply. “I’ve done what I could. I did what I could for him while he was alive. My duty is to the living. You look like hell.”
“Gee, thanks,” she says and points the last air vent at her face. All the air vents now hitting her, she rummages in my purse.
I place the back of my hand on the hot window at my side. “I’ve done what I could,” I say, but to myself.
My mother pulls a red lipstick out of my bag. “How ‘bout I put on some lipstick and you take me out to dinner?”
“All right,” I agree. A cool, dark restaurant would be soothing. My hand is still on the burning glass.
We are sitting around Rebecca’s new kitchen table, eating lunch, reading aloud from a book about healthy cholesterol levels, when she expresses how angry she is at her husband. My mother looks up. “Which one?”
I laugh. My sister does not. Her face is tight, but then crumples as I watch.
“Charles never did anything to help himself and then he got sick and his family never did anything to help and never brought his father to see him before he died. And his bitch sister had the audacity to hint to my little girl, at her daddy’s funeral, that we should reimburse Grandpa for the money he paid to the private nurse.” Rebecca is crying so her speech is almost unintelligible, and her “little girl” is twenty-five, but I take her point.
Our mother cries in sympathy. I bring them tissues and make cups of tea and pat them on the back occasionally. I don’t cry. I am tired. I think about the shards of bone in the bag of chalky dust that used to be Charles. I think about my stepfather’s ashes in the pirate chest in my mother’s closet. I remember that my mother has filled in paperwork naming me responsible for her ashes when the time comes. I wonder who will deal with my chalky dust when I am dead.
On the drive home my mother asks if my sister does that often, cries out of anger with her dead husband. I think Rebecca must clean up her emotions when talking to our mother alone.
“She didn’t deal with her anger at the time,” I say, feeling enlightened. “She took off. So she’s gonna have to deal with that for the rest of her life.”
“You’re right,” my mother nods her head, begins to cry once more. “You’re right.”
At that moment I see a Starbucks up ahead. I’m about to offer to pull in, buy a vente pumpkin spice latte (damn whatever the seasonal cut-off date might be) to cheer her up, but then I remember that it’s my mom in the car next to me. My mom hates Starbucks and doesn’t drink much coffee at all. It isn’t her panacea. Now who is confused? Now who is angry? Now who is unenlightened?
Months later, my throat feels choked when I see a Starbucks. I want to go in and order a pumpkin spice latte, but I want my brother-in-law back with me. I want him healthy or at least not actively dying. I want the coffee klatch to be for fun, not a treatment for the chemo shakes and sickness. I want too much, I know.
I have a terrible suspicion that I will never be able to drink coffee again. I am angry about that. I am angry about a lot of things. I am okay with this anger.
SARA MARCHANT received her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from the University of California, Riverside/ Palm Desert. Her work has appeared on The Manifest-Station and Every Writer’s Resource. She lives in the high desert of California with her husband and varying amounts of poultry.
“This, honey, is crabgrass. It’s the stuff that’s been driving me nuts all summer,” I say to Steve as I point with my foot to a particularly large weed. “It’s all over our front yard and I pull it up and it leaves a huge hole and I could do it for hours, but at some point I just stand up and walk away ’cause I know it’s a hopeless fight.”
We’re walking to the hospital’s parking lot. I’ve just had a CT scan of my brain. Steve has taken a couple hours off work on this Thursday morning to drive me to the hospital because I’m so shaky from the migraine that I’m not sure I can do it myself. I drove myself to my doctor’s office this morning, but the drive to the hospital and the waiting in the waiting room and the potential need for food and drink all seemed too much at once, so I called Steve and asked him to meet me at home. I got home first and, while I waited, I Googled “brain aneurysm” and learned that what we normally think of as a brain aneurysm—the kind that kill people—is actually a burst brain aneurysm. So I could have a brain aneurysm right now without knowing it and it could be the cause of this excruciating migraine.
There’s something so satisfying about pulling up crabgrass because it all comes up at once. Find the center, gather the tendrils, and yank. At first I’d used the super duper fancy stand-up weeder I bought earlier this summer, with its eject button, but it turned out to be too slow. I wanted to be on my hands and knees pulling more than one weed up at once, digging into the earth, ridding it of the intruder that, for so many years, had passed for grass for me.
Until we moved into this house, the first house I’ve ever chosen, I paid little attention to the grass except to mow it. I always made sure that we kept the lawn mowed. There was a deep satisfaction that came from seeing the immediate transformation from unkempt to kempt. And surely at the old house we had crabgrass. But it had been Steve’s house before I moved in and I didn’t feel the same sense of ownership that I do here. The crabgrass here is maddening.
I sometimes worry that my neighbors, walking their dogs, judge us the way that I, walking our dogs, judge neighbors whose lawn has been taken over by weeds. Last year, our first summer in the new house, I quickly identified the house in the neighborhood with the tallest weeds. They were like a huge “fuck you” to the rest of us who pulled the ugliest and most obvious weeds. It doesn’t help that we live next door to a woman whose yard and garden are damn near perfect. I imagine conversations with her in which I defend the state of our yard by pointing to the work I do as a professor and a writer. While you’re out here perfecting your yard, I imagine saying, I’m inside prepping my classes or writing an important piece of scholarship. All she does in this scenario is look down at my feet, where the freshly mown crabgrass taunts. And on the afternoons when I find myself outside on my hands and knees pulling crabgrass, I imagine her shaking her head and telling me that I’ll never win. I know I’ll never win, but still, it’s so satisfying. When the entire weed comes up like a mop of hair, there’s nothing else like it. No other weed offers such a huge reward.
I’ve always been the kind of person who immediately jumps to the worst possible conclusion. Recently when our dog Wrigley began limping, I assumed it was bone cancer. When the anti-inflammatories helped, I relaxed. When the limp came back a month later much worse, I spent the night imagining our lives with a three-legged dog. Dogs recover from these things much better than people do, I told myself. We see it all the time. It’s the people who are taken aback by a dog with a missing leg. The dog herself is usually fine, running and playing like any other dog. Steve, on the other hand, always thinks the best, minimizing what I take to be life-threatening situations. For Steve, Wrigley’s diagnosis of severe arthritis on both hips was a shock. He thought for sure she’d just pulled something.
When I was a kid, I didn’t expect to live much past my late twenties. It’s not that I thought something terrible might happen to me; rather, I knew something terrible would happen to me. It’s a mindset born from years of abuse. The trauma theorist Kai Erikson wrote that traumatized people calculate life’s chances differently.
So when the doctor told me she wanted a CT scan of my brain because of the frequency and severity of the migraines, I immediately jumped to the worst possible scenario. “I’m convinced I have a brain tumor,” I said as she examined my ears.
“It’s not a brain tumor I’m worried about,” she said. “Usually with a brain tumor, a patient will come in very confused, unsure how they got here. What I’m more worried about—and I don’t want to give you more to worry about—but I worry about an aneurysm.”
Despite the migraine, I chuckled a bit. I couldn’t help it. I didn’t know enough about the brain to imagine the worst-case scenario. I was an amateur at this thinking-the-worst business, it seemed.
One afternoon when I was outside with the weeder pulling up crabgrass, the UPS guy stopped by to deliver a package. “Are you pulling crabgrass?” he asked.
“Yep. It’s hopeless, I know.”
“Can I hire you?”
“I think I’ve got more than my share here, thanks.”
He shook his head and smiled as he got back into his truck.
What am I doing? I thought. I should be inside writing important scholarship.
I woke that morning with the headache. It seemed manageable for the first hour or so I was awake. But then my head really started pounding. I took a couple tramadol. Nothing. I tried to imagine going in to school, teaching my class, talking with any coherence about anything. I started crying, holding my head with both hands, massaging my temples with my fingers. It had never been this bad before. My first migraine lasted a month, my second one three days, and the last couple just a day because I’d finally gotten medicine that helped. But with this one it was too late to take an Imitrex and the tramadol wasn’t helping and I understood what it was like to want to die. I couldn’t escape myself. I couldn’t think. I canceled class for the day and called my doctor.
In the radiology waiting room, Steve and I sit quietly until my name is called. The radiology technician asks me for all of my vital info, checks the name on my paper bracelet, and asks me whether I’m pregnant. “No,” I say.
“How can I be sure of that?”
“My husband had a vasectomy.”
“I’m still gonna need you to sign a form before we do the scan.”
I shrug my shoulders. Fine with me. As he walks across the room to find the form, I say, “I’m too old to be pregnant anyway.”
He tells me that they’re now required to ask women up to age fifty-five about pregnancy.
“Ha! I can just imagine some of the answers you must get.”
“Oh, I’ve gotten some good ones. At first it was hard for me to ask, but now I just laugh about it.”
“You should write an essay about those responses.”
On the ride home, I realize that being the passenger is making me nauseous, so I ask Steve to pull over and I take over at the wheel. Somehow I feel a little better after the scan. Maybe it’s the promise of certainty. We’ll finally know how I’m going to die. Steve, of course, is convinced it’s just migraines. “If it’s just migraines, it’s gonna take years to figure out the right medication and I’m just not up for that,” I tell him.
My doctor and the radiology tech both told me that they’ll have an answer for me within an hour and a half. By the time we get home, I figure it’s more like an hour. Steve goes back to work and I sit on the couch with the dogs, imagining how this will play itself out. As the minutes and then the hours pass, the scenarios become bleaker.
I have a brain aneurysm and I need immediate brain surgery to clip it. They’ll have to shave my head. My department chair will have to find someone to take over my classes for the rest of the semester. I might die. If I die, I’ll get to see my beloved dog Annabelle again.
I have a brain aneurysm but surgery is too risky, so I must walk around for the rest of my days knowing it could burst any time.
What they’ve found is so bad that they call Steve first, tell him to come home and get me, and we go to the doctor’s office to learn that I have weeks to live.
They don’t find an aneurysm or a tumor, but they do find plaque and I’m diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s.
At night sometimes, I close my eyes and I see crabgrass, its white webbed center with its blades growing in all directions. I open my eyes and try to concentrate on something else, but it’s no use. I close my eyes and the crabgrass taunts me. It knows I’ll never get it all. It will always win.
It occurs to me now that crabgrass is like cancer in that they’re both named for the crab. Cancer comes from the Greek karkinos because the tumor with its surrounding vessels resembled the shape of a crab. And the most common genus of crabgrass is digitaria, a name that likens the tendrils to fingers reaching out in all directions.
It’s not that I want to die or that I want a brain tumor or an aneurysm. It’s not that I want attention, that most obvious of explanations. I think when I imagine these scenarios what I also imagine is the freedom that comes with knowing.
After my beloved dog Annabelle died, none of the day-to-day stuff mattered anymore. What mattered was that I no longer had my Annabelle and I no longer knew who I was. But I knew who I wasn’t. I wasn’t a person who cared about who in the department was dating whom or which professor had a crush on which graduate student. I wasn’t a person who cared about the way that the people I had thought were my friends couldn’t find it in themselves to support me. I wasn’t a person who cared about who liked me or who loathed me or who didn’t know I existed. I’d lost my girl. Nothing else mattered. I wanted that clarity again, the clarity of tremendous, soul-crushing grief.
My doctor’s office called after about two and a half hours. My CT was normal. I’m normal. When she told me this, she pulled it all up at once, all of my imaginings about the end, all of the repercussions of the scenarios that allowed me the freedom that comes only with certainty. Like I do with a particularly gnarly crabgrass weed, she yanked it all and left a gaping hole.
AMY E. ROBILLARD is becoming increasingly torn between her identities as Associate Professor of English at Illinois State University, where she specializes in rhetoric and composition and the personal essay, and as essayist whose work resists academic categorization. Her nonfiction can also be found on The Rumpus.
August 8, 2012. When I get scared, I lose my senses. I know that the walls of the clinic are acid green, but my eyes take in sepia.
“I’m glad you came in,” the doctor says. “Post-menopausal bleeding is never normal.”
Two weeks ago, my husband, son, and I were at the beach. I went into the bathroom to put on my bathing suit and found a spot of blood. I tried to ignore it. I figured the bleeding would stop by itself. When we got home and it hadn’t stopped, I called the clinic. The receptionist said my doctor was on vacation. Would I see Dr. A instead?
So here I am, bare-bottomed on crinkly paper.
“What do you think is wrong?” I ask the doctor.
“Unfortunately, I can’t tell anything from your exam. You’ll need to see a gynecologist. But I wouldn’t worry. It’s usually polyps or fibroids, which are benign.”
I had fibroids twenty years ago. Getting rid of them took major surgery and a six-week recovery. I don’t have time for this. I teach in the German Department at University of Virginia, and the semester starts in a few weeks.
Driving home from the clinic, I fall into a fantasy, where instead of undergoing a messy medical procedure, I can make time unspool, so the bleeding simply un-happens. I wouldn’t mind going back to April of this year, when our youngest nephew became bar mitzvah. The whole family was present and well. My husband Wade and I led the congregation in a favorite hymn. In a picture Wade’s sister sent, Wade, our son Gabriel, and I stand grouped around the bar mitzvah boy. Why can’t we step back into that picture?
But is that picture really where I want to end up? Gabriel, at seventeen, looks great, dwarfing all of us by at least a head and a half, his thick brown hair tousled, grin full of snark and confidence. But what about Gabriel’s parents? Mom’s got crow’s feet. Dad’s soft blue eyes show exhaustion; his once ginger hair has gone brown-grey. If we’re travelling in time, why not go back to when Wade and I met, in 1979? Or would it be better to return to October 16, 1983, when we said our vows before a rabbi? I remember how my hand turned radiant after Wade placed the ring on it. But then we didn’t have Gabriel. I wouldn’t want to live without him.
During my musing, I’ve been driving, and have now arrived at our house. I’m telling myself fantasizing won’t solve anything—besides, un-happen isn’t a word—when my teenager runs out, barefoot, to say that our friends the Smiths just called. “They’re coming for Shabbat dinner. Can you make lemon-ginger chicken?”
Following Dr. A’s recommendation, I set up an appointment with my gynecologist. After examining me, Dr. B says, “I didn’t see any red flags in the exam, but let’s get you an ultrasound, to make sure you’re okay.”
A week later, she calls to say that the ultrasound tech “didn’t do a very good job,” so the picture is fuzzy. “However, it did show some fluid in the cul-de-sac between your uterus and rectum.”
“I’ve got a cul-de-sac? Like a dead-end street?”
The doctor laughs with me. But when I ask what caused the fluid, I hit a true dead end.
“I don’t know. But I’ve made you an appointment with a specialist, Dr. C. He’ll do the ultrasound himself, so there won’t be any problems.”
She gives me the date for Dr. C’s ultrasound: A month from now.
The semester starts in a week. I feel exhausted all the time, and the bleeding is getting worse. I call Dr. D, my family doctor, to see if I’m anemic.
“Oh, I doubt dribbling for a month would make you lose much blood,” Dr. D says. “But sure, I’ll test your hemoglobin.” And a few minutes later, she reports, “Just as I thought—everything’s fine. And I see you’ve got an appointment with Dr. C. He’s the best.”
“But I have to wait another three weeks to see him.”
She smiles. “If he’s making you wait, it’s because he thinks your problem’s not serious.”
I’m fifty-five years old, but at this moment, I might as well be three. At the thought of contradicting the doctor, I picture myself as a pathetic, whining kid: but it hurts!
The specialist, Dr. C, tells me I’m fine. “You’ve got a few fibroids, maybe a slight hormonal imbalance. But that’s not what’s making you bleed.”
“What is making me bleed, then?”
“We have to find out. I’m sure it’s nothing serious.”
Those words again. The doctor recommends a dilation and curettage, or D&C. “Very simple, a routine procedure.”
What planet have I landed on, where it’s “simple and routine” to be placed under total anesthesia while a doctor opens up and scrapes my uterus?
“My colleague, Dr. E, can do it,” Dr. C says.
Sept. 16, 2012, a.k.a. Rosh Hashana, beginning of Jewish New Year 5773. At services, I stand between Wade and Gabriel. “Avinu Malkhenu, shema kolenu,” we chant. Our Father, our King, hear our prayer. A Hasidic legend tells us that on this day, the earth rises to the level of heaven. I imagine standing on tiptoes, whispering in God’s ear: “My doctors say I’m fine, but I don’t feel fine.” My belly aches and pulses. The holiday forces me to remember there’s no playing with time. We all petition God to inscribe us in the Book of Life for the coming year. But looking around, I see empty places where friends once sat. I wrap my prayer shawl around my shoulders and sink into the baritone voices of my husband and son.
Dr. E’s office calls to say they’ve scheduled my dilation and curettage for September 26. I look at the calendar, see that day is Yom Kippur, and start to ask for a different date. But then I realize that since the surgery’s not until afternoon, I can attend most of the morning’s services. I write to the rabbi, explaining my situation. He writes back, promising prayers. And the Ritual Committee offers me an Aliyah—the chance to bless the Torah before the cantor reads from the scroll.
On Yom Kippur, I wake refreshed and energized, ready to pray the old melodies with lightness and joy that I’ve not felt in a long time. After the Torah reading, my family and I wave good-bye to the rabbi as we leave the sanctuary.
Dr. E reports that my dilation and curettage was unusually difficult: “Your cervix was so tight, I hardly got any tissue at all. The good news is I’m pretty sure you don’t have cancer. But I’d like to do an endometrial biopsy to be certain.”
I agree to the biopsy; Dr. E. calls a week later.
“The tissue I got looks fine. You don’t have cancer.”
“Positive. Malignant cells are very prominent. When I biopsy someone with cancer, all this brown stuff comes tumbling out.”
I shudder at the complacency with which she paints this horrid picture.
“What about the bleeding?” I ask.
“That’s a mystery. Honestly, Cora, we might never find out why you’re bleeding. Let me think about your case and get back to you.”
As much as I like to play with time, I make an effort not to wish my life away. In college, we tended to live from one break to the next. We’d just gotten back from winter vacation when my freshman roommate Diana said, “It’s only two months till spring break!”
I did not tell her my thoughts: following spring break, it was only six weeks till summer, and from there, just four years till graduation, forty till retirement, and just a little while before we get to die.
Now, with the pain and bleeding, I can’t help wishing away work days. Teaching exhausts me. The only part of the day I enjoy is my bedtime ritual. It starts with a bath. The warm water uncramps my gut, washes away the blood. After the bath, I plug in my heating pad and lie down beside Wade. We hold each other and watch something innocuous on TV. Often, Gabriel joins us. I’ve gotten to love the Home and Garden Channel. People choose and buy houses. Sometimes they fix the houses up. No one is sick or in pain. Often, the houses are located in lovely places, like Hawaii.
A week after my biopsy, Dr. E phones. “I’ve thought about your case. You have two options.”
Option 1 is a second D&C, this time using a camera called a hysteroscope, so the doctor can pinpoint the exact location of my problem and remove the cause.
“Option 2 is an ablation,” Dr. E tells me. “It means removing the lining of the uterus. Take a few days to decide which you prefer.”
I research the web and talk to Wade. In the end, I tell the doctor I choose the D&C, the less aggressive procedure. Why rip apart my uterus when I don’t know what’s causing the problem?
“But a D&C isn’t one of your choices,” the doctor says. “It didn’t work last time!”
“But you said you’d use a camera—”
“I don’t think so,” says Dr. E. “Your options are an ablation or a hysterectomy.”
My breath stops. Could I have gotten this wrong? Yet surely I’d remember if she’d said hysterectomy. The word sends a chill through my body. How can this doctor suggest removing my uterus or its lining without knowing what my problem is? And how can I trust her with my body if I can’t trust her to remember her own words?
I have no idea what to do next. But the bleeding and cramping keep getting worse. I’ve got to do something.
I hear about a therapist offering a workshop for people with chronic and/or terminal diseases. I figure three months qualifies my problem as chronic and sign up.
“You are in charge of your healing,” James, the therapist, tells us. He does not say to distrust doctors or medicine, but rather that each of us should stand vigil over our health professionals, since we are the experts on our bodies.
“Get a second, third, and fourth opinion,” James advises. “Use different types of healing. When my wife had cancer, she worked with Western doctors but also consulted an acupuncturist.”
I tell James I don’t have the strength to do what he suggests. He says that’s the hard part—no one with a chronic disease has energy. “But have your current doctors helped you?”
“Then you need to fight.”
I go back to Dr. D and ask her to recommend another gynecologist, and she refers me to Dr. F. I send Dr. F my chart, now two inches thick, along with a note detailing the past four months.
“How terrible!” Dr. F tells me during our consultation. “I’m so sorry you’re going through this.”
I heave a sigh of relief, hold back tears of gratitude. She’s the first of my doctors to express empathy.
After looking at my record, Dr. F asks two questions: “When Dr. C performed your ultrasound, why didn’t he use a contrast dye? And when Dr. E did the endometrial biopsy and D&C, she got no tissue, or as good as none. How can she say you don’t have cancer?”
“Do you think I have it?”
I remember the day I learned about this disease, in seventh-grade science.
“When a person gets cancer, some of their cells go bad and start to kill the good cells,” Mr. Ringel, the science teacher, told us. “More and more cells turn cancerous. The process doesn’t stop until the host is dead.”
Host? A host welcomes guests. How can we use the same word for a body invaded by rogue cells? And am I now harboring this illness that killed my grandparents and later struck my mother and her siblings?
“You’re probably okay,” the doctor says. “But if you were my patient and I had such little data, I would not feel safe assuming you didn’t have it.”
The doctor recommends another D&C. Since she no longer performs surgery, she refers me to her colleague, Dr. G.
Dr. G can’t see me until December 19—a month away. When he finally examines me, he concurs that my uterus is enlarged and a second D&C is warranted.
“Good. Can we do it this week?”
“Unfortunately, my schedule is packed, and with the holidays, we’re short-staffed through New Year’s. I can schedule you for January 9.”
I bristle at his banalities: schedule packed, holidays.
Dec. 22. A bunch of us are grouped around the breakfast bar at friend’s Christmas party. A skinny, bespectacled guy, a friend of the hosts, says, “Did I ever tell you how I killed my first patient?”
We all prick up our ears.
“So, anyway,” Dr. Skinny-Bespectacled says, “I’m twenty-five, I’m a resident, and I’m a real idiot, you know? They’ve got me paired up with this other newbie, Fred. They send us in to—I dunno, do something to the oxygen tube on this guy—the guy was thirty years old and dying of cancer, right? A real tragedy. So anyway, no one tells us how to do this thing, we’re both falling over ourselves, then all of a sudden, Fred says, ‘I think he stopped breathing.’ It was awful. Now you’ve gotta bear in mind that this guy probably wouldn’t have lived much longer, anyway—”
In my head, something kills the volume on the conversation. All I hear are doctors’ voices: Cora Schenberg’s death was a terrible tragedy. But of course, she’d have died anyway.
If offered a wish now, I’d ask for time to speed up. I want the surgery done. But time has slowed to a standstill. It creeps toward Christmas, fa-la-bleeping-la. My family and I hide away from the stores, the hysteria. Wade and I are too tired to throw our usual Hanukah party. On Dec. 31, we’re all asleep before midnight.
January 8, 2013. The night before surgery, the cramping increases. It feels as if something is fighting to get out of my belly. In the morning, I’m filled with relief as we drive to the hospital.
Wade is waiting when they bring me back from the OR.
“The doctor just left. He wasn’t able to complete the surgery.”
“He said he got in there and nothing looked like in the ultrasound. He was afraid he’d punctured your uterus and gone into a false channel.”
I don’t know whether to cry or curse. False channel. Cul-de-sac. My body is not a road!
“So what’s next?” I ask Wade.
“The doctor’s going to consult with some colleagues and call you on Monday morning.”
Dr. G does not call on Monday morning. That afternoon, I ring his office. The receptionist tells me he’s out of town. Which words to choose so that this woman will hear me and make sure the doctor gets my message?
“I was in menopause for four years,” I say. “Six months ago, I started bleeding. It keeps getting heavier, and I’m in constant pain.”
“It would really help me to know the doctor’s plans.”
Tuesday morning, Dr. G is still out of town. I leave another message.
By Wednesday morning, I’m desperate. I’ve had to buy yet another family-size box of feminine hygiene product. I know it will just make things worse if I call and yell at the receptionist.
The phone rings; it’s Dr. G. After apologizing for his long silence, he says, “I just got your report back from the pathology lab, and I’m afraid the news isn’t the best.”
Wade steps into the room just as I repeat the doctor’s next word: malignancy.
“You’re saying it’s cancer. What kind? What stage?”
“We don’t know. It’s in your uterus or your cervix, maybe your ovaries. I was surprised there was enough tissue for them to find anything. We’re sending you to the cancer center at the University Hospital. They’ll take care of you from now on.”
I hang up the phone, run into Wade’s arms. I try to feel the warmth of his body, but I’m frozen in panic. I think of all the months wasted, going from doctor to doctor. I remember my friend Mary, who developed symptoms like mine years ago. Mary’s doctor diagnosed her with fibroids, prescribed a painkiller, and said to come back every six months for monitoring. One day, a mutual friend called to say Mary had cancer. Rather than presenting, Mary’s cancer had slunk in silently and set up camp. Free from a doctor’s intervention, the twisted cells multiplied until they pushed past the walls of her uterus and laid claim to Mary’s lungs, heart, and back. She was dead six months later.
“I hope those doctors haven’t killed me,” I say, into Wade’s shoulder. I suddenly remember a cartoon the New Yorker ran just after Mary died. It showed a doctor in a lab coat, doing a silly dance. The caption showed what the patient on the exam table was saying: “Sounds like dance? No, dancer! Cancer! I’ve got cancer!” At the time, I wondered if Mary would find this cartoon funny or think it the most tasteless thing in the world. Since I wasn’t that patient, I thought it wasn’t up to me to say. But now I am that patient, and I hope Mary laughed, because I think that cartoon’s funny as hell. I hold Wade, laughing and crying, until it’s time to leave for work.
February 5, 2013. The instant I meet my oncologist, Dr. Cantrell, time speeds up. Dr. Cantrell looks no older than twenty-five. A slender woman with a brown ponytail and a big, toothy grin, she shakes my hand with a strong grip. After hearing my story, she says, “I’m so sorry you had to go through that. Sometimes even very good docs miss these things. Now, the first thing we need for you is an MRI.”
“When?” I ask, expecting the usual wait.
“When do you get done teaching this afternoon?”
Dr. Cantrell turns to her nurse, Peggy. “Schedule Ms. Schenberg for an MRI after 2:30 today.”
Noticing my expression of disbelief, she grins. “You’ll find things move pretty fast around here.”
A week later, Dr. Cantrell calls with my results.
“Your ovaries and cervix are fine; the cancer’s in your uterus. I recommend a hysterectomy. Can you clear your schedule for surgery on Tuesday?”
“I’ll call my boss now. How much bed rest will I need?”
“Most people go back to work in a few days.”
“In most cases, I make a couple of tiny incisions, about a quarter-inch long, then I can remove the uterus vaginally. It comes out like a baby.”
No! I want to protest. Not like a baby. My baby filled me with awe. My baby did not try to kill me.
“Now, sometimes,” Dr. Cantrell continues, “the uterus gets enlarged from inflammation. If it’s too large to remove vaginally, I’ll have to make an incision. That recovery can take four-to-six weeks.”
I say nothing to this, my head still swimming
Before hanging up, Dr. Cantrell teaches me three new words: Endometrioid. FIGO. Clear cell.
After surgery, she’ll order a pathology report. If I have endomitrioid, FIGO grade 1 or 2, my tumor will be classified as slow-growing and non-aggressive, and require no treatment beyond the hysterectomy. However, if clear cell cancer—grade 3—is present, I’ll need chemo and radiation, too.
“Clear cell,” I repeat. These words sound so innocuous. But on second thought, clear cells would be the undetectable kind that sneaks up on an unsuspecting host.
Gabriel joins Wade and me in our bedroom as we watch television.
“Mom,” he says, “I know you don’t want to make this cancer thing public. But is it okay if I talk to my really good friends?”
“Of course,” I tell him. “I’m taken care of. You and Dad need all the support you can get.”
February 12, 2013. The orderly wheels my stretcher into the operating room, where Dr. Cantrell, already wearing her mask, greets me with a hug. Waiting for the anesthesia to work, I place my hands on my lower belly, murmur a silent good-bye to my womb.
I wake to whispers. Someone repeats one word several times before I realize it’s my name and look toward the speaker.
“Your surgery went well,” Dr. Cantrell says. “It looks like stage 1—no sign that the cancer spread. I’ll get your pathology report back in a week or so.”
“Unfortunately, I had to make an incision. It’ll take a bit longer to heal, but you’re in great shape. You’ll be fine.”
Flowers, care packages, and cards are waiting when Wade brings me home from the hospital. Gabriel hands me a stuffed penguin he and Wade got me at the hospital gift shop. Friends from the synagogue tell me I’m on the prayer list and ask when they can come by. My sister Kathy arrives to visit and shop and cook for us.
A week later, Dr. Cantrell phones.
“Cora, I’ve got your report.”
“Good news, Doctor?”
“Remember I told you about those three kinds of tumors? I’m afraid you’ve got clear cell–a grade-three.”
The room turns sepia. I struggle to find my voice. “What happens next?”
“We’ll give you time to heal, then, if you agree to it, we’ll start chemo and radiation.”
“How come I need both?”
“This is all based on studies. The latest ones show that when the cancer returns, it usually comes back to the same site. So we radiate that area, to kill any cancer cells the surgery might have missed.”
“And the chemo?”
“The chemo will get any cancer that might have spread into your system. I know I’ve given you a lot to think about. Take a few days to decide what you want to do. Call if you’ve got questions. I’ll support any decision you make.”
Wade, Gabriel, and I sit around the table, not speaking. I try and fail to feel the warmth of their presence or register the soft light from the lamp above the table.
Dr. Cantrell teaches me more new words. The radiation she prescribes is called brachytherapy–placing the radiating source near the former site of my tumor. She explains that with the radiation confined to a small area, I shouldn’t expect side-effects. Yet what I hear in the sound of “brachy” is “break” and “broken.”
I have to train my mouth to get around the words Carboplatin and Paclitaxel, the chemo drugs Dr. Cantrell would use. Their syllables feel arbitrarily thrown together, like bad architecture. Dr. Cantrell does not hide the fact that chemo is poison. While it kills cancer, it also attacks other fast-growing cells, like those in the stomach lining and hair follicles. It wipes out both red and white blood cells, disabling the immune system. I’m reminded of generals who hire mercenaries—thuggish louts who wreak havoc, but get the job done. I sign off on both the chemo and radiation.
February 25, 2013. I’m off from work for at least another month. The chemo and radiation won’t start till April. Meanwhile, healing takes place in the silence that fills our house when Wade and Gabriel leave for work and school. I depend on my body to tell me when to eat, sleep, poke my nose outside for air, and sleep again. From my rocking chair in the living room, I take in butter-yellow walls, a glass-fronted bookshelf holding our favorites, and three cats asleep on the sofa.
I don’t yet know that in September, when my family and I join the congregation for Rosh Hashanah, I will be pain-free, my scar a faint line. That Dr. Cantrell will call me her star patient and say to come back in four months instead of three, since everything looks so good. For the moment, I’m content not to know this. To let time to do what it does, without expanding or contracting, speeding up or slowing down. I’m grateful to rock in my chair, as the winter sun strengthens.
Note: Some names and physical characteristics have been changed to protect privacy.
CORA SCHENBERG’s work has appeared in Brain,Child, Utne Reader, the Delmarva Review, C-ville Weekly, and The Hook; she has also read essays on WVTF radio (NPR Roanoke) and had three plays produced in Charlottesville’s Live Arts Theater (Summer Shorts Festival). She holds a Ph.D. in German literature from the University of Virginia, where she currently teaches.
It’s a cement and gray-brick structure, unnaturally square, six stories of uniformly tinted windows, compartmentalized and looming large over the winding driveway. Wide, sliding glass doors open onto a pale foyer large enough to park several ambulances. On the right, busy administrators in matching navy-blue jackets sit behind a registration desk; on the left, a café with odors staler than the bodily smells upstairs in the wards. An unused staircase hugs the wall as visitors and faceless figures in teal-green pyjamas crowd the elevators. Blue and silver signs point toward mysteriously withdrawing wings named after equally mysterious benefactors. The ceiling is speckled with plate-sized pot-lights casting a ghostly glow that leaves no shadow along the grey corridors.
It could be any hospital anywhere in the world. A monument to Marie Curie. But this one is in Bangalore, India—where my family and I have lived for the last year and a half—squeezed into a parcel of land between a shopping mall, a community college, and a housing estate all served by a dusty four-lane highway that connects the airport to the center of town. Outside, the road is lined with crumbling pavement and idling auto-rickshaws; inside, it’s eerily absent of indistinguishable announcements or “Code-Reds,” and everybody seems unusually comfortable being there. Both inside and out, like on any Indian street, there are people everywhere.
Never has a hospital seemed so frighteningly familiar yet shaded with a disquieting foreignness. Not the most comforting scenario in which to bring my unwell son.
He’s scheduled for an endoscopy, admittedly not the most intrusive of procedures but not without concern considering the involvement of general anaesthesia. The source of his debilitating stomach aches needs to be found, now several years—and three hospitals in as many countries—after the pains first surfaced.
A few weeks earlier, the scan and blood tests all came back normal. Six months prior, we’d eliminated gluten from his diet, before that dairy. Four years ago, we ruled out IBS and Crohn’s. The endoscopy should show us, once and for all, what we are dealing with.
How many possible conclusions could be left, I wonder?
Like many people, I have a natural inclination to find blame whenever the opportunity presents itself. If I can’t (or won’t) admit responsibility, then I can at least outsource it. The soup shouldn’t have been so hot; poorly-poured cement caused me to stumble on the sidewalk; the teacher withheld vital information—that’s why I failed the exam. Surely someone is to blame.
What about my empty bank account? Gimpy knee? Lack of a publishing contract? Most days I can spin it so that these gray areas tilt more definitively toward the black or the white. Not my fault.
Got cancer? It must be because of the polluted drinking water, unsavory lifestyle, or bad habits. But what if the disease should find random homes in healthy, rural-dwelling, non-smoking, teetotal vegetarians? Or children? Who do I blame then?
Some people insist everything happens for a reason. Others believe that we are all at the mercy of fate. All I know is that when you’ve been as close to cancer as I have, you stop looking for the smoking gun.
If my son, Myles, were to climb the two branches of his family tree, he’d discover signs of cancer before he reached the first bifurcation. From my side, he inherits the genes that betrayed my father and my aunt. On the other side, the woman that brought him into this world was taken by cancer before Myles was old enough to know who she was.
If my son gets cancer, I need look for blame no further than to the disease itself.
When Myles was still just a grainy, faceless pre-human on an ultrasound scan, he was exposed to a cocktail of drugs aimed at reducing the accelerating tumor in his mother’s left breast. With the information available to the team of specialists at the time, they determined that the mild course of chemotherapy would keep the cancer at bay until the baby was born, after which the treatment would be amplified. By all accounts, the placenta did its job well, filtering out all the invasive chemicals designed to target fast-growing cells. Our unborn baby was all fast-growing cells.
Myles was born healthy and strong and has remained so for the past twelve years. So healthy and strong, in fact, that I’ve often wondered if perhaps the anti-cancer chemicals zapped him with invulnerability to a Marvel Comics degree. As a baby, he’d crawl over gravel without scratching his knees; carrying him through the house, I’d clumsily knock his head against a doorframe without so much as waking him up.
But his superhuman tolerance of injury hasn’t pre-empted any of my fears for his long-term wellbeing. When, at thirteen months, he got his first cold, I thought it must be a symptom of something greater. Headaches, allergic reactions, and bruises must certainly be symptomatic of some malevolent intruder. When he complained of stomach aches, I envisioned the tumor burrowing into his abdominal organs. There could only have been one explanation.
Like most parents, I’d peek into Myles’ crib at night to make sure I heard the comforting whispers of his breath during his sound sleep. Now that he’s nearly a teenager, he still sleeps as soundly and I’m still responsible for waking him up in the morning. But after I unceremoniously swipe the covers off him and open his curtains, what if he doesn’t wake up? What if that malicious interloper has taken him from me during the night?
Farfetched, maybe. But to those of us who have witnessed it, cancer is always there, sitting just over everyone’s shoulder in various personae like those imaginary little angels and devils. But nobody is quite sure which one to listen to.
The word itself looms large in the lexicon of our unconscious as one that dare not be spoken. It is at once sacrosanct and taboo, as if saying the word might somehow curse the person who has it or pass it on to someone within earshot. When people do actually speak the word it is uttered quietly, almost politely so as not to aggravate the temperamental God of Terminal Illnesses. It is inherently self-editing, the harsh sound of the first ‘c’ muted by the disapproving sibilance of the second one. “Comeheregoaway,” it says in a radio-static whisper.
When Myles’ mother died, the cancer remained. It floated around me like steam from a boiling kettle. It nosed its way between the pages of my book and under my pillow. It hid between the floorboards or behind my cereal bowl. Sometimes it hung from the wall like a giant tapestry and sometimes it sat lazily in the teaspoon jar. It never taunted or pointed its ugly finger. It didn’t have to.
Through it all I manned the tollbooth at the edge of the cancer highway. Everything had to get through me first: the flowers in a beautiful garden were muted, grayer as seen through my eyes; the conversation that made me laugh was not quite as funny after I hung up the phone; good news was soured, bad news inconsequential. The world was cancer-coloured.
Time has healed the grief, but cancer lingers like dirt under my fingernails. It makes me wonder who the real cancer victim is.
“Dad, I’m nervous,” Myles says after changing into the unflattering hospital gown.
“There’s nothing to be nervous about, Superman.” I try to take heed of my own advice. Until the final results of the endoscopy are in, nervousness is the least of my worries. Besides, I can’t let my son know that there is any risk or discomfort involved in Dr. Dinesh sliding a camera down his throat. Myles will be asleep the entire time.
“But they’ll have to give me a needle,” he says, sitting patiently with his bare toes curled against the freezing floor tiles. “That’s gonna hurt.” I long for the days when the thing I feared most was a prickly jab in my hand.
I wait in the under-stocked, over-priced hospital café, nursing a cup of tea and clinging to my son’s glasses while he’s put to sleep and his insides are probed by the latest inhuman instruments offered by medical technology. I wonder if Dr. Dinesh is looking at the rapidly-growing tumor in my son’s stomach, trying to determine the best course of action before breaking the news to the patient’s father. I plan ahead, ensuring I’m aware of all nearby doorknobs and railings lest I require something to break my fall as I faint after hearing the doctor’s report.
Within an hour I am at Myles’ bedside in the recovery room, holding his hand and counting the blips on the heart monitor. I recall the day of his birth, two weeks earlier than we’d expected, when I sat by the incubator for three hours with the same pings and peeps providing the soundtrack to the Cinemascopic vision that was my new son. Six months later, another hospital where his mother lay dying attached to another monitor. The only benefit of Myles being so young at the time was that I didn’t have to explain to him what flat-lining meant. The sensation never withers, especially when I’m forced to revisit the scenario.
The smoking gun.
Let’s assume that there is no such thing as randomness; that we are forced to bear things like disease and anguish because our predestined fortunes have demanded it of us. If this were so, I might welcome my fate while condemning it at the same time. I might still find blame in circumstance or poor choices while gladly laying guilt with God or the Devil. Someone must be at fault.
But life doesn’t work that way. At least mine doesn’t. No god I’d be inclined to pray to would allow the kind of physical or emotional suffering I’ve seen some people endure. Why would any benevolent source allow itself to be culpable for something that unwittingly assaults people from the inside and lingers immortally in the minds of those who have witnessed it? There is nobody and nothing to which I can point the finger.
Randomness is all around me. From the car that turns the corner as I’m trying to cross the street to running into an old friend at a movie theatre to the pulled muscle in my back. From there, anything can happen; it’s the Sliding Doors syndrome. I choose to believe that we can only prepare for so much; that considering all of the careful choices we make, we are not in as much control of our lives as we might think. Sometimes life just happens to us.
I worry because I am a father; because I am human. I worry because I anticipate the hissing tongue of cancer to taunt me again without warning. I hope for the best and anticipate the worst. I keep my eye on the roulette wheel’s persistent silver ball lest it fall arbitrarily on my number.
When someone I love exercises their hyperbolic prerogative to illustrate a point, I am often short-fused.
“It’s so hot … I’m dying.”
“You’re not dying.”
“No, but … I mean …”
“You’re not dying.”
I don’t cut people much slack. It’s a figure of speech—I get that. Besides, we’re all going to die some day. But I’ve become a hypochondriac by proxy, convinced that all my loved ones will die around me while I remain here to live without them.
Five interminable days after the endoscopy, the results, including tissue biopsies, return normal. No ulcers. No abnormalities. No cancer. The only imaginable explanation for the stomach aches, according to Dr. Dinesh, is a minor hiatal hernia, which many people tolerate without ever suffering from any pain, and slightly raised stomach acid. Eventually, he suggests, Myles will outgrow the excruciating interludes completely.
It’s the good news we’d hoped for. We’ve dodged the bullet. Just a stomach ache. My irrational fears have been soothed once more, and I will myself to be patient until the day we say goodbye to these episodes altogether. Hopefully this is the last time we see the inside of an Indian hospital. Or any hospital.
I don’t consider how bad the outcome could have been until the next morning when I pull the blankets off my son’s sleeping body and wait for him to stir. Short-lived relief bolsters me for another day.
JON MAGIDSOHN, originally from Toronto, Canada, has been featured in The Guardian, The Bangalore Mirror,Brevity,Hippocampus, Full Grown People, Chicago Literati, and currently publishes three blogs. He’s also written about fatherhood for dadzclub.com, The Good Men Project and Today’s Parent magazine. He has an MA in Creative Nonfiction from City University, London. Jon’s memoir, Immortal Highway: Songs From the Healing Tour, is currently crowdfunding toward publishing in September, 2015. Rewards include a copy of Full Grown People: Greatest Hits, Volume One. www.jonmagidsohn.com
How can you be mad at someone who’s dying of cancer? It helps if you don’t yet know she’s dying, if you think the doctors are just trying one more thing. It helps if she is your mother and if she’s just driven you crazy your whole life, but insists on a kind of love that leaves you unable to breathe and sick to your stomach from her phone calls or from the mere thought of her visiting you or you visiting her. It helps if she is obsessed with you, her only child, because she believes God sent you to her teenage self to love her since no one else did. It helps if she pours her whole life into you, but you never asked her to, and you would have rather she not, just so you could fucking breathe and dress conservatively and keep the pasta separate from the sauce and breastfeed your baby and buy organic, without her judging you from the valley of her insecurities.
All of that helps you to get mad at someone who is dying of cancer, especially when she doesn’t seem to be doing everything she possibly can to keep herself alive.
“The church was selling fish dinners today.”
“You shouldn’t be eating fried foods.”
“Oh, girl. I pulled the fried part off.”
But what about fruits and vegetables? Whole grains? But I know the answer to that. Cancer is no match for five decades of emotional and cultural eating. So I shut my mouth because the last time I tried to talk about what was broken in me-her-us, she accused me of always using “big words and psychological terms,” when in fact I had used no words larger than, “I can’t do this with you anymore. I’m calling a cab, and I’m leaving.” My college education and my intellect were apparently weapons I wielded to intimidate her. One day out of the blue when I was in my thirties, she said, “I finally found the word to describe the way you made me feel your whole life: intimidated.”
I think the problem started when I was born. My mother said, “I thought you were going to be dark like me with chinky eyes and wavy hair. Like a doll.” Alas, I was born medium-brown, bald, with huge eyes not associated with a racial slur. “Your eyes were so big that for the longest time, they would just roll around because you couldn’t focus them,” my mother said. “I burst into tears when I saw you. And your hands were so tiny. Until you got pregnant, I always thought that meant you wouldn’t be able to have kids.”
Please don’t ask me to explain that last part. I have no idea what my hands and my fertility have to do with each other. I do know that I wasn’t what my mom was expecting. She wanted a dark chocolate doll that would grow up to make the same choices she would have made if she’d had the dolls’ options in life. A doll that liked all the same things she liked—bright-colored clothing, the right amount of condiments and paprika in her potato salad, makeup.
Oh, the makeup! So when I was in the eighth grade and about to turn thirteen, many of the girls in my grade wanted to wear makeup. About half their mothers allowed them to. The other half made up their faces in the bathroom at school in the morning and scrubbed it off at some point before getting on the bus at the end of the day. Lucky me, I had one of those makeup-permitting mothers. Unlucky for her, she had a daughter who couldn’t give two shits about makeup. It just seemed to me like a lot of effort and for no good reason. But as my thirteen birthday approached, my mom was stuck on the idea that a cute little pouch filled with my own cosmetics would make the perfect gift. Meanwhile, a stack of V. C. Andrews books was my idea of the perfect gift. But according to my mother, that wasn’t a “real” gift. To hell with the fact that this was my birthday. She was determined to get me a real gift and it would be makeup.
“I don’t want makeup. But thank you.”
“Don’t you remember how nice you looked at James’ wedding when I let you wear makeup?” I had been eleven when my uncle, my mom’s younger brother, got married, and while I hadn’t been made up against my will, I hadn’t asked for makeup.
“Yes, but I don’t want to wear makeup. Thank you, though.”
“But why not?”
“Because … just because I don’t.”
“Well, I wish my mama had let me wear makeup when I was your age.”
But. I’m. Not. You.
“I don’t want to wear makeup.”
“No, really. You should,” my mother said, fixing her eyes hard on me. “You should.”
And it was that last “you should” that did it. I don’t mean that I relented; I didn’t start wearing makeup regularly until around eleventh grade. But that “you should” crushed me. It crushed the microscopic part of me that dared to think that my “big for her age” self was maybe kinda a little bit cute and sort of not too fat. “You should” meant that makeup would make me look better, more presentable, less homely, more like I belonged to my gorgeous mother.
My mother was one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen. I actually preferred her without makeup. Her beauty didn’t need any help. She had a glorious ’fro when glorious ’fros were in, the first time around. And her smile … My Lord. The woman had perfect lips and perfect teeth, and together, they were brilliant. And until loneliness, depression, and her changing metabolism took its toll, my mother had what folks back then called a “brick house” figure, so named for the popular R&B song by The Commodores.
“You should” was my mother’s go-to tactic for shaming me into liking what she liked, and caring about what she cared about. As in, I should care what people would think of me if I didn’t dress or carry myself a certain way, i.e., like her. My mother cared a lot about appearances, literally. Overwhelmed by mother’s obsession with how others might find me lacking, I became ten times more self-conscious than your typical self-conscious teen. It was debilitating, and I was damn-near thirty-five years old before I realized that most people didn’t size me up critically the minute I entered a room; they were probably too busy trying to get free of their own mother-induced neuroses to care if my clothes were wrinkled or how my hair looked.
Twenty or so birthdays later, and a few years into my mother’s cancer diagnosis, I finally got up the nerve to tell her how much that “you should” had hurt and how I had carried that hurt into adulthood and how her shaming me over the years had contributed to us not having the kind of relationship she said she wanted us to have.
Her response? “Huh. I don’t remember that at all.”
Which is why I shouldn’t have been surprised by her reaction later to the whole stolen ring thing, which became Reason #14 Why You Might Be Mad at Someone With Cancer.
But before I get into that, this is the part where I pause to make sure you don’t think my mother was a horrible person or a bad mother. She was neither of those things. This is important and needs to be said because we don’t allow mothers to have done some shitty things in the course of their parenting career and still get credit for the good they did. In our cultural consciousness, either mothers are saints or we’re driving our minivan full of kids into the river. And in the final tally of who I am because of my mother, I believe she did far more good than harm. She was a loving mother who sacrificed for me, and I always knew that my needs and many of my wants were her priority. If I am generous, hard-working, hospitable, responsible, and a person of integrity, I owe it in large part to my mother’s example and guidance. Even in her flaws, she had raised me to do as she said, not as she did.
She also raised me, ironically enough, to speak up for myself. But I guess she just intended for me to do this at school and with other people besides her. At any rate, this knack for being my own advocate came in handy in sophomore year of high school when I got straight A’s for the first three grading quarters, and then all A’s and a B in gym class in the last quarter. I was livid. How dare the gym teacher, of all people, fuck up my 4.0!
I went to see the girls’ dean of students who had taken me under her wing, but she wasn’t in her office that day. Another administrator was there and she did her best to calm me down. She listened as I rattled off all the reasons that this B was some bullshit. Ultimately, my grade didn’t get changed, but what did happen is that this administrator remembered me and my righteous indignation. So a month or so later, when our local Congressman’s office contacted her to recommend a rising junior who was mature and academically talented enough to spend the first half of the coming school year living and working on Capitol Hill as a page in the U.S. House of Representatives, this administrator recommended me.
The day I was due to arrive at the page dorm also happened to be my sixteenth birthday. My mother had been eager for this day for many years, because it would also be the day that she gave me one of her prized possessions: a gold ring shaped like a rose with a stone at the center of it that may or may not have been a diamond. When I was five, a guy she had dated had given her this ring. I knew from overhearing my mom’s conversations with friends that this guy was a thief. And yet, for eleven years my mother had worn this ring and gushed to me about how when I turned sixteen, this stolen property would be mine, and then one day, I would give it to my daughter (if I had one … you know, with my small hands and all), and my daughter would give it to her daughter…
This was my mother’s attempt to create a family heirloom. But the things that my mother gave me that I want to pass on to my daughters can’t be placed in a ring box, or any box. They are things of spirit and heart. But my mother didn’t treasure these gifts. When she was dying, I told her how much I treasured them, but that only added to her grief that she had, in her words, “wasted so much time on us, on things that didn’t really matter.”
But she didn’t have that insight in 1987. So, as ceremoniously as you can be in the page dorm, my mother presented me with the ring. I acted excited because I knew that that was what she wanted, but all I kept thinking was, “This ring was stolen.” And I wore the ring for exactly sixteen years and nine months.
The day I took the ring off and never wore it again, I was in Florida with my kids, visiting my mother. About four years earlier, she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. When she had called to tell me, I’d been a few months into a self-imposed hiatus from her. I’d finally decided that I couldn’t take her guilt trips and criticisms of my life and choices anymore. I needed a break from her. I told her not to call or email me, and not to expect to hear from me. Indefinitely. I can’t remember what the straw was that broke the camel’s back, but I do remember that a year or so before the hiatus, she’d sent me a pair of burgundy jeans (she was always sending me clothes that I never wore) and got upset when I said that I hadn’t worn them and had no intention of wearing them because I’d asked her countless times to stop sending me clothes 1) because I was an adult, and 2) because the clothes she sent weren’t my style. “But your style is boring!” she’d said. And this was the argument in which she denied ever being critical of me.
So. Something else happened after that, and I decided to take a break from her. And then she got the cancer diagnosis, and fuck. So I ended the hiatus and learned everything I could about cancer and how we could save her life. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I couldn’t save her life; I couldn’t even get her to change her eating habits. So I began to mourn her while she was still alive.
June 7, 2005, was a ridiculously hot day in Jacksonville, Florida, which is saying a lot. But my mom wanted to take my daughters to the zoo during our week-long visit, and I agreed, even though I wasn’t really up for it. My mother had told me that her doctors were going to try one more treatment, but they weren’t sure if they could do anything else for her after that. My beloved grandmother, who had helped my mom raise me, had died from ovarian and colon cancer that January. I was in the middle of a separation, heading to divorce. And the last thing I wanted to do was spend the day out in the heat. Needless to say, I was miserable, but of course my mother wanted to invite a drunken neighbor and her grandson to go with us to the zoo. In the monkey habitat, the neighbor kept screaming at the monkeys to shut up. I wanted to push her into the tiger pit.
On the ride home, my period started, just to cap off such a glorious day. I had to stop off at CVS. I left my mom and my kids in the air-conditioned rental SUV, so that I could at least be alone in the store. I picked up what I needed and stood in line. Someone behind me tapped me on the shoulder.
“Excuse me, but you just cut in front of me in the line.”
“Oh, my god! I’m so sorry!” I said to the woman behind me. And when I said this, I grabbed the edge of the counter because I thought I would faint. How had I missed this entire line of people?
The woman looked down at my hand and said, “What a beautiful ring!”
It was the stolen rose ring my mother had given me. “Oh. Thank you,” I said.
The woman continued. “You know, I had a ring just like that. Back in the ’70s. I bought it with my very first paycheck, but …”
No. No. Nononononono.
“…somebody broke into my apartment and stole it.”
“Oh. Well…My mother gave me this one…”
I wanted to go outside and drag my mother out of that SUV and… And what? She had cancer. How can you be mad with someone who has cancer?
I thought about giving the woman the ring. “Here’s your ring, ma’am. My mother suffers from some kind of condition that made her think that not only accepting a stolen ring as a gift was a good idea, but that she should also give it to me to pass down through the generations of our family. Please understand.”
But I couldn’t risk getting arrested.
I felt like shit. I felt like shit and I hadn’t done anything wrong.
Except accept stolen property.
From my mother.
But it was only because I didn’t want her to feel bad.
The woman kept chatting about how she’d lived in Jacksonville until the early ’80s but then moved to Dallas where she was a nurse (I think). She was home visiting her mother, who, as it turned out, had cancer. I told her that my mother also had cancer, and we gave each other that knowing “Fuck cancer” look. And then she let me go ahead of her anyway in the check-out line and wished my mother well. I wished her mother well too and then headed back to the SUV.
“There was a woman in there in the check-out line who saw the ring you gave me, and it turns out your boyfriend stole it from her all those years ago. It was her ring!”
“Hmmm,” my mother said. “Small world.”
A little over two weeks later, I was back home in Pittsburgh when I got the call that my mother had been hospitalized. She was in so much pain that the doctors didn’t expect her to survive the night. But she did, and when I arrived the next day, having caught the first flight I could after getting my kids situated with their dad, I went straight to the hospital. When I walked into her room, my mom’s best friend was there, and my mom beamed at her and said, “Oh, look! Deesha came!”
As if there had been a question of whether I would or not, continuing the pity narrative that my mother had kept up amongst her friends that I was just too busy with my own life to be concerned about her. I found out later, after she’d died, that she had known her cancer was at stage 4 for several months before telling me. She had told everyone but me. But she didn’t tell her friends that she hadn’t told me. So when they asked why I hadn’t come down to see her, she’d say, “Oh, you know … she’s just so busy with her own life.” So of course I looked like an asshole of a daughter, and everyone felt extra sorry for my mother because she had cancer and an asshole for a daughter.
In the two months I spent in Jacksonville when my mom was dying, I had to contend with people thinking I’d been a negligent daughter, while also tending to all of my mother’s complicated affairs and trying to see my kids whenever their dad was able to fly them down to me. My kids were six-and-a-half and one-and-a-half at the time.
My ex had known me, and by extension, my mother, since I was eighteen years old. He knew better than anyone how much grief my relationship with my mother had caused me over the years. When she had contacted him behind my back during the hiatus, hoping to make a surprise visit for my birthday … during the fucking hiatus … my then-husband had gently explained why that would be a terrible idea. “It’s like when you hold a bar of soap in the shower,” he’d told her. “If you hold on too tightly, the soap will slip away.”
And I had slipped away from my mother, long before she slipped away from me in death. But then I came back, in the ways that I could, in the time that she had left. On a yellow legal pad, I made long lists of things she wanted and things she wanted done after her death. How to distribute the vast contents of her costume jewelry collection, who to give the canned goods in her pantry. A big party at the hospice center for her and a hundred of her closest friends. Directions to pay her best friend’s utility bills for a year. Permission to give her brothers absolutely nothing since, in her estimation, she had given them enough money already over the years because she’d felt guilty telling them “no.”
“Don’t let them or anyone make you feel guilty for doing what you want to do,” my mother told me. “Live your life.”
I had waited my whole life to hear those words from my mother. I ached that they came too late for us to both fully enjoy the aftermath together, but I’m so very glad they came. Her words freed me.
My mother was lucid for most of her time in hospice. And not just lucid, but often hilarious. There was that a-hundred-person party at the hospital adjacent to the hospice center. My mother insisted on doing her own make-up and having a decorative cover for her colostomy bag. Someone alerted the local news, and they sent a camera crew and a reporter who asked my mother, “How does this celebration make you feel?”
And my mother, her voice heavy with Dilaudid, said, “Popular.”
And there was that day a childhood friend stopped by. He told my mother that he’d always had a crush on her, growing up. She’d been skinny and asthmatic as a kid, but he thought she was beautiful. “And you still are beautiful,” he told her.
After he left, my mom said to me, “Fine time for him to tell me alla that. But girl, look. I’m on my deathbed, and I still got it goin’ on.”
This is why I felt my mother would not mind how I dressed for her funeral. I had become obsessed with not sweating at the funeral, so I found this cocktail dress, above-the-knee, sleeveless, more “after 5” than “your mother’s funeral.” And I wore backless heels that were anything but conservative. And I think I strutted up to my mother’s casket because you can’t do anything but strut in heels like that.
And I’m pretty sure my critics among my mother’s friends did not approve of my attire, but I didn’t care. I didn’t sweat and I didn’t faint and I survived the day. And I’ve survived the many days since then, knowing that my mother died fully aware of how much I loved her, how much I had always loved her, despite all of the fights and frustration.
I wish that I hadn’t needed my mother’s permission to live my life. I wish that I had just been able to live it and ignore her criticisms, without having to hold her at arm’s length. I wish I had been strong and confident enough in myself to do that while she was alive, instead of having that strength and confidence ushered in by her death.
My mother’s death hasn’t changed what I remember about my relationship with her, but it has caused me to filter the memories through a lens of understanding, gratitude, and humility. I have to show my mother this grace if for no other reason than I hope my own daughters will do the same for me. My mother’s utter obliviousness to her parenting missteps forces me to recognize the likelihood of my own misinterpretation of my parenting actions and intentions. What I see as well-intentioned and helpful, my daughters could very well experience as overbearing and judgmental. What I offer as guidance might feel to them like pressure and shaming. I can’t dictate their experience, and I won’t tell them how to feel. I can only communicate my desire for them to be free to be who they are, even when I can’t relate. And I can keep the lines of communication open so that they can tell me what they need from me in order to thrive, even when it’s hard for me to hear. I can do the very best I can with what I know, which, I believe, is what my mother did.
DEESHA PHILYAW is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer. Along with her ex-husband,, she is the co-founder of co-parenting101.org and the co-author of Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households After Divorce. Her writing has been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and Essence and Bitch magazines. Deesha’s other work includes contributions to anthologies such as Literary Mama: Reading for the Maternally Inclined; When We Were Free to Be: Looking Back at a Children’s Classic and the Difference It Made; Motherhood Memoirs: Mothers Creating/Writing Lives; Just Like a Girl: A Manifesta; Women’s Work; and The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage: True Tales of Food, Family, and How We Learn to Eat.
Nothing is simple. Nothing is pure. Sorrow folds inside the wings of happiness. And, as Louise Bogan says, “At midnight tears run into your ears.”
Late last April, when the fist of winter in Michigan was finally letting go, I sat in my tiny office and received the news that my essay “The Art of Being Born” had been selected for inclusion in The Best American Essays. I let out a little whooping sound that died quickly, and then I bounded into the hall looking for someone to tell. The hall was empty. I took big gulps of air and sighed. I even hit my chest to quiet its banging. Returning to my office, my euphoria began to trouble me. Didn’t I remember how once before, when I was carried away with my own good fortune, I looked through the windows of my dining room and watched as my neighbor’s hospital bed was wheeled out the front door? Roger had died that morning, the morning of my good news.
Nothing is simple, no one emotion comes without the accompaniment of another, the wolf inside the grandmother, the tears running into the ears.
And sure enough I lost my balance.
In those early moments when the trees were finally leafing out and the world seemed warm and green again, I had only happy thoughts. I marveled at how an essay I had written for my daughter, detailing the day of her birth would be making its way to a larger audience. And then something brought me to a halt just as that hospital bed bumping down the front steps of the Gifford’s house had tutored me in the scale of human suffering.
The Saturday evening before Mother’s Day, my daughter called, the Clare whose birth I wrote about in “The Art of Being Born.”
“Could you put the speaker phone on,” she asked, “so I can speak to you and Daddy?” As we moved into the bedroom I thought that she might be calling to tell us she was in love. She’s at the age when it wouldn’t be surprising news.
No, it was nothing like that. She called to tell us she had cancer. I don’t remember what words she said. My head was pounding too loudly to absorb everything she said. She tried to soften the blow, put a positive spin on it. I remember she said, If you have to have cancer, thyroid cancer is the kind to have. She was having a routine physical, and the doctor thought she felt something unusual in the area where the thyroid resides. She didn’t think it was anything, Clare said, but just to be sure, she told Clare to have a biopsy.
Clare joked with her friends that she had goiter, and she hadn’t been in a rush to have the biopsy done. She had just gotten the results a few days ago and they were positive. She did not call us with the news right away, I noted. It had taken a day or two for her to compose herself. She and her doctor felt certain they had caught the cancer early and that the prognosis was good.
Of course, it wasn’t that simple. Her doctor had shielded Clare from the more complicated scenario. And Clare, in turn, shielded us, minimizing her illness at every turn. A few days later, the specialist ordered more biopsies. The cancer wasn’t contained to the thyroid; they hadn’t caught it early, and the removal of the thyroid was no longer going to be enough because the cancer had spread into the lymph nodes in the neck. Now she was going to have to have a radical neck dissection.
Mother’s Day was cold. As if the weather was in concert with my internal revolution, it snowed. A week before when the weather suggested spring, friends had invited my husband and me to ride our bikes to the Potter Park Zoo in Lansing. I wasn’t in any mood to go to the zoo or ride my bike through the snow. I was in shock. We should have bailed on the outing, but we didn’t. I’m not sure why. Unbelievably, we thought it would be easier to go than to cancel. Or maybe we were just frozen. We both felt an obligation to be as positive as Clare was being. I felt her presence in everything I did or didn’t do, and I knew she would be upset if we cancelled.
We went to the zoo with our friends, but we were shaken. I hadn’t been to the zoo in over a decade. Zoos have always been mixed affairs for me. On the one hand, it’s the only way to come into contact with wild animals, to be in their presence for a few moments. On the other, I can’t glory in them for long without thinking about their caged existence, how their world has been shrunk to the size of whatever exhibit that the zoo was able to construct. Each exhibit is accompanied by signage that narrates a sad fate. Almost all the stories are of loss —the word endangered comes up over and over, shocking tales of the disappearance of habitat, poaching, with only the slightest ray of hope that something can be done in time. In time.
The others had moved inside the reptile house. I stood outside the bars of the snow leopard exhibit remembering the last time I had stood there with my children. I wondered if the snow leopard high up on the rock ledge, whose great grey eyes could be seen despite the camouflage by trees and shrubs and dusting of snow, was the same leopard I had seen before, or had that leopard died? I learned Serena is the current resident, born in captivity and fourteen years old, which would make it probable that she was the same snow leopard I remembered. Famously reclusive animals, they don’t come down to preen close to the front of the exhibit where we would be able to see the deep grey and black rosettes on her body and the smaller spots on her head clearly. They hold themselves apart and, as in Yeats’s epitaph, cast a cold eye “on life, on death.”
A child several feet away said to his mother, the animals don’t look happy. And it was true. The Amur tigers in the next exhibit—what was supposed to pass as a range– paced in agitated circles, never settling down. When they looked in my direction, they looked angry, waiting for something that would never come. Just then the snow leopard rose up onto her wide paws, flicked her enormously long tail and leapt from her ledge across the open space to another rock where she landed softly as she must have thousands of times in her fourteen years of captivity.
Shaken, shaken, shaken, that’s what I was. The cold eye of the snow leopard, practiced in a kind of dying every day, was beyond me. There’s nothing like thinking your child is safe and finding she is not and knowing nothing you can do will help. Everyone says this. I will hear it many times in the months to come and it will be true each time. Terrible things happen and we are daily surrounded by the news of them, but this wasn’t a terrible thing happening to someone else—it was happening to my child, the child I had carried inside me and given birth to and held on my chest, the child who had changed my life in every conceivable way, who had made me jump across the abyss and love her.
I had spent much of my early adulthood steadfastly believing I didn’t want children. I had doubts about my fitness as a mother born primarily from having been raised by a mother whose troubles had shaped my life. But as I started to turn away from the damage of my early life, I wanted to make the journey from young woman to mother, a journey, it turns out, that never ends, and decided to risk the free fall of childbirth.
In the last moments of my labor with Clare, she went into distress and I was wheeled into surgery. Despite pleas to stop pushing, I couldn’t and as she crowned my midwife could see what was causing the distress—the umbilical cord had wrapped around Clare’s neck. Each time I pushed, the cord tightened, cutting off her air. The mother knot, child and mother tied together, the essential couple. The midwife’s quick hands undid the cord and set Clare free. For a moment, though, things were complicated, one thing attached to another, life attached to death, nothing simple, nothing pure, one thing turned into another in a blink of an eye. And though that first cord was cut, Clare and I are not severed. There is nothing that undoes me from her even as life undoes itself. Perhaps it would be better to be as practiced in resignation as the snow leopard perched on her allotted rock and not like the tigers who wait for what might never come, but I can’t. I won’t.