A Hard Lesson on Being Human (Pt. 2)
A personal essay on my mother’s battle with cancer and its painful effect on my overactive mind.
This is the second part of a two-part story. For the first part, click here.
On the morning of my mother’s cancer surgery, I arrived after she was already wheeled in. I tried distracting myself with anything I could latch my brain onto. My books, my brother’s Nintendo Switch, Reddit, conversation, people watching.
People watching was the hardest. I practice street photography, so every little detail was noticeable and amplified by a thousand, sprinkled with overthought inner storytelling.
There was a quiet Indian family who tried to console a young mother with two children. Her face was beautiful but somber, her hands were trembling in her lap. It was a challenge not to think the person they were waiting for was a close family member of hers, maybe another child. There was a single older man reading a newspaper, cross-legged and casual, but I couldn’t help but presume he was trying to keep himself calm for whatever news would reach him. Next to the older man, a family sat, excited, with hands full of flowers and gifts — no doubt celebrating the birth of a baby.
I went down a mental rabbit hole. All of these stories were being played out, lived, right in front of me, and they can all take unexpected, dramatic turns. Each of these stories had their own beginnings, endings, and wild in-betweens that I will never know about and it kept me fascinated, but scared. Not scared of the fact itself, but scared of being in the same room with them and never knowing. We’re all just extras in everyone’s biopic, at least until we say something, and even then, we don’t know if it will stick.
“Elisa,” my older brother said, shaking me from my trance. “She’s out.”
We followed the directions the front desk gave us to the recovery ward, got lost a couple of times in the maze of hallways, and finally found where we were supposed to be. The waiting room was tiny, with just a few gray cushioned armchairs that only looked comfortable, a meager side table, and a TV turned on to the local news.
It was a game of waiting for my mom to wake up from her anesthesia. My aunt and brothers all had something to work on, and the only thing I had to work on was getting outside of my own head. I flipped through the channels on the TV, finally settling back on the news as How I Met Your Mother wasn’t funny enough to make me laugh and escape reality for a bit.
The nurse called us in after a half hour, allowing us to see her two at a time. The recovery ward was silent, except for a series of beeps and machines pumping out air. My mother was half-asleep, in a state of painlessness from the fentanyl, and despite coming from a surgery where she was cut open in multiple spots, she looked so damn strong.
She recognized my older brother and me. My brother called his wife and son on FaceTime, and my mother asked him why he was allowing her first cousin, whom she hadn’t spoken to in ages, to see her like this.
“No, Mom,” he said, smiling. “That’s my wife and my son.”
She began to cry, hard. She thought she had slept through, and missed my brother’s wedding and the birth of her grandson. We were both a little shaken, and called the nurse over to ask what they had given her, what happened to her brain, the cancer wasn’t affecting her brain, why was she acting this way.
The nurse remained calm. She stroked my mother’s hair, and asked her some questions to get her head back on track. What day of the week is it? What’s the date? What is your name? Who is the President of the United States? How many fingers am I holding up?
It grounded her immediately. We laughed it off in relief. I was glad to have my mother back.
It was supposed to be an outpatient surgery, but the doctors wanted her to stay overnight for monitoring. She wasn’t recovering as quickly as they wanted her to, so they transferred her to a women’s ward in another building. My aunt and younger brother had already left, so my older brother and I followed her bed being wheeled to the new ward.
Another maze. Another series of color coded lines on the floor. Double-wide elevators to fit two beds. An eerie, quiet basement. And so many fluorescent lights.
My mother lived a challenging life, and I was entitled and spoiled by comparison, I should be fighting instead of her.
When we reached her new location, it was like a hotel-meets-hospital room. There were spotless vinyl floors made to look like wood, a modern bedside lamp, a window with a view overlooking Central Park, and finally, a comfortable chair.
I don’t remember much from that night, but I remember looking out at the park, with the orange street lamps illuminating the paths in between the bony tree branches, stuck between a state of bargaining and denial. I was thinking it should be me in that bed. My mother lived a challenging life, and I was entitled and spoiled by comparison, I should be fighting that instead of her.
I remember trying not to fall asleep after the long day of waiting, catching some rest between my mother catching her own, still getting hit by waves of anesthesia and medication wearing off. Finally, around 11 PM, she woke up and asked me to go home. I knew she was being discharged in the morning and that I didn’t have a few changes of clothes with me to stay with her for the recovery period, so I didn’t argue much, but I did try to argue.
She easily convinced me, saying it was the last night I’d probably sleep comfortably for a while (true), next to my husband (also true), and that I could pick up my laptop and books to keep me occupied when her medication would make her doze off at home. My mother is a subject matter expert in negotiation, guilt-tripping, and convincing, even if she may not always be right.
Yet, as soon as I boarded the crosstown bus, I already wanted to turn around and go back.
My mother’s following recovery period at home was among the most love-filled times in my life. We were visited by her family members and friends, willing to step in and help us in any way they possibly could. Her fridge was full of desserts, her vases couldn’t fit all of the bouquets of flowers she received, though the latter was fine since I seemed to kill them easily anyway. If there was anything I learned from these visits, it’s that the vulnerability I was always so afraid to show was essential to being human. That our loved ones will show up during our most challenging times, whether it’s during a bout of depression or recovering from a life-threatening illness. They will always be there, you just have to decide to let them in, or tell them you’re retreating back into your shell for a bit. They’ll be there when you’re ready, or coax you out if you’re taking too long. They love you for a reason, sad side and all.
If there was anything I learned from these visits, it’s that the vulnerability I was always so afraid to show was essential to being human.
On the fourth day of my mom’s recovery, I was already scolding her to stop trying to move around so much, and she snapped back that she’d get bed sores if she didn’t. On the morning of day five, I awoke to her sitting in the kitchen, coffee in hand, so I went to take a shower while the next pot brewed. By the time I turned the water off, I heard my sister-in-law’s voice outside through the open window, projecting at what sounded like my mother.
“What are you doing outside?!”
“I needed to move my car! I was going to get a ticket!”
The argument carried upstairs to the apartment.
“You know better!” my sister-in-law repeated. “Elisa! Why didn’t you stop her?”
“Elisa was taking a shower, I snuck out. I was never going to hear the end of it if I tried to ask, so I just did it,” my mom said, not predicting that she wouldn’t hear the end of this instead. She then proceeded to successfully ignore us by picking up my nephew and cooing at him. She was also skilled at selective hearing.
The following day, my mother and I were lounging on her couch, legs entangled. She had a blanket that she was pulling on and kicking off in between hot and cold spells. The day was as sunny as her surgery day, and the little sunlight that streamed through the blinds felt warming. The credits were rolling to some rom-com we were half paying attention to, and she was dozing off. Her cellphone vibrated on the table, and the number looked familiar. My mother jerked awake, and I said, “I think it’s the hospital.”
It was. She sounded stoic at first, saying yes and uh-huh and understood a lot. That phone call could have been two minutes or two hours long, time was irrelevant. My hands were clasped in the same way, nails in knuckles, like they were on the day I’d heard about her diagnosis. Finally, she ended with, “That’s great, thank you,” and hung up.
She turned to me.
“It’s gone,” she said. “They got it all.”
If my legs weren’t awkwardly positioned under the blanket, my feet would have kicked the air in delight and relief. Instead, I carefully untangled myself and gave her the lightest bearhug I could (so as not to disturb her stitches), and planted kisses all over her face. She dozed off again shortly thereafter, most likely from the wave of solace, and I snuck into her bedroom to call my loved ones with the news.
After the final conversation, I sat on the edge of my mother’s bed, and finally cried. That puddle of tears I was afraid of becoming was an ocean now, multiplying from the pressure of stuffing everything down for a month, expecting it not to find a way out. Special sponges be damned.