~This essay was previously published in The Gettysburg Review (2005).
I bring my father a slice of pizza and an orange soda in a grease-stained paper bag. He is the only person in the surgery waiting room this evening. A ghost room. He looks smaller than usual, dwarfed by the oversized sofa, his head slumped toward his chest, as if he were sleeping. Or praying. He eats greedily, and then we make our usual small talk. “How is your car?” he asks. “Your job?” He tells me again what is wrong with the state of health care in America. There are awkward pauses. We go outside so he can smoke his pipe.
“Six hours we waited,” he says, striking match after match as the wind taunts and blows them out. Finally one catches. He holds it to the rim of the pipe, and I see that familiar orange glow of fire. “The surgeon didn’t even call to update us. Six hours after we were scheduled, he just showed up. No explanation or anything.” My father sucks on his pipe as though it were a pacifier; the sound is like fish talking. We sit in silence for a while, on a stone ledge in front of the hospital. The trees appear sinister, their branches reaching out, pointing at us, like skeleton fingers. I pretend I am cold so we can go inside.
When the surgeons finally come out, they look tired. The one my father and I think resembles Harry Potter assures us the prognosis is good.
“I think we got most of the growth,” he says. “There are just a few little dots left. Nothing that the chemo won’t take care of.” He tells us he expects a full remission. Such confidence.
For the next six months, we are all obsessed with the word remission. It is our promised land, our mirage in the distance, our savior.
My father is a doctor—trained as a physician first, then a psychiatrist. For most of my life, I believed he was the smartest person in the world, capable of curing anything. He always had the right pill, the right prescription. Our cabinets were home to all sorts of medicine: Triaminic, Pepto-Bismol, Bayer, Maalox, Tums, penicillin, erythromycin, antibiotic ointments, nasal sprays, and menthol vapor rubs. If he had any doubt, he would pull out his Merck Manual and come up with a cure. It always worked. When he told my mother, “We’ll beat this thing together,” we all believed him.
Perhaps that was the first lesson.
When my mother first told me about her growth, back in November 2001, I wasn’t really listening. I held the telephone to my ear, but it was the television that held my attention. There must have been some news about the terrorist attacks or the anthrax scare. My mother’s voice was simply background noise.
I do remember, however, when we said goodbye, a slight cracking in her voice. Looking back, it seemed I was always half listening.
What she tried to tell me that day on the telephone would become the stuff of family legend: a pain in her lower right side, a trip to the gynecologist who diagnosed her with a urinary infection, then an ultrasound, “just to be sure.”
What my mother actually had, it turns out, was not a urinary infection, but a growth the size of a small grapefruit in her ovaries.
This was my mother, a woman who never had more than a cold or a bad case of gas. She worked out three times a week and, at sixty-nine, looked better than most people in their mid-fifties. We had just seen her, my boyfriend and I, on a visit home to celebrate my thirty-third birthday. We ate cake and laughed and watched the Mets. It was the last day of my old life, I sometimes think.
After the hysterectomy, I visit her in the hospital. She asks me to rub her feet. How strange it is, sitting so close to my own mother on the bed, rubbing her sock-covered toes. I can’t remember the last time we were this physically close.
Later I will touch her even more, and for a while it will still seem awkward and strange. Running my hands through her gray hair (it must have been gray for a long time, I realize now, but she kept it well hidden), I am amazed at how soft it is, all grown back after the chemo. I will hold her delicate hands, rubbing each finger and manicured nail, studying them, attempting to commit bones and flesh to memory. Her promised remission comes...and goes. Just enough time to have lunch with some friends and buy herself a new pair of summer sandals. The doctor who looks like Harry Potter never tells her not to bother with the sandals. He does not tell us that the growth will return so soon, a bigger, badder version of its former self.
I remember now the wall in the basement, on which my parents would track my height. Every year from age five to about to ten or eleven, they would add another line—proof that I was getting bigger. I am not sure how my parents felt, but I couldn’t wait to grow, to get taller, to be older. Each new line was an achievement—another step toward the ultimate goal. Of being all grown-up.
We arrive at the hospital one afternoon just after my mother has thrown up on herself. The nurses push us out and clean her. When we return she is barely awake. In a raspy voice she asks me, “How is work? Is your boss any better?” She is still my mother, just the broken version.
She also shows a different side. A tougher side. She might be sleeping then suddenly fully awake and alert, dispensing her advice: “Be good to each other. Things don’t matter. People matter.” Occasionally she is funny, singing a song: sisters, sisters.
She doesn’t want things any more. No gifts, like the bobble-head Mike Piazza doll that my sister brings from Burger King. She no longer cares about the Mets. The only thing she wants is a certain pair of pajama pants, the floral ones. “Will you bring them? Please?” she asks. But none of us can find them. We look everywhere. Although we know she couldn’t wear them anyway, we want so much to bring them to her. To do something.
Toward the end I am able to do something. The problem this particular week is potassium. She needs more. The nurse brings her two oversized pills and a glass of water and walks out. My mother gazes at them. “They’re too big,” she says, a helpless child.
I remember something she used to do for me, and I tell her, “Don’t worry. I’ll crush them for you.” We smile at each other.
“I’ll be right back.”
I walk past the nurse’s station with confidence in my step. I know what I am doing. In the kitchen, I find a cup of vanilla Haagen-Dazs in the freezer. I grab a spoon and crush the pills with the back of it. Then I bury the pieces under the first layer of ice cream. Beyond the walls, I hear a baby cry, and I think, what a terrible location for the maternity ward.
My mother opens her eyes when I walk back into the room. I feed her spoonfuls of ice cream.
“It’s good,” she says, looking up at me. She eats all the potassium. I am proud of myself.
Five minutes later I am helping her again. This time I am holding her arm as she walks to the toilet, sick to her stomach from the ice cream. Her growth is an evil stepmother turning the ice cream and potassium to poison. No treats allowed.
When she is done I help her back to the bed, where, thankfully, she falls asleep, one hand on her plastic spit cup, the other in mine. Her room has a large window, and I sit quietly, watching as the sky turns from gray-blue to pinkish swirls. The sun is setting. A bird calls. I will have to go soon.
It is inevitable.
THE STORY BEHIND THE ESSAY
When my mother was ill and in the hospital, I recall my father saying to me “Write it all down.” So I did. I kept copious notes in a journal during that time. My mother passed away in August of 2002, only nine months after her diagnosis The following January, I started the MFA program at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass. I was obsessed with writing about my mother’s illness and death, but I couldn’t create something that captured what I really wanted to say. I likely didn’t know what I wanted to say. I would try and fail to finish the essay, then switch to something else, only to return later. One morning I sat down the computer and this essay came out pretty much whole, like a gift from the muse. Wish that happened more often!
ABOUT AMY YELIN
Amy Yelin’s essays and interviews have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Sweet, The Missouri Review, The Writer’s Chronicle, Literary Mama, and other publications, including two anthologies. She’s the recipient of a Pushcart nomination, a notable essay mention in The Best American Essays (2007), a fellowship from the Sustainable Arts Foundation, and a scholarship from the Norman Mailer Writer’s Colony. She is currently assistant nonfiction editor for Solstice: A Magazine of Diverse Voices.