You know what’s super odd? That I happen to have a cousin, a cousin I spent every holiday with from birth until we-all-go-off-and-abandon-our-families-of-origin — who lives an hour away from me, here in Madison. I’d never seen her here. I hadn’t seen her in years. But that day, that Saturday, she was heading down to see my mom in the hospital. She’d been planning the trip for a while. She figured it was time to pay her a visit. She’d asked me initially, if I wanted to go with her. I declined; I couldn’t. I had to work that weekend. I’d see my mom the following weekend, as planned. I already had it all lined up. All lined up and planned. I’d see my mom the following weekend. I’d help her get as comfortable as she could back in her house, and talk about what the year ahead would look like. Construct a loose itinerary for her impending death. We’d probably get a year, I thought. A year, with chemo. I could do a lot in a year. I could get her to forgive the fact that I’ve hung up on her at the end of almost every phone call in the last ten years. I could make her laugh. I could ask her questions about who she was, and who she had been. I knew almost nothing about who she was, and who she had been.
My cousin had been a hospice nurse for seven years.
I have no idea what I ate for breakfast.
My cousin waited for me to change my mind about going with her. She waited until I’d digested the fact that that morning, my mom had been transferred suddenly to the ICU. She waited for me to visit some cats I was feeding for my job and to drive back to my apartment. She waited for me to kiss Ollie and Bela and Nic and get into her car. We drove, talking, catching up on the last fifteen years or so. She told me snippets of stories about my mom that I didn’t know.
She asked if I wanted food while we were on the road. I insisted that I’d eat after we arrived. I’d check in on the situation, let my mom know we were there, squeeze her hand, and then go out for something with my niece or my sister or my aunt or someone. But my cousin was relenteless. She kept pointing to signs for fast food chains. Exit 68: McDonald’s and Arby’s. Exit 72: Subway and Taco Bell. Exit 79: Hardees. I hate fast food. I didn’t want to eat. She wanted me to eat. I was not worried. She was.
Finally, I relented. We stopped at a gas station and bought some semi-sad, semi-warm pizza. It had been under a heating lamp for I-don’t-know-how-long, and it was not excellent, but it was not terrible. I still didn’t feel that hungry, but she kept insisting I eat now, because I wouldn’t know about later. That I eat now, because I wouldn’t know about later.
In the gas station, I inspected some bedazzled stocking caps. For longer than I needed to. I couldn’t get over how many fake, flat rhinestones had been placed on each one and how many color options were available. I peed. I looked at the candy. I walked by a frozen Mountain Dew spout three times before she pushed me to just effing go for it. I filled up my cup, walked away, then turned back to add the little Icee crown at the very top. You know, the part that sticks out of the domed plastic lid. I made sure to get every last drop. My cousin paid— she wanted to feed me — and then we headed back out to her car. I got sidetracked in the parking lot, because I saw a little dog, so I ran across the pavement to ask to touch him, tried to decipher whether he was a actual puppy or just-little, and chatted with the owner, trying to keep the dog interested in me.
The dog wasn’t interested in me.
I didn’t eat again that night. Of course I didn’t. A cousin who spent seven years tending to the dying knows when someone is dying. She fed me because she knew I was walking into my mother’s death. That I wouldn’t be running out to grab a quick bite in an hour or two. That I’d be standing next to my mom, rubbing her shoulder, watching the numbers on the monitor get lower, and lower, and lower. Until I was motherless.