A fight to the death

by jexmas on December 4, 2010

My mother’s cancer is just as sad and unbelievable a story as any other part of this ordinary tragedy.  When she discovered she had a lump in her breast, my sister took her to see the doctor. My sister waited in the car with her children while my mother went into the clinic. Later, my mother told me she walked past the front desk and went into the bathroom where she waited for half-an-hour. When she came out, she walked past the front desk in the opposite direction, out the door of the clinic and got into my sister’s car. She told my sister she had seen the doctor and he told her it was nothing.
She returned home and proceeded to watch over the next four years as the cancer in her left breast became bigger and bigger, eventually ulcerating through the skin.
Like everything else idiosyncratic about my mother, I was not alarmed by the weird changes in her dress because I did not know about the cancer. I attributed the strange developments in her clothing choices to something else: trying to be inclusive, allowing her to be expressive in her own way or just treating it like everything else – as a random, meaningless change in the way she saw herself. She started wearing dresses over her pants. They were long dresses with high necks over jeans or cords or other pants. Of course, she was trying to cover herself up, like throwing the tea towel over the saucepan with her insulin syringe in it; at the same time, hoping someone would notice and say something.
By then, she and my father had been sleeping in separate bedrooms for some years and co-existed, living together but not together, making what they could of their lives in their own ways. By then, my mother was terrified. She could not bring herself to go to and see a doctor, still traumatized in some way by the first horrific diagnosis she had received decades earlier. She did not want to hear again that she had done something wrong and should not tell her friends or anyone else about this new development. Instead, she went to see a faith healer who told her she could be helped, but only if she was not taking any medication. So my mother stopped taking her insulin and almost died a week later. In an odd ironic twist, the faith healer actually helped her, because my mother’s cancer was finally discovered.
My father found my mother then as we often had: in a coma.  This time, it was different. She was in a keto-acidosis coma from too little insulin and in a much more dangerous state than she ever was in any of her other comas. I am not even sure if he knew what was happening to her since, as far as I know, it was the only time she had ever had been like this. At the hospital that night, my father and I sat up all night while the staff tried to stabilize her. She was thrashing around at some point when I went in to see her and the nurse showed me her breast which by then was completely consumed by cancer. It was so hard to watch her because she was engaged in something of which she was not conscious: her body was fighting, was breathing hard and moaning, was physically struggling and thrashing around, tenaciously holding on, refusing to let go.
She fought on through the night and, in the morning, was stable. Within a few days, she had a massive surgical procedure to remove her left breast, the lymph nodes under her left arm and all of the soft tissue down to her ribs. The doctors took her omentum, the thick layer of fat covering the abdominal organs, and turned it up to provide padding over her ribs. She was in the hospital for at least three weeks slowly recovering and did tell me some of what she had been thinking about when she knew she had cancer. She told me she had been writing a journal about her cancer and her feelings about herself and, after she died several years later, I found it: a manila folder wrapped around three hundred pages of stream-of-consciousness writing. At the time, I could not look at it because I knew it would be full of so much pain.
Now, I open the pages and have trouble reading the lines. My mother’s handwriting was so curly and round, each letter featuring a loop. The last paragraph she wrote after she had seen the faith healer reads:
“It’s as though I’ve now got something that’s out of my control. Needing help with it, not from a doctor who would take over. What I need to know is how to uncreate it.”
It is another Christmas Day and I am hosting the family dinner. There is a photo of my sister and me as babies on the shelf in the dining room.  My mother looks at the photos and says, “Every time I look at that picture, I can’t help but think of failure.” This statement makes me so angry, yet reluctantly I understand it.
She resorts to the idea that she was a terrible mother and, at the same time, her comment includes her cruelty since she does not, and never has, approved of me or the choices I have made. Yet I have spent so much of my life already keeping her alive.

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