A Hard Lesson on Being Human (Pt. 1)
A personal essay on my mother’s battle with cancer and its painful effect on my overactive mind.
It was a frigid Sunday morning in January when I received a phone call from my mother, asking me to come see her. I was irked by her spontaneity, but I had a feeling I needed to cater to her wishes. I was looking forward to lazing around under a blanket, catching up on reading some chapters in my book, and sharing whatever junk food my husband and I were in the mood for that day.
The nagging voice in the back of my mind wouldn’t shut up, repeating that what she needed to see me for was more important.
She told me my younger brother was coming too, that he would pick me up, and drive with me to Queens instead of enduring weekend subway delays and the ten minute walk from the station to her apartment. I recalled she wanted to tell me something over the phone earlier in the week, but kept catching herself or getting interrupted. She insisted on our undivided attention.
I had also been angry with her around that same time, but internally. I was projecting my own insecurities onto her in my journal, blaming her for not making me into a stronger person, holding her responsible for my personality flaws. I’ve since read that entry, and I detest it, but I use it as a reminder to look in the mirror before looking beyond it.
My husband, who was looking forward to our lazy day together, was also a bit cross. He constantly reminded me that I’m enabling her spontaneity by giving in to these requests, that whatever she had to say, she could have said over the phone.
I remember replying, “I’ll be even more pissed if she called me and my brother over just to say ‘I love you,’” because she would do something like that. I wish it turned out that way.
In the car, my brother and I talked about the year to come. At my request, my husband signed me up for a gym membership as a Christmas gift and I was excited to share the news with him because I was so motivated.
“You better not be one of those girls who walks on the treadmill for 5 minutes in front of a heater to work up a sweat for a photo op in front of the mirror,” he said. I laughed.
“No way!” I said. “I’ve been running all this time and now I wanna lift weights and tone.”
He kept making jabs at me, as brothers do, the rest of the way there. I tried asking him what he thought our mother wanted to tell us about, but it felt like it was lodged thoroughly in my throat, like a piece of soaked bread. There was a serious undertone to it, and I grew alarmed thinking about it.
When we got to her apartment, she acted as she normally did. No long hugs and kisses, just the regular amount. She didn’t offer us anything to drink, she just asked us to sit on the couch. Rip the band-aid off.
That nagging voice was right. She told us she had cancer.
And my anger melted away.
I remember sitting there, stone-faced, my hands clasped so tightly together that my nails dug into the tops of my knuckles. She had her surgery scheduled for the end of the month, but it felt eons away.
I didn’t want to cry, because I wanted to show her I was strong enough, to give her confidence that she would beat this. That chemotherapy was not going to happen. That I wasn’t going to see my mother buckle and break before me. I was worried that if I cried in front of her, that somehow the stress from that sight would give the cancer power. That it would spread, metastasize, that it would win.
In that instant, I wanted to call all of the people I loved to tell them. Almost to give them a warning that if I self-destructed into a puddle of tears, they’d have the reason why and be prepared with the some special sponges to soak me up. I texted them instead, because if I said the words aloud, they were going to turn into tears, and I didn’t have anyone to come soak me up.
And then my mother did all of the motherly things, as none of this were happening. She cooked lunch for us, and we talked casually about her surgery recovery plan, like it was the weather forecast. I was prepared to stay with her in Queens for as long as it took to help her as she would be out of commission. I had heard stories of when my mother was a teenager, how she helped her own mother bathe and walk when she was diagnosed with cancer. I was ready to do all of it. I was ready to be her lungs if she needed them.
During the drive home, my brother was silent. As he wheeled onto the on-ramp for the BQE, he sighed, “That was fucking annoying.”
We didn’t really have a conversation, but we didn’t need one to agree.
Between that Sunday in early January to the 26th, I was going through an accelerated version of the five stages of grief. In between the long phonecalls I shared with my mother in that time, giving her an ear to rant to about her family assuming the worst, I had my own business to wrap up — physically and mentally.
In one of these wrap-up instances, I vividly remember the conversation I had with a mentor, which in reality, was me unloading my own five-minute rant. I can still recall how much I seethed at my mother’s poor choices of continuing to smoke when she had just become a grandmother, when she had just reached the end of a depressive bout, and when she was about to embark on the journey of cancer survivor.
I regretted closing myself off to so many people when I had my own bouts of chronic depression, because I didn’t want them to see me at my most vulnerable. When I needed them most.
But I knew, deep down, I had some self-anger to get through that I once again projected onto her. I regretted that I had become a smoker, and even though I quit by that time, the idea of putting my own life in danger for a temporary nicotine high was absurd. I regretted my own lack of motivation to take care of myself until it was getting in the way of living. I regretted closing myself off to so many people when I had my own bouts of chronic depression, because I didn’t want them to see me at my most vulnerable. When I needed them most.
Every night before I went to sleep, once my husband’s snores filled the airspace, I silently prayed.
Okay, I thought. God allows all of these evil, hateful people to live without repercussion. Let’s see if he will allow a big-hearted, kind person like my mother live. We can’t lose a good one so quickly.
I wasn’t religious, but if that could do the trick, it wouldn’t have hurt to try.
Finally the depression came. It stayed with me even past the date of my mother’s procedure. It hit me like a ton of bricks in the days preceding her surgery, when she called me and told me she was at the hospital for a blood transfusion. She waited hours to actually get one, and I kept telling her throughout the day that if she needed me, I would be by her side.
With every new phone call, she said she was hungry. She couldn’t leave because she would lose her place in line. I kept asking her if she wanted me to bring something, what she wanted me to bring, if she was allowed to eat.
She kept repeating, “No, my love, I’ll be fine.” I was worried if the blood loss was getting to her. I called my older brother, as he was nearby, and asked if she told him. She didn’t. He was rightfully peeved with her. He picked up the first thing he could find and headed straight over.
It wasn’t the blood loss that was getting to her, it was her that was getting to her. My mother always told my brothers and me that she doesn’t want to be a burden on anyone. She even told me that I didn’t have to stay with her after her surgery, that she could find others to be with her and I can go off and live my life, just visit a lot. How can a woman so unselfish, who raised me to be the same, ask me to be so selfish? How can a woman so loving ask me to become so unloving?
I felt like heading home, curling up into a ball, and falling asleep so that I could wake up when this was all over. My fight or flight instinct was fine-tuned to flight. I was tempted to shut off my phone, knowing my mother was in good hands with my brother, but I was too worried that it would trigger some new effect. I kept it on, kept checking in, kept fighting my flight.
Follow this link for part two.