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Authors: Meghan O'Rourke

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BOOK: The Long Goodbye
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M
Y MOTHER and father had a romance out of a novel. She ran off with him when she was sixteen. He was a teacher at her school; she met him after the nuns confiscated a letter she'd written in class about smoking pot, and threatened to call in her strict Irish Catholic father. What should I do? she asked her friends. Talk to Mr. O'Rourke, the new Greek teacher, they said, he just graduated from college and he's pretty cool. She did. He—swayed perhaps as much by her looks as her case—defended her to the nuns on the grounds that what had happened constituted an invasion of privacy, if not mail fraud. The tactic succeeded. That summer, my mother began studying Greek with my father, but the lessons evolved into the two of them driving around town in my dad's VW Bug and finding quiet places to smoke pot. A few months later, their affair was discovered, and they went off to New York, to the dismay of her parents and his. Her father had always wanted her to go to college, and he decreed that as soon as my mother had been accepted—she was then a high school junior—she could marry my father. He thought his command would put a stop to the romance. Instead, my dad helped my mother take the SAT and apply to Barnard, and she got in. My grandfather died of a heart attack that spring; in the confused aftermath, my mother said she would cancel the wedding, but my grandmother protested. The deal had been made. It was right. My mother should marry my father. And so she did. She was seventeen and he was twenty-three.
In some way she always kept the quality of the youthful bride. She loved animals and gardening. When I was young, she got into photography and began taking pictures of flowers. She was very serious about these photos. She learned about depth of field and apertures and shutter speeds. Soon our photo drawer was full of crystalline pictures of a gardenia blossom or a pale pink magnolia wet with rain. They looked just like the photos of flowers—dew on the petal—used at photo development stores as advertisements. She also loved to bake. My brothers and father and I used to conduct blind taste tests comparing her graham-cracker-crust cheesecake with the famous one from Junior's in Brooklyn. Hers was better, we triumphantly concluded. The Thanksgiving before she died, she tried to make a cheesecake but ended up just wandering around the kitchen pulling pots down and looking at them, saying, “What do I need, what do I need?”
 
 
Walking down the street on a day when my stomach wouldn't stop hurting, I told myself that my pain was the pain of a lucky person whose life was about to be touched by the ineluctably real for the first time. I was thirty-two; I shouldn't be so destroyed by what was happening.
And yet this kind of mental calculus had no impact on my limbic system.
 
 
W
HEN I LEARNED that my mother
was
going to die—nothing to be done, no “therapies” remaining (as if she had exhausted a series of spa options, instead of the chemical frying and steroidal assault she had been under for roughly two years)—I was about to get a massage.
It was a Friday in September. My mother had been given another PET scan, and at noon she was seeing Dr. Mears; I knew that in an hour or two the Call would come. I was waiting in the incense-filled anteroom when the phone rang.
O'Rourke, Home
.
Shit. I'd thought I was going to get this call after the appointment, in privacy; instead I was surrounded by flowers and essences of primrose and girls who feel chi. Was this really the place to learn my mother's fate?
“Meg?” my mother said. She sounded depressed.
She plunged in, no small talk. “So we got the test results back. The cancer has spread into two of my vertebrae as well as the hip bone. And the tumors in the liver and lungs have grown.”
“I am so sorry,” I said. I sank down on the porch steps, having gotten outside somehow, away from the flowers. But my “sorry” felt a bit like a lie. Did I want my mother to die? No, I did not want my mother to die. But I couldn't stand this pain and sickness. And I couldn't stand trying to comfort her. Mainly, I was in disbelief. I couldn't feel a thing yet—not even sorrow. “Dr. Mears says that there is nothing left to do. There are no other drugs. So we are going to stop treatment now. But he and Susan, my nurse, are going to look into experimental treatments.”
“How do you feel?” I asked, not knowing what to say, what my new role was. Was I still her child? Or her supporter? We had not yet moved into our new positions.
“Well, I feel bad,” she said, half laughing. Hearing the disappointment in her voice turned my middle into a lake of curdled pain.
The masseuse was signaling me. “Mom?” I said. “I'm sorry but I have to go. Can I call you later?”
“I have to call Eamon, anyway.”
I asked her what she was going to say.
“I don't know. I want him to stay in school. I don't want him to come home. It's his last year in college. He just got cast as the lead in his play. I want him to have that.”
“OK,” I said. “But . . . but I think he might need to have this, too, to be part of what's going on.”
A little door in my mother clicked shut. “Not yet,” she said.
“OK.”
“Talk to you later,” she sighed.
“Yes,” I said.
I had gone dead inside. Psychiatrists, I read later, call this “numbing out.” When you can't deal with the pain of a situation, you shut down your emotions. I knew I was sad, but I knew it only intellectually. I couldn't feel it yet. It was like when you stay in cold water too long. You know something is off but don't start shivering for ten minutes.
 
 
On a hazy October morning a few weeks later, my mother and I drove down to New York-Presbyterian Hospital in the near dark, listening to traffic reports like all the other commuters. We were enrolling her in an experimental treatment program of carboplatin and E7389 run by a Dr. Hershey, whose name brought candy inappropriately to mind. It was a last-ditch effort. I thought, mordantly, that the creeping cars around us were like souls wandering in Hades. My mom was quiet. I worried that she resented my constant fussing about what she was eating and whether my father had given her the right pain medication, but when she called school to check in—as she still did every day—she told her colleague Tundé that she was in the car with her “lovely daughter.” Funny how much that meant to me.
Though I'd often picked my mother up after her chemo treatments, I'd never seen one take place. It is a brisk business. Needles and bags are hustled into place with efficiency, as if it were not poison that is about to be put in the body. The nurses were nice, speaking with humor and frankness, though they'd just met my mother. As the drugs slid up the IV into her arm, we watched stolid barges plug up the Hudson like islands, water silver in the haze. I read poems and she asked me about poetry.
“I don't really understand it,” she said. “I never have. Do you think you could teach me to read a poem?”
“I do,” I said.
 
 
That weekend, my friend Karen came to stay with me; I needed distraction. I felt everything had suddenly cracked like a window hit by a baseball, and it was only a matter of time before it caved in, leaving little pieces on the ground. I had just begun teaching two college writing seminars, and working part-time as a coeditor on the launch of a Web magazine backed by
Slate
, and I was telling her about the project. Theoretically I'd be working on it only three days a week, from wherever I wanted. But I was worried about pulling my weight and still being able to help my mother.
Karen and I were talking and window-shopping when my mother called, uncharacteristically weeping. “I need your help, Meg,” she said. “I don't know what to do. I feel I am losing my way as a mother.” She sounded a little hysterical, like a child. “Just slow down and tell me what happened,” I said. “Eamon has been asked to leave Colgate. They found some drugs in his room. I don't know what to do, I can't believe they would do this at a time like this.” Then she gathered herself, and sounded like my mother again. “Don't they understand that he's a kid whose mother is”—she paused—“a kid who's going through a really difficult time? I need your help.”
“I'll help,” I said. “I'll call Eamon, I'll talk to Colgate, we'll figure it all out, it will be OK,” I said, too weak not to want to pretend it would be.
“Your father just can't take this right now,” she said, a catch in her throat. “He can't. And I just feel confused.”
“It's OK,” I said, fruitlessly, pushing the hair out of my eyes, “it's going to be OK.”
 
 
A week later, on a chilly October day, I was having a drink with a friend when my phone rang—
“Meg?” Isabel said, with the special anxiety that nudged my heart to the side.
“What's wrong?” I said. I pictured my mother in the emergency room. I pictured her with blood at her mouth, hemorrhaging from her lungs. She had had her experimental treatment that day. Something must have gone wrong. Or maybe it was my father. I pictured my father—my increasingly gaunt, haunted father—being treated for exhaustion or a stroke.
But Isabel told me that my mother had fallen on her way to treatment and seemed fragile. Could I go up to Connecticut the next day to be with her while everyone was at school?
When I arrived the next morning, my mother was lying in her usual spot on the couch. She looked drawn; she had an afghan at her feet, and the dogs, Huck and Ringo, were beside her. They leapt up, tails wagging, when they saw me, knocking over a glass of water with their large, baffled clumsiness. “Hi, Meg,” she called out. Her voice was weak.
I got her some of the San Pellegrino Limonata that she liked. She had mouth sores and wasn't eating much but she still would try lemon yogurt and citrus sodas; the sourness appealed to her. I sat next to her. We talked as I did some work, but she kept drifting off. I wanted to have an unburdening conversation with her. Some part of me was still angry she hadn't been unquestionably on my side during the divorce, and this frustration had come out on the phone the night before; my father and I had argued about Eamon's situation, and my mother had gotten on the phone. Sounding confused, she began to cry and said, “You're both trying to do the right thing. Don't be so mad at each other.” I stopped and swallowed (how could I deny my mother this?) and yet selfishly, powerfully, I needed her to know that sometimes we were going to be angry at each other; she had a tendency to want to patch things over before they were ready to be patched up. I hated that she always wanted me to be “reasonable.” I wanted her to understand what I felt—it seemed imperative that she should. At the same time, I was haunted by the feeling that my divorce had given her one more cause for worry, and I wanted to know, once again, that I had her love and forgiveness. But she kept slipping into a half-focus. Ringo came over and wedged himself between the coffee table and my legs, his tail nearly knocking over my tea.
“Why must he always do that?” I complained. My mother opened her eyes and laughed.
“It's true,” she said, bemused. “I mean, why doesn't he just go under the coffee table?”
“I don't know,” I said slowly. This was when I knew something was not right.
The coffee table extended almost to the ground. The dog was a golden retriever. There was no way he could fit in the inch or so under the table. Several times over the past two weeks my mother would forget a word and say to one of us, “I can't believe I don't know that word!” Or she would say, “I don't want to take so much Percocet, I am having a hard time remembering things.” The day before, she'd inexplicably taken a thousand dollars out of the bank. “Your father was so annoyed,” she told me. “I don't understand why. I just got confused.”
And a week earlier she'd complained that her ear was buzzing.
I called the nurse coordinating the experimental treatment, who mentioned I'd made an appointment for the wrong day. “Didn't your mother tell you it had to be Thursday?” she said. “I just told her.”
“That's odd. She normally would remember that kind of thing.” I paused. “To be honest, she seems confused.”
“Confused?” the nurse said. “Or forgetful? I noticed last time she was here she was forgetting words. But that is common when you're taking as much pain medicine as she is.”
“I don't know,” I said, frustrated. “What is the clinical difference between confusion and forgetfulness?”
“Confusion means she doesn't understand things, or makes mistakes that don't have to do with memory.”
“Well, she seems
confused
,” I reiterated. “And she fell yesterday.”
“Probably it's just forgetfulness,” the nurse said, too blithely for my taste.
“What are the chances she could have a brain tumor? She seems . . . off,” I said.
“I don't think she would have a brain tumor with colorectal cancer,” the nurse said. “It wouldn't present this way. But I will check with Dr. Hershey.”
I was standing in the laundry room with the door closed so my mom would not hear me discussing her symptoms. Her dirty shirts were piled on top of the washing machine.
The nurse called back. “The doctor thinks you should go to the emergency room.”
“What?”
“He agrees that a tumor wouldn't present this way, but you should check it out. She could have ammonia buildup in her brain due to the tumors in her liver. That would cause confusion.”
I was getting angry. I had no idea what to do. My mother ran a school, for Christ's sake. She was the boss of many people. She didn't like to be taken care of.
BOOK: The Long Goodbye
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