I received news that my mother had breast cancer on an Easter morning. She died a few days before Thanksgiving, seven months after her diagnosis. A lot can unfold in seven months, more than I ever expected. It’s an odd amount of time, seven months. It’s not a year, or a half year. It’s just seven months. It wasn’t enough time to solve our family problems, but it was enough time to ignite them.
I’m the youngest sibling in my family. I have an older brother and sister. We all grew up in the same household but we all grew into very different people. My older brother became a cop. My older sister became a teacher. I became a failure. We were three siblings with nothing in common except a bloodline. It is said that blood is thicker than water. I’m not sure if that adage holds up especially if water is blended with Bourbon and then poured over ice. That’s what I drink: bourbon and water over ice.
It’s not what you think. I’m not a failure because I drink. Failure came to me at an early age and now at age twenty-seven I am a pro at failure. The drinking, that’s just an added feature of my life that helps me from going over the edge. Some folks take anti-depressants or binge exercise to deal with their depression. Me? I’m a far simpler person than that, I just drink alcohol. Besides, it is delicious. Bourbon over water with a twist of lemon all chilled over some rocks, you should try it. You’d understand.
Neither my brother or sister drink. They chose to break the cycle. Mom and Dad were drinkers. Dad died about eight years ago from lung cancer. He was one of those poor bastards who never smoked but still ended up with lung cancer. Truth be told, he was a big inspiration for why I drink. If you can go a life without smoking and still get lung cancer, I could spend my life drinking and not become an alcoholic, so far so good.
I would like to think our family was special in some way. I think everyone wants to believe in that notion. Oh sure, there were special moments here and there. My brother the cop, he did well in sports and we had some victory parties every now and again when he won some tournament. My sister always did well in school so we sat in gymnasiums as she got a few awards for her academics. I didn’t garner any special occasions so Mom did her best to make my birthday something special. She tried to make me feel special. But how can someone who never felt special herself make someone else know what that feels like?
I graduated high school with a solid C average. I took a few classes at a Community College but nothing really stuck. My brother and sister had moved out of the house by the time I graduated so it was just me, Mom and Dad at home for those years after high school. The subject was broached a few times about what I would like to do with my life. I never formulated a good answer even though I had many years to ruminate on the matter. Those few years after high school were placid. Mom toiled about the house during the day. Dad would come home from work about 5:00 PM. We had dinner at 6:00PM. Then we all sat in the living room watching TV. Dad had his Gin and Tonic. Mom had her white wine. And I watched.
By the age of nineteen I had joined them: Bourbon and water.
Dad was a Korean War veteran. Today he would be diagnosed with PTSD, but in the 1980’s soldiers carried their trauma close to the vest. If the house was silent, except for the television, he did ok. Mom, who had taught school for nineteen years sheltered a deeper wound. Today she would have been called a victim of date rape. But again, the 1980’s taught adults to keep their sorrows hidden. The sorrows in our house were indeed hidden, or perhaps submerged is a better description. Alcohol was the great equalizer.
I eventually did move out of the house. I got a job after I stopped going to Community College at a local dry-cleaner. At first I was pressing clothes with the commercial presser. It was amazingly hot and humid in there, but for some reason I stuck it out. I also made sure that the hangers did not get tangled up on the rotating racks of shorts and pants draped in their plastic dressings with the logo for Brick’s Cleaners. After a year, the owner had a stroke. His wife who ran the counter asked if I would step in and help with managerial things. I did. At twenty years old I became assistant manager of the dry-cleaning shop so I moved out, because that’s what people do.
I didn’t see my brother much, at least not until Mom was diagnosed with her cancer. I saw my sister every now and again at the house. I stopped in weekly at the house to see if Mom needed anything. I always brought her a few bottles of wine since there was a liquor store next to the dry cleaners. She patted my cheek each time I did. It was too awkward for her to thank me for alcohol, so she just patted my face. That was the extent of affection in our household.
After Dad died, my brother, sister and I tried to make a family night at Mom’s house at least once a month. My sister always organized it. I always showed up. My brother did his best but he was often on shift in the evenings, or at least that’s what he claimed. My brother and I shared a room growing up so you would imagine we would be close. We weren’t. He grew up to be a tightly wound, conservative, straight cop who drove a huge truck and had a vapid, beautiful wife and two quiet kids. I was a relaxed, ne’er-do-well, liberal -leaning gamer who secretly who had yet to start dating. My sister? She’s fine. We just never bonded. Occasionally she would give me a book to read, but that was about as deep as the two of us went.
Mom called that Easter morning. She hadn’t been feeling well so I picked up the phone thinking she needed me to run to the store for Tylenol or Thera-flu. Nope. She told me quietly, in a slightly slurred voice that she had breast cancer. She knew my brother would be angry and my sister would start crying, neither of which she wanted to deal with, so she asked me to tell them. She wanted us over for Easter Dinner as planned. She wanted me to tell them not to bring up cancer at dinner.
As expected, my brother flew off the handle shouting into the phone about second opinions and that he couldn’t take care of a sick parent because he was too busy with his own kids and family. He loved to use that excuse with me because with no kids and lack of apparent social life, I certainly had time. It didn’t matter if it was fixing an appliance of Mom’s or helping out with cancer. Also, as predicted, my sister melted into tears stating how unfair it was and how would she ever be able to come to dinner and not talk about it. I replied, because that is what Mom wanted, that’s why.
My brother didn’t show up for dinner. While I helped Mom set the table my sister called saying she couldn’t possibly come over since she was so upset. Mom and I looked at each other, and for an odd intimate moment, we both laughed at the ridiculous behavior of her kids, my siblings. She and I sat at the table together. I was in Dad’s old seat and Mom was across from me. The food was great and the cocktails were tall. It was perhaps the loveliest evening either of us had in quite some time. By the time, she was serving the cherry cobbler she had made, I had agreed to move back in and help her around the house. The cold she couldn’t shake was now cancer. She needed help.
Chemotherapy was horrendous. It made her weaker than the cancer. My brother exploded over how she was poisoning herself. My sister lamented that mother was too frail, it was just too hard on her to see Mom that way. She came by only in the afternoon when Mom napped. She feigned being sad that she missed Mom being awake, always leaving before she awoke. Mom managed while I was at work, and when I wasn’t at work I was at home helping Mom. My room was still there as it always was so it was an easy enough transition for me to stay and help.
Mom was not lucky enough to encounter spikes of energy some cancer patients receive while on chemotherapy. After two months, Mom had a double mastectomy to try and stop the tumors. For a month or so around June we thought she might enter remission. X-rays in early July showed that the cancer had metastasized into her lungs and brain. That was that. Mom stopped therapies and she and I made life at home for her as comfortable as possible. Ladies from Mom’s church stopped in with more food than I knew what to do with, which was ironic because Mom ate less and less each day.
My brother stopped in more often now that she was mostly confined to her bed. He always brought flowers. He always held her hand. And every time on his way out of the house he yelled at me for not doing more to help. He had a funny notion that his being oldest somehow made him in charge. My sister finally started visiting Mom while she was awake, usually just before dinner when she was done at school. They talked strictly about kids, education and the classroom. I can’t recall one conversation they had about Mom’s illness.
It was Halloween, when my sister came by to gather some kids costumes from the storage space in the garage, that things became quite serious. The only things Mom could eat was broth in a cup and, strangely, macaroons. The gravity of the situation finally broke through my brother’s hard exterior. His mother was dying, he was having trouble processing that concept. My sister, also noticing the change in Mom’s appearance, began coming over to the house more.
My brother had been made executor of Mom’s estate by my father before he died. I asked him if he thought it was time that we start going through Mom’s paperwork. I didn’t see it coming at all, but he punched my square in the face. I crumbled to the floor and he just stood over me, hands on his hips glaring at me. My sister was there and she just stood frozen with her hands over her mouth. My brother left.
At the beginning of November, the doctor who visited my Mother at home suggested I consider Hospice care for her. He explained it was a place for her to go for pain management to maximize her comfort. Mom still had power-of-attorney over herself despite my brother being executor of her estate. She looked at me with what I had come to know as her expression of consent. I told the doctor to make the arrangements. Three days later the ambulance arrived. I moved Mom over to Hospice care without telling my brother. Fuck him.
Hospice was a God send, and I say that as an atheist so you can imagine how good it was for Mom. Her feet were massaged. What was left of her hair was combed. A young nurse even painted her nails. They brought a small boombox in and I brought cassettes of music she liked: Anne Murray, Florence Henderson, Loretta Lynn. Mrs. Snyder at the dry-cleaners had given me all the time off I needed to help Mom. When she told that she patted my cheek, just like Mom had down when I brought her wine bottles after work. I grabbed her hand without thinking and cried openly. She let me hold her hand until I had composed myself. For the first time in my life I heard something I had never heard. Mrs. Snyder told me, “You’re a good son.”
Was I? The kid who amounted to nothing and had made little of himself? My brother and sister owned their own homes, had kids and had lives. What did I have to contribute? What about me would have made my parents proud? I left the dry-cleaners in something of a stupor. “You’re a good son.” Such a simple little phrase. My heart broke open. I cried all the way back to the Hospice Center.
When I got back to Mom’s room, I was surprised to see a man in a suit standing there with a nurse. Noticing me standing outside, the nurse who I had come to know quite well, walked over to me and brought me inside. The nurse explained to me that the man was their in-house legal counsel and that Mom had requested some assistance. The attorney confirmed that Mom had signed a DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) order. He also said that she had given me power-of-attorney and assigned me as executor of the estate. The nurse had acted as witness. That news all seemed to be overwhelming. Then the attorney said that Mom also asked to be moved back home.
The puzzled look on my face was noticed by the nurse who took my hand and said in a whisper, “She wants to die at home.” For the second time in a day a devolved into tears. I was so tired and so over-whelmed. But then I looked at my mother, whose eyes were now closed. Who was I to be tired when mom was fighting cancer with such grace and poise? “Of course,” I whispered. We would transfer her home tomorrow after ten o’clock in the morning. Their policy was to transfer clients in an ambulance. The nurse asked if I wanted to ride with Mom on her way home. I said yes.
I called my brother and sister from the phone at the Nurse’s station and told them of the change. My brother shouting that this was a dumb decision. I told him flat out that his opinion didn’t matter anymore because mom had made me power-of-attorney and executor of the restate. I added that he could fuck off. My sister took the news better than I thought. It wasn’t until much later that I came to understand she took the news of Mom moving back home as a sign she was getting better. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The nurse said that since Mom had expended so much energy with the attorney they were going to bump her morphine so she could get some rest overnight. I left shortly after they started her drip knowing she would be floating comfortably numb for the rest of the night. I went to the house, to Mom’s house, and straightened things up. The house wasn’t messy, but when she was healthy she always kept the house immaculately in order. I didn’t even know if she would be able to see the house, but it didn’t matter. She was coming home to die so I wanted her home to be perfect. I had purchased some flowers, irises and gladioli, and arranged a vase on her bedroom dresser. I pulled the comforter on her bed back into a neat triangle so she could slip into bed easily.
After that I checked messages. I had been gone from work for 2 weeks. Mrs. Snyder left a message asking if I needed anything. She never once asked me to come back to work. She was such a lovely woman. There was one more message from Mom’s ladies group at church asking when was a good time to bring by casseroles. I kept saying that mom wasn’t eating much anymore. It wasn’t until after the funeral one of the ladies said they weren’t bringing food by for her, they were bringing it by for me.
Mom never did make it home to die. About 2:00 AM her monitors let out that long, lonely tone indicating her heart had given out. No one rushed to her side, the nurses knew. Another client on a cloud of morphine had left this world. The night nurse clicked off the monitor, pulled Mom’s chenille blanket up over her head and held Mom’s hand for a moment saying a silent prayer.
They called me at home, at Mom’s home. The words came through the telephone and into my mind. I exhaled a few times quickly and the nurse asked if I had understood. I told her I did. She gave her condolences. I was too emotional to speak so I just put the phone down on the receiver. That was that. Mom had died. I reached up and touched my cheek, where she used to pat me so gently. Tears were on my cheeks. My breathing came in fits and starts. I walked back to Mom’s bedroom and laid down thinking she never made it back home.
It was just seven months ago we learned she had cancer. Now it was over. She was done with it. She was out of pain. She was released from that frail, unfamiliar body. Seven months ago, life changed for me, for the family, but not for the world in general. I sat up on Mom’s bed and saw the cars passing by in the street. The streetlights still shone. I heard the heater click on and the soft hush of air come through the vents. I wanted so badly for the cars to stop, for the streetlight to flicker off and the heater to shut down. They didn’t. Mom was gone but life persisted everywhere except in my Mom’s body. I touched my cheek again knowing mom would never touch it again. I heard Mrs. Snyder’s words in my mind, “You’re a good son.”
I held that in my mind as I called my siblings.