My mother is sick.
By Cord Jefferson
Illustrations by Celine Loup
For a few weeks one summer, when I was about eight or nine, my family and I road-tripped from our home in Tucson to the Grand Canyon and then up to Yosemite National Park. We hiked and played and slept for days amid some of the world’s most majestic natural beauty, and yet I can tell you almost nothing about what Yosemite or the Grand Canyon are like from the inside. Instead, my most powerful memory from that trip is an afternoon spent at the beach during a brief stop in Los Angeles.
On that day, the heat was the humid kind that mingles with L.A.’s smog to make everything look thick and dull, as if you were watching the world through wax paper. While my parents read paperback novels and played backgammon, I divided my time between juggling a soccer ball on the beach and swimming in the ocean to cool off. I sprinted back and forth between the two activities for hours, until the setting sun instigated a mass dispersal, when all the beachgoers turning their heads to flick sand from their towels looked like parts of some grand choreographed routine.
As my family and others packed up our bags, I noticed a group of people several plots away from us who appeared to be in no hurry to beat the traffic. It was three young men and two young women, sun-kissed and attractive in a way that they would have looked at home on a cheap picture postcard people send from Santa Monica to Cincinnati. At first I only noticed the group’s peals of laughter, hysterical and unabashed, and I considered how wonderful it must be to be old enough to go to the beach without your parents. And then I saw who they were laughing at.
On sight alone, the woman was nearly everything the group of people pointing and giggling at her was not. Where they were several, she appeared to have wandered up to them by herself before sprawling awkwardly in front of their towels. Where they were taut, tan, and blonde, she was soft, alabaster, and had a scruffy tangle of brown hair. Where they were young, she looked about 40. And while the group of friends was fairly put together despite regularly reaching into a large ice chest of canned beer, the subject of their tittering was wasted. When she spoke, all that emerged was incomprehensible slurs. Numerous attempts to stand ended with her stumbling back onto her butt, and after a few tries the friction from the tumbles was taking its toll on an old sagging bikini whose elastic had gone slack. From certain angles the woman’s crotch was exposed, but she seemed too drunk to notice. In spite of this, the men at the ice chest were delighted to hand her a beer and then laugh as she attempted to drink it, spilling much of it down her front in the process.
I’d been taking in this scene for a few minutes when my parents, who were at least feigning obliviousness to what had my attention, called for me to come to our van. I turned to steal one last glance at the drunk woman, who had managed to amble a short distance away from the group and plop down at the edge of the ocean. Her beer can was floating away from her, but she sat in silence, catatonically allowing the small waves to crash into her body as if she were somebody’s forgotten doll. That moment was the first time I can remember feeling the desire to help someone and then doing nothing. I grabbed my soccer ball and ran to the parking lot, the woman behind me and the laughter enveloping her fading into the darkening distance.
I thought about that woman and the people mocking her for the rest of the night, and during a post-dinner walk, I told my mother what was bothering me. “They were so mean to her,” I said when I got to the end of the story. “I just don’t know why they were being so mean to her.” My mother stopped walking and turned to face me, her lips pursed and her brow furrowed the way they always were when she was unsure of exactly how to put something. “The world is a mean place,” she said at last. “Sometimes people are mean, and sometimes things will be hard. One of your jobs is to try and make sure that that never makes you mean and hard, too.” She kissed my hand and we continued on our walk, and we never spoke of that woman or that day again.
Even as a boy, when my parents still shielded me from some of their larger personal traumas, I knew that my mother had seen her share of the world’s cruelties. Born into a middle-class family in postwar Ohio, she was at first so neglected by her mother, who battled undiagnosed depression, that responsibility for her care went to her aunt. Her father was around, but he worked full-time and, like many men of that era, he’d never so much as changed a diaper on his first two children. After a few months, my grandmother acquiesced to the urging of her family and agreed to take her newborn daughter back into her home. They say my mother cried for weeks in the arms of the stranger who had birthed her.
Not much changed after that. The presence of her new daughter’s bright green eyes did little to penetrate the emotional wall my grandmother had built around herself. She remained cold and forlorn, and eventually, for the second time in my mother’s short life, the job of raising her shifted elsewhere, this time to my mother’s older sister, Beverly. Bev did her best, but being just a kid herself, she could provide only so much support when the bullies came for my mom’s chubby cheeks and bookish behavior.
Some people who have been baptized in familial and social rejection come to accept that rejection as a guiding principle for how to live life. It’s not how things should be, they may say, but it’s how things are—and anyone who doesn’t respond in kind is food for the sharks. These people swallow their pain and hold it in their guts, where it transforms into venom to be used to rebuff a world that’s done the same to them. I’ve met lots of people like this, and probably so have you: Adults who get mean around jock types who remind them of their high-school antagonists. Adults who are mean to everyone, because everyone was mean to them during those most fundamental years of their lives. It’s often difficult to be around these kinds of men and women, but ultimately it’s even more difficult to blame them.
Other people go in the opposite direction. It’s no easier to suss out why hurt affects us all differently than it is to understand why everyone likes different jokes or colors. We all have wounds, but different constitutions and conditions ensure that not all wounds heal the same. Indeed, some wounds never heal at all, weeping and aching until their victim succumbs, sometimes quietly, sometimes loudly. In my mother’s case, rather than the pain of her youth hobbling her such that more pain was all she had left to offer, she decided early in her life that her sorrows were evidence of too much heartache in the world as it was.
At Ohio State, amid the political upheaval of the late 1960s, it was my mom who suggested that her all-white sorority begin letting black members into its ranks. Scandalized, the house’s executive leadership responded that the chapter wasn’t yet popular enough to begin integrating. Later, after graduating and earning her master’s in education, my mother started teaching third grade at a predominately black elementary school in Dayton. When winter came, she asked her pastor if some of the clothing yielded during their church’s annual coat drive could go toward helping some of her needier students through the cold months. The pastor swatted down her inquiry, saying that he preferred to keep the donations “within our own community.” That’s the day my mother, a god-fearing woman who had grown up singing in the church choir, left behind organized religion in favor of decades of private worship.
At church is where my mother met her high-school sweetheart. He was from a good and wealthy family, and it was only after they were married that he revealed himself to be bitterly vindictive and controlling. As the Man of the House, he forbade my mother from spending more than $20 at any one time without permission, even if it was money she’d made teaching. All of her husband’s macho posturing disappeared in front of his father, who made it obvious that he despised my mother and her politics. He would call her “the socialist of the family” and say things like he wished more children had been killed at the Kent State massacre. Never mentioned during her father-in-law’s constant haranguing, of course, was the time he had used his connections to get her husband out of the Vietnam draft. He ended up serving a stateside post as a cook in the National Guard.
Though my mother’s financial earnings weren’t treated as her own, the experiences she gleaned in her classrooms were things of real value that she could keep for herself. It was through those that she discovered she was good at her job. She discovered she was smart and capable. She discovered that she could have a real effect on the world around her. After a while, and perhaps inevitably, she also developed an inkling that she could get by on her own, or at least with people other than the ones she went home to every night.
After telling her husband of six years she wanted a divorce, my mother moved most of her belongings out of their shared home and into an apartment of her own. When she returned a few days later to collect her remaining things, including her dog, her husband refused to let her leave with the pet. He’d become attached, he said, and a house was better for a dog than an apartment with no yard. Exhausted from arguing, my mother gave up, leaving that night with a plan to return soon for the rest of her stuff. When she came back the next week, however, her husband had given the remainder of her boxes to charity. As for the dog, it had become mean in my mother’s absence, he said, and so he’d taken him to the vet and had him put down.
Her mother died of cancer shortly after she was married, so my mom was never able to know how she would have reacted to her divorce. Maybe she would have been as withdrawn as ever. Or maybe my mother’s escape from degradation and mid-century suburbia would have inspired something that had gone dormant within her. Nobody knows. Her father, on the other hand, never forgave her for her divorce. “He’s from such a good family,” he said, confused. “How could you leave someone from such a good family?”
My mother began dating my father soon after finalizing her divorce. She met him when a friend recommended his services as a divorce lawyer and, when the final paperwork was in, he called her up and invited her to dinner. He was confident, funny, and gregarious—everything her first husband wasn’t. He was also black, a fact that only served to augment the fissure in my mom’s relationship with her father. If leaving her husband had been a disappointment, subsequently falling in love with a “colored” man was outright treasonous. My grandfather immediately disowned my mother, telling her before she walked out of his modest Akron home for the last time, “I never want you in our lives again.” A few weeks later, at Christmas, my mother nonetheless decided to send some gifts to her father in an effort to show him that her love was unwavering. She returned home shortly thereafter to find all the presents sitting on her front porch. Attached was a note: “When I said never, I meant never.”
The passing of time did nothing to soften my grandfather’s anger. When I was still young, I sent him two letters written in crayon; he returned both unopened. My mother, too, attempted at various times to make contact. I can remember once sitting at the kitchen table to watch her write a letter in her elegant cursive script, her face drawn and grim, as if she were penning an obituary. Her father never responded to the letters, but he also didn’t return them the way he had mine. When my grandfather died, my mom’s older brother told her he’d once found their dad sitting alone in his room and reading from a stack of yellowing loose-leaf pages. They were my mother’s letters.
The world at large was frequently as resentful as my grandfather had been at my mother’s decision to marry a person with skin different from her own. There were the confused looks my family received in public, and, if my mother and I were alone, the strangers asking if I was her “real” son. There was the time an entire restaurant of white people in Mississippi gave us dagger stares for daring to eat breakfast around them. There was the time, after my mom and dad had divorced, that a potential suitor abruptly ended a date with my mother after seeing a picture of me, her brown son.
“You didn’t tell me your ex was black,” said the man.
“I didn’t know that mattered,” said my mom.
“Well, it does,” he said, and he left.
There is a wholesome aura about my mother that has permeated her life for as long as I’ve known her. That’s not to say she’s without her flaws, but even those come off as righteous. For instance, she has a tendency to hover anxiously in social situations, fussing while she tries to make sure everyone is having a good time. She rarely swears, so her tennis games are peppered with Mayberry expletives likes “geez Louise!” and “oh shoot!” Sugary cereals and sodas were banned from our house. She read the Bible and scolded me for listening to Snoop Dogg and watching The Simpsons. When I started coming home from college, many were the nights I would enter the house around the same time my mom was leaving to go to the gym. After a quick hug and kiss, we’d step back and skeptically take stock of one another in the pale light of the rising sun, both of us thinking, I don’t know how you live like this. I’d sleep until noon and wake to discover she’d already had breakfast, walked the dog, gone on a bike ride, done laundry, gone to the bank, bought groceries, picked up her dry cleaning, gone to see a movie, and had lunch. (It’s worth noting that my mother’s good habits stood out even more when juxtaposed with my father’s unconventional and freewheeling manner.)
It went on like this for decades, my mom’s purity of life leading me to assume, despite everything I knew to the contrary, that this is how it would always be. And then, in March, they found the lump.
My mother has breast cancer. I’ve found myself able to say that aloud to only two people in the months since first receiving the news. There once was a time I would have thought myself above superstition and magical thinking. But lately I seem to believe that talking about my mother’s illness, acknowledging its reality, might somehow encourage the cancer cells working inside her body. It’s the same trashy wisdom of school officials who teach abstinence-only sex education—don’t discuss it and it’s not real. I know how stupid this is, and yet I can’t help myself.
Her cancer is triple negative, which means that it is absent the three most common types of breast-cancer-growing receptors: estrogen, progesterone, and the HER-2/neu gene. At first, I thought this was a reason to celebrate. Without entryways through which the cancer could feed on normal bodily chemicals, surely the tumor must remain feeble and small. But the opposite is true. Triple-negative cancer is aggressive, though doctors are unsure of what stimulates its growth. It’s also a type of cancer more likely to affect younger women and African-Americans. Armed with that last piece of information, my mom now has a new favorite bit of gallows humor: “I knew hanging out with so many black people would catch up with me one day.”
On the afternoon my mom received her diagnosis, following more than 60 years of moderation and temperance, she went out to a restaurant and ordered a half bottle of wine and two bowls of ice cream. To keep friends and family abreast of developments with her illness, she’s started maintaining a blog, the tone of which is never grimmer than this passage:
I am having my treatment as you read. Double dose. Last dose of the carboplatin, and we’re down to 2 of the Taxel. Hurray! But the darn blood never seems to be perfect, so it is a platelet infusion at the hospital after treatment. And on Monday possibly a blood transfusion for the red cells. I will deal with that on Monday. One day at a time. Love to all and a great weekend.
A week later, I traveled to Arizona to visit her and attend a close family friend’s wedding. In a grassy backyard, behind a ranch home just north of Tucson, the wedding photographer erected a large black backdrop in front of which the guests could indulge themselves. I brought my mother over almost as soon as the backdrop was up and, after two regular, arm-in-arm photos, I reached down to sweep her off her feet and hold her the way she’d once held me when I was young. She was much lighter than I thought she’d be, and through laughter she screamed, “You goofball,” her standard response to all the nonsense I’ve imposed upon her over the decades. It was in that moment — her freckled arms wrapped around my neck, her smile at my shoulder — that I felt like I never wanted to put her down.
I feel embarrassed to admit that, following my initial shock, I quickly lulled myself into believing that my mother having cancer would be easy. There were optimistic doctors with a determined plan of attack, and there was my mom in good spirits, eating ice cream with a dulcet grin. But a few months after being diagnosed, following weeks of chemotherapy, my mother went in to see her oncologist, who told her that her condition was unchanged, the tumor was the same size. The new recommended course of action was a different type of chemotherapy, to be followed by a double mastectomy sometime in the fall. Even with the mastectomy, the oncologist stressed, triple-negative cancer has been known to recur in other organs, even years after it was thought to be gone.
My mother texted my brothers and me to break the news, and I called her immediately to get more information. Though she sounded exhausted and frustrated, she spoke matter-of-factly, as if she were detailing the hassles of a normal inconvenience—a flat tire, a missed dentist appointment. It was the same tone she’d used years before to scold me for swearing or sagging my pants, its meaning being I’m disappointed, but I’ll acknowledge that this isn’t the end of the world.
We hung up and I went back to my day. It was a hot one in late June, full of the routine indignities someone whose thoughts are consumed with tragedy can barely comprehend. If you’re ever interested in feeling as if you’re on the verge of losing your mind, you need complete only a two-step process:
- Find a way to give someone you love deeply a life-threatening disease, and
- While your loved one is at home battling death, stand in a restaurant line behind a person complaining loudly that their burrito came with sour cream, even though they asked for no sour cream, and they guess they’ll just eat it with the sour cream, even though the calories, but maybe they should get a discount now, or, like, a soda?
I’d just returned home from a meeting when she called again. It had been only a few hours since we’d last talked and, as she stammered when I picked up, my heart sank with the anticipation of more bad news. “I didn’t tell you everything I wanted to earlier,” she said after gathering her tongue. “I wanted to say that I’m scared. I know you can’t do anything to change this, but it makes me feel better to let you know that I’m afraid.”
A few times a year, I’ll find myself gripped by the feeling that the spaces in which I live are inadequate arenas for the occasions when I feel most alive. My bedroom is a good place to shut off my brain and watch Netflix. The patio behind the Mexican restaurant down the street from my apartment is a nice venue to engage in small talk about work. But even the most familiar places feel like a jail cell when someone you love—the person who taught you how to love in the first place—is sharing with you that they’re worried the poison growing in their chest will eventually kill them. It seems like a kind of secular sin to absorb that moment within eyeshot of a stick of Old Spice deodorant or a pile of dry cleaning or a line of people snaking out of Starbucks; in other words, the mundanity with which we surround ourselves to forget that such moments exist. The day my mother called me to say that she was afraid, I hung up the phone and cried. It was less the weeping of a grief-stricken adult and more that of a baby exiting the womb, a thrashing while coming into a world colder and more blinding than the one that existed before. After that, I went to the beach.
I’m a bad Californian in that I almost never visit the ocean, though when I do I regret not going more. That day, the sun was low over the Pacific as joggers, tourists, surfers, and the homeless mingled on the boardwalk. The sky blurred from a soft blue at the horizon above the water into a cotton-candy pink, and the palm trees, their swaying fronds pressed against the neon atmosphere, looked like something out of Dr. Seuss. Everything was a reminder that it can be strange to receive bad news in Los Angeles, a city where one’s gloom is so often at odds with the climatic beauty all around.
I’d been there for only a few minutes before it dawned on me that I was within a frisbee’s toss of the beach where, two decades earlier, I’d seen that group of twentysomethings antagonize the drunk woman. Since becoming an adult, I’ve thought about that scene more than any other from my childhood. I remember the ugly smiles and the silver cans of beer glinting in the sun. I remember my failure to act, and I wonder whether speaking up could have changed anything. Would the cackling men have shooed me away, or would they have been ashamed at their callousness, so obviously hideous that even a child could see it was wrong? Most of all, I remember the conversation with my mother afterward, when I watched a woman who had come up against so much malice in her life attempt to make sense of it for someone else.
I have to think something most everyone with a sick loved one shares is a frustration over our inability to effect change in the situation. Life already offers up so many different ways to make you feel weak, and now you get to watch someone dear to you wither from a disease that confounds even scientists who have studied it their whole careers. You can offer an ill person support with words, food, or a hand on the shoulder, but ultimately you are little more than a spectator watching fate play out from seats even farther removed from the field than usual.
That day at the beach, with the brightness dulling to dark as the sun sank past the ocean, I realized that part of what I was struggling with in the wake of my mother’s diagnosis was a heavy sense of powerlessness. The same sort of powerlessness I’d felt years before on almost the same stretch of sand. If I’m being honest, the same sort of powerlessness I feel dozens of times a year. I then remembered that the only thing that’s made me feel consistently strong in my life is the recollection of my mother holding my hand, looking into my eyes, and entreating me to fight to stay kind in the face of the viciousness and grief existence likes to heap upon all of us.
When I think of my mother’s life up to this point, what I find most revealing is how much of the abuse hurled at her throughout the years came about solely because she showed care and love to the wrong kinds of people. Time and again, it was her openness to others that found her shut off from her friends, her church, her colleagues, even her own family. We seem to reserve a special rage in this world for those whose ability to be unafraid in pursuit of something new extends beyond our own. We begrudge them their strange friends and strange experiences under the guise that we find those things to be dangerous or unclean. But really we resent those people because their courage reminds us of how common and terrified we feel inside. Bravery is a virtue people revere in dead soldiers and then turn to disparage in someone extending her hand to a weirdo.
As a man who’s done it, I can say with certainty that it’s easy to roll down the window and call the person who cut you off on the freeway a “fucking asshole.” It’s easy to revere tradition over people’s feelings. It’s easy to respond to a broken heart with a devastating comment, one that cuts so deeply because you know everything about the person to whom you’re speaking, including the exact thing to say to crush them. It’s easy to be a racist. Tapping into the darker recesses of your lizard brain in order to live a life unencumbered by self-examination or regard for others is simple because it’s reflexive, like throwing a punch, like stealing Monopoly money from the bank when your little sister isn’t looking. Conversely, waking up each day and devoting yourself to being kind, even and especially to people who are not kind to you, is actually incredibly difficult. It is arduous and deliberate work, and the doing of it will at times make you feel small and foolish. What’s more, in the end, it will on its own merits almost never yield a person awards or honors or riches.
I am hopeful that my mother will be around to share many more years with us. But I’m now attempting to find some comfort in the idea that I can keep her close to me for as long as I live by struggling to remain decent, the pursuit that I’ve seen conjure up incredible power during the course of her life. The world takes from us relentlessly. It takes our friends and first loves. It takes our parents. It takes our faith. It takes our dignity. It takes our passion. It takes our health. It takes our honesty, and it takes our credulity. To lose so much and still hold onto yourself is perhaps the most complicated task human beings are asked to perform, which is why seeing it done with aplomb is as thrilling as looking at dinosaur bones or seeing a herd of elephants. It’s an honor to exist on Earth with these things.
One morning, after years of being scorned by her father, my mother got a phone call saying that he was gravely ill and would likely pass soon. She immediately made travel plans to fly back to Ohio and visit him on his deathbed. The day before she left, I found her sitting out on our back porch with my father, crying and looking into the thick snarl of desert that stretched out behind our home. I was still very young, and confused that I felt not even a twinge of grief upon finding out that my grandfather was dying. I was even more astonished that my mom, who had encountered so much cruelty from this man, was now weeping for him.
“Why are you so sad?” I finally asked after working up some gall. “Wasn’t he bad to you?” She grabbed my shoulder and pulled me into her, and for a few moments we embraced in silence, in awe of all the ways life can hurt you.
“Yes,” she said, after a while. “But I’d like to forgive him, and I hope one day you’ll understand.”