I remember the pamphlet my parents gave me when I was six and my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was illustrated with colorful pictures of happy people and sad people, of healthy people and sick people, of normal cells and cancerous cells. The drawings of the cells were what fascinated me. There were plump, round red cells, floating free; anthropomorphized white blood cells, heroic and determined; and wrinkled, discolored cells, lumped together angrily.
I could understand this. My mom had to have surgery to have the bad, raisiny cells removed, and chemo to make sure they were really gone. Sure, easy.
It wasn’t easy. I had to go with her to lots of doctors appointments, sit in waiting rooms that all had the same boring toys and no snacks except gross things in vending machines, talk to nurses who clearly didn’t understand how grown up I was. Her new breast looked wrong, unbalanced, unnatural. She got sick and couldn’t play the way she had before. She lost all of her pretty light-brown hair and didn’t like wearing wigs, so she’d wear home-knit wool caps that I thought looked embarrassingly ridiculous. But slowly, she got better.
Until, suddenly, it seemed, she was worse. The doctors found more bad cancer cells, this time not just in her breast. They hadn’t gotten all of them out, and the cancer cells had moved into her bones, into her brain, into her lungs. It didn’t seem possible — she needed her bones and brain and lungs, the doctors couldn’t just cut them out the way they had cut out her breast. She had to have more chemo — so much that sometimes she had to stay in hospitals overnight, sometimes for more than one night. She recorded a cassette tape of the lullabies she sang to me so that she could always sing to me at bedtime. I brought pictures I had drawn in school when we visited her. I missed her.
But I missed her more when she came home.
She forgot things, like how to unlock the front door from the inside when the deadbolt was too heavy for me to throw with my latchkey. Like how to cook and bake — she had to throw away food that she burned, and I had to make my own breakfasts (cold cereal instead of oatmeal or cheese tortilla rollups) and lunches (sandwiches instead of her cold, creamy cucumber soup). Grandma Gloria, my father’s mother, came to stay with us to help watch me while my father worked long hours in the hotel restaurant he managed. Grandma Lou and Papa John came to visit, and Aunt Sandy and Aunt Cathy brought their families, my uncles and little cousins. Once, when one of them hugged my mom goodnight too tightly, she screamed and then they both cried.
The last time that Mom came home from the hospital, they sent a hospital bed with her so that she could be more comfortable. Grandma Gloria insisted that we put it in the living room, where it was bright with sunlight and motion. I wasn’t sure how much of it she appreciated — she slept most of the time, and didn’t seem very aware even when she was awake. I was happy that she was home, though — they always sent her home when she was doing better, so she must’ve been getting better.
She died on the night that I was sleeping over at my friend Anna’s house. Anna’s mother, Didi, came home from a date with her boyfriend and woke us up to give me the news. I cried, and Anna’s mother held me, and handed me tissues, and took her daughter and me downstairs for bowls of ice cream. She let us have chocolate syrup and whipped cream and sprinkles. When Dad picked me up the next morning, he told me he wished Didi hadn’t given me the news, that he’d wanted to tell me himself. He asked me if I wanted to go home and I started crying again, thinking of the hospital bed in our living room, of all the other things that had happened there: Mom sketching me while I read an issue of Highlights on the couch; hanging Christmas ornaments on our little tree, a fire and a Nat King Cole record each warming the room; posing for pictures before she took me trick-or-treating, me in the big, fake-fur Dalmatian costume she’d sewn and her in the little rubber monkey nose she’d bought at my insistence that she dress up too.
I stayed with one of her friends for a week, and Dad brought me everything I needed from our house so I wouldn’t have to go back there to find her absent.
I’m 27 years old now, just 10 years younger than my mother was when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and my gynecologist has recommended that I start having MRI breast screenings. She’s also helping me look into having the genetic screening for BRCA; these days, as she explained hilariously and terrifyingly bluntly during my last pap smear appointment, we have choices and things can be done. I look at the life I have built for myself, the people who love me and all of the things I still haven’t done yet, and I am determined to do whatever is best, whatever is necessary to preserve it. My mother taught me how to love, and I love too much to go quietly.
Lauren, thank you so much for sharing your story with us.
Lauren can be found at Grammar Monkey