Last year, my mother planned a trip to Greece. She had the tickets, the tour, the hotels. Everything booked. She was scheduled to fly in September. In May, she found a rough bump the size of a split pea near her anus and scheduled a biopsy.
The biopsy was easy, no more than ten minutes.
The split pea was cancer.
My mother does not like this cancer. But here are some things that she does like: Pâté and French champagne and rice cakes. Three-inch heels and bright lipstick and every single long sleeved t-shirt ever made by Vera Wang for Kohl’s. My mother likes Jell-O, Marie Callendar’s custard pie, BBC America and Agatha Christie mystery movies. She likes driving fast in her Prius and powdering her nose in restaurants. She likes being taken for fifty when she is sixty-two and counting. My mother likes shopping at vintage stores and buying beautiful, barely wearable things: chemises and dressing gowns worn feather-thin, wrapped in eyelet lace, things she can hang up and then take down and stroke and hold up to my wide-shouldered frame and say, “Oh, this would look so good on you.” My mother likes hats and Bakelite and cubic zirconia. She likes Absolutely Fabulous and Bible study and a really good burger, and more than any of this she likes to travel.
My mother likes England, Italy, France and Belgium. She still wants to see Turkey, Nepal, Iceland and India. The last big trip my mother and father took together, they went to Prague. They drank beer until midnight, rambled along cobblestone streets, got tipsy, laughed. They took lots of pictures that we don’t look at anymore, not since Dad moved out three years ago.
My mother traveled alone after the divorce. Occasionally, she would take her cousin along for company. The two of them went to the Holy Land and came back with hand-woven rugs and Dead Sea Salt scrubs and pictures of each other on camels. My mother likes camels, cab drivers and adventures. She likes talking to strangers at pubs and crashing other people’s wedding receptions being held in hotel bars. She likes eating savory things for breakfast like they do in Jerusalem: tabouli salad and hummus and olives and cucumber sprinkled with spices. She likes curry and naan and jacket potatoes and scotch and seven, Mister Whippy soft-serve and the Cadbury Flake chocolates they stick in the cone’s creamy top like a straw.
After her diagnosis, my mother was scared. Of the cancer. Of its insidiousness, its silence. The doctors succeeded in removing the carcinoma from her skin, lifting away not only the split pea but several dermal layers beneath it. “Just in case,” they said, “you should consider a small dose of radiation and chemotherapy.” Six to eight weeks. It will wipe out any cancerous cells that might be lingering, they said. It will guarantee you 20-30 years of carefree living, they said.
“You have plans,” the doctor told her as she sat on the examination table. “You have places to go, things to see.” My mother told him about the trip to Greece. He said it sounded wonderful. He said it was worth postponing. He said she was the youngest sixty-two-year-old he had ever met. My mother liked this. She called me after the appointment and told me so, several times over. My mother likes flattery, hair dye, Botox and Forever 21. She told the doctor she would consider the treatments and then went out for sushi. She sat at the bar drinking sake and looking at travel magazines, trying not to think about the time bomb beneath her skin.
The doctor gave my mother several days to make a choice. We spent a lot of time on the phone that week: me on my bed in San Diego sitting in a pool of spring sunshine; her, I imagined, sprawled on the powder blue couch in her living room, shades drawn, A/C blasting. I suggested a holistic approach—a gentler alternative to the chemo, the radiation, all those chemicals. “Clean diet, detox, cutting out sugar,” I explained. I could feel her nodding on the other end of the line. Nodding, and frowning. Because my mother likes sugar, mostly in the form of cheap wine and popsicles. She dislikes self-deprivation. Her idea of a detox is limiting alcohol to organic red wine—“one bottle a day, tops.” She likes doctors who are liberal with prescriptions, who don’t give her hell about her drinking, who say things with an air of authority. I knew all this. I tried to make the alternative sound appealing. “I mean, how cool would it be if you could just, like, neutralize the cancer?” My mother listened as I talked about the transformative effects of food and positive thinking; as I rambled on about my own release from anxiety after a year of clean eating and bodywork, the phone growing hotter and hotter against my ear.
“It all sounds so wonderful. I wish I had your discipline,” she said. I told her I wanted to help; that we could do it together. But in the end, she grew quiet. “I’m sorry. I’m just too afraid.”
My mother did not like the idea of radiation and chemotherapy. But more than that, she didn’t like “what if’s.” What might happen inside her body if she did not do the treatment. What might happen if she relied on willpower and antioxidants and the dozens of supplements flooding her kitchen drawers. She hadn’t always been this way.
My mother grew up in the sixties. She ate Oreos and Miracle Whip and thought mayonnaise was a health food. In high school, she suffered from acne and anxiety, vitamin deficiencies and depression. After that, she read a lot. She tried to eat better. My mother raised me in a household of tofu and vitamins and soymilk and buckwheat pancakes. She read Dr. Spock and The Vitamin Book, took me to yoga when I was ten, told the orthodontist my teeth were perfect with the gap in the front, let me dress myself: green tights, orange shirtdress, pink pith helmet, black and white oxfords. When I was in middle school, she got a bad case of cystitis and skipped the antibiotics in favor of corn silk tea, cabbage, brown rice and ghee for a month until it cleared. Now I am grown up, and I remember these things—the things I pushed away as a child for tasting bad or smelling funny, the things I draw close now because they make me feel safe and whole. Because they remind me of her. I drink hot water with lemon and turmeric root and wheatgrass, go to yoga twice a week, bring her baskets of squash and kale from the farmer’s market near my house each time I visit. I tell everyone, “That’s how my mother raised me.” I imagine she would like this.
My mother decided to do the chemo. When I couldn’t get her to change her mind, I switched gears. I suggested seaweed for the radiation and root vegetable broth for the nausea, just like my holistic nutritionist had taught me. My mother would nod and say yes, yes, that is a good idea. But then she would forget, or not have the energy, or simply want something else. Something easier. She wanted meat and potatoes and lots of butter. When I’d show up for a visit, I’d find the kale from my last trip sitting rotten and untouched in the crisper, buried under bottles of apple juice for mixing with Jameson and tubs of reduced-fat cream cheese. Under vacuum-sealed packages of smoked salmon and prosciutto, jars of dill pickles and bottles of milk. The things she eats when she has been drinking too much, or when no one has been over to visit lately and so there is no reason to cook. The things she eats at 2 a.m. when she wakes up feeling hungry and alone.
Last summer, my mother canceled the trip to Greece and exchanged her Rick Steves brochures for informational pamphlets on chemotherapy and radiation, on preventing nausea and hair loss and low immunity, pamphlets with titles like “Chemotherapy and You.” In June, she had a mediport installed above her right breast, a kind of sub-dermal IV that could be accessed with the prick of a needle, sending the cancer-killing drugs straight into her bloodstream. The unit caused a bulge beneath the skin that I could see every time she put on a tank top and shorts to get in the pool. My mother used to hate pools, hate bathing suits. But with a pool of her own at the new house, the one she bought on a whim after Dad left, she can swim in clothes or naked or with a big glass of wine sitting on the edge. She can float or do the dog paddle or blow bubbles. There is no one to see. My mother always wears the same blue halter-top and brown cargo shorts when she swims. She’ll say, “It’s too fucking hot here,” then wade in without flinching.
Last summer, she swam every day until the nausea started. I went to see her and she had a map of the world spread out on her dining room table. The plan was to put it up with lots of colored pins, marking the places she had been, the places she still wanted to go. The plan was to help her stay positive. My mother loves maps, has always been better at finding her way around than following directions. But in July her hair fell out and she began to get weaker and she stopped swimming, stopped looking at the map, started spending half the day trapped in the bathroom and the other half lying exhausted on the couch.
My mother is proud. She didn’t want to be seen this way. She didn’t like the way she looked: her bald head, her gaunt cheeks, her grey flesh hanging off thighs and hips where all that meat and butter had once been. She didn’t like the pile of clothes on the lawn out back, discards from all the times she’d failed to make it to the bathroom in time. She didn’t like the way the doctors said, “Hang in there” when she showed up at Radiology twenty pounds underweight.
My mother put away the map in July. She cleared the dining table and covered it with pill bottles. In August, she was admitted to the hospital: feverish, weak, unable to eat, unable to control her bowels. She was seven weeks into the treatment, finished with chemo, only one week away from completing radiation. Nurses kept asking about her cancer. “The cancer is gone,” she repeated. “This is all from the drugs.”
I went to see her. She was colorless, her hair a translucent fuzz around the crown of her head. I sat with her and held her hand, brought different flavors of popsicles upon request, took them away again when she couldn’t keep them down. She kept the TV off and the curtains drawn. This felt unnatural. My mother likes TV. She likes the news and No Reservations and Downton Abbey on PBS. But in the hospital, she didn’t want anything: not books, not her glasses, not the cards or the flowers that came in the mail. When she wasn’t getting blood drawn or talking to the nurses or crying weakly on the bed, she slept. Sometimes I would sit in the corner for an hour and simply watch: her placid face, her still fingers, her body motionless as the morphine slithered slowly through her blood.
Back at her house, I found the map draped across the bed in the guestroom, gathering dust. I thought about the doctors who had talked her into the treatment, the ones who had promised twenty years of health and travel. I brushed off the dust and rolled the map up gingerly, feeling its newness still crisp between my fingers. I filled the pool with water and threw away rotten food in the fridge and folded my mother’s headscarves. At night, I lay awake waiting for the phone to ring. For my mother to call. For her to say she’d like something: People Magazine; French fries; her Bible. I’d lay awake and listen to the whirr of the air conditioner and wonder. My mother likes air conditioning. She likes cool temperatures and cozy blankets, and she always draws the blinds in the afternoon. She leaves the A/C on at night, sometimes as low as 62 degrees. She says it makes her feel like she is someplace else.