Cancer, Family


When I was 16, I got a job at a gift shop. It was sort of like a Hallmark store, only it wasn’t a Hallmark and was independently-owned and operated. We sold greeting cards and scented candles and tiny figurines in the shape of woodland creatures and ceramic angels clutching birthday cakes or balloons. We played light rock on the radio and sold Beanie Babies, designer bath products, gift wrap and semi-gourmet coffee. For a 16-year-old girl, it was a lovely place to work. No fast food burgers to flip. No grocery store conveyor belts to clean.

For every gift-giving occasion, I shopped the store for gifts for my parents and sister. I can’t imagine now shopping in such a store and being satisfied with the options presented, but at 16, an empty Texas A&M picture frame seems like the perfect gift for your Aggie father. There were many scented candles burned and bottles of lotion emptied at our house. For three years, Yankee candles scented our home, and every gift was donned with tulle and designer paper.

In November, my parents moved out of their home of 33 years. They had several garage sales to ditch as much of the flotsam as they could before they left the house forever. Much of the junk set out on card tables in the garage was remnant from long-ago birthdays and Christmases, highly impersonal items into which we had poured all the sentiment they could hold. Each time they had a garage sale, I found myself hauling childhood junk out of the house and dropping it on the driveway. For months before they moved, I wished they would sell all their possessions, or at least a good portion. Sell the furniture. It doesn’t matter. Choose before the bank chooses for you. At least it can be on your terms. At least. I didn’t think much about losing my childhood home or never returning to it again. Them leaving that house was a weight lifted from our collective shoulders. But still there were things to worry about.

In December, I took my mother to the doctor for a mental status exam. I could feel that something was wrong because each time I saw her, my mother repeated herself more and more often. At first I dismissed it. My mother had always been absent-mined, forgetful. Then one day, I took her to lunch and she asked me the same question five times in 30 minutes. She ate a spinach salad and told me she was happy to be losing weight, that her doctor took her off blood pressure medication. She seemed weary, like she had been exercising and maybe that was the reason she lost weight. But she also seemed tan. Maybe she is getting healthier. Maybe she is wearing short sleeves and walking in the sun. She asks me about my sister again and again, like she needs to account for her people.

You have already asked me that, Mom. I am happy for you that you are losing weight. You’re walking and eating right. Good for you. No, I haven’t talked to my sister lately.

I assume that the stress of losing the house and having all her possessions displaced could cause forgetfulness, that the sudden change in her life circumstances is to blame. Or perhaps it is a medication change. The doctor concludes nothing is wrong. My mother’s mind is sound. Getting older, the doctor says. We all forget things. I can tell she thinks I will have my mother committed. I resent the doctor.

Brandon holding my mom's hand.
Brandon holding Mom’s hand.

And then one day, we receive an answer. On a Thursday in April, my dad calls to say she is in the emergency room. My husband and I drive to my hometown of Flower Mound to sit with her in the hospital, to ask questions and keep her company. We call the ER from the car and ask if she may eat. We are told yes and stop to buy her a hamburger on the way. When we arrive, the doctor’s order has changed. Nothing but clear liquids for now. Jell-O will be fine. And we have found a foreign mass on your mother’s pancreas. There are also spots on her liver. They tell her this news before we arrive. She is alone.

We pull into the parking lot. We enter the quiet suburban emergency room. She will be admitted soon. We sit with her in the ER. She is transferred to a hospital room. We tell her stories and jokes. People visit and pray with her. And for two weeks, I write down everything any doctor says to me. I keep a binder of meticulous notes. I write test results and physician names and plans and new plans. And in two weeks, she will go.

She comes home on Saturday after 10 days and two procedures in two different hospitals. We have met more doctors than ever in our lives. In our extra bedroom / office / music room, we place a borrowed day bed. I hang young pictures of my parents and my sister and me. I hang art from our old house. I decorate the top of her old piano, the one I brought home with me from my childhood home when my parents moved out. I place pillows at the end of the bed so that she can look out the window instead of at a wall. I hang cotton nightgowns in the closet. I stock the fridge with applesauce and Greek yogurt and chocolate Ensure and the pantry with instant cream of wheat. I buy popsicles and frozen fruit for smoothies. I simmer homemade organic chicken broth in the Crock Pot. Brandon carries her up the stairs. She sits in a Queen Anne chair in our living room, face in her hands, weeping. My husband plays her 40-year-old piano, and she goes to look at her room. She weeps.

For three days, we live in a quiet space that includes my mother. Suddenly, three people live in our condo. We nag her to eat and drink. I count her calories on an iPhone app. Fresh berries: 40 calories. Ensure chocolate shake: 250 calories. Chicken broth: 86 calories. In one day, her diet shrinks from 800 calories to 500. I cannot make her eat or drink.

On Tuesday, I work from home. Today, we will go to the doctor. The oncologist will tell us how she can get better, how we can treat her disease, how we can get her strong enough to withstand chemotherapy. Soon we will have answers. I wake my mother and place on the table a bowl of cream of wheat with cinnamon and sugar and a glass of chocolate Ensure. I ask her how she feels this morning.

“At peace,” she says.

She sits at the table and eats the entire bowl of cream of wheat. She gulps the “chocolate milk.” And then she goes to bed. In a few hours, I wake her and help her to the bathroom. She sits on a plastic chair in the tub, and I bathe her with Caress body wash. I wash her hair, her face. Her eyes close and her cheeks are hollow, her skin waxy. She breathes the steam and rests. Her eyes are closed, her chin against her chest. I feel how tired she is. She gets back in bed and sleeps again until it is time to leave.

She gets down the stairs of our apartment with Brandon walking one step behind her and holding her up under her armpits, he in a squat position, her clutching the grey metal banister.

We go to the oncologist. She sleeps on the way to the doctor’s office. Brandon helps her out of the front seat of my car, up the ramp with her walker, to a reclining chair in the waiting area. The office is empty except for one staff member who tells us we are in the wrong place. We get a wheelchair and wheel her across the parking lot to the right building. In the hallway of the cancer clinic, she sleeps while we sign forms, sleeps while we wait for the doctor, asks to go home. We are awake, and I do not understand why she is not. How can anyone not be rested after so much sleep?

We wait and meet with an oncologist. He looks at her and is not startled. He has seen this many times before. He looks at us, at my husband and me, then at my father. He comprehends in an instant what I now understand.

No one tells me she is dying. I know she will die. I know cancer is devouring her body. I know the cancer will win and she will die. But I do not know she is dying. She is in the process of dying for three days in the bedroom we decorate for her in our home after her release from the hospital but before we must take her back because she is vomiting.

I have never loved my mother as much or as well as I do during those three days.