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Authors: Meghan O'Rourke

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BOOK: The Long Goodbye
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I went downstairs slowly.
“Where've you been?” she said, eating tomato soup I'd brought for her. I sat down next to her and took her hand.
“Mom,” I said. “I don't want you to be upset.” She gave me a funny look. “But when I got here I noticed you seemed a little confused. I asked the nurse about it. And she and Dr. Hershey think you should go to the emergency room. So I think we should go. Is that OK?”
“The EMERGENCY ROOM?” she said, in shock. “Why?”
“They're concerned that there might be some ammonia building up in your brain. They also want you to have an MRI just to check everything out and make sure it's all OK.”
This was awful. Somehow I was the person telling my mother that things were getting bad. That we were now in ER territory. To me this seemed a dangerous new place, a Siberia it would take weeks to cross. No: a Siberia we'd be stuck in for good. Surely they were wrong. She just needed to sit, to rest—
What was I thinking? She was terminally ill. We all knew this was coming. Why had I thought it would be different?
“But I just had an MRI,” she said.
“When I had shingles.”
“But you had shingles last year,” I said.
“No I didn't—I just had them.”
“That was last fall, Mom. It was after my wedding.”
“I KNOW,” she said. But she looked confused. Because she
confused. She sat quietly. Then she looked up and said, “Well, I
been having some strange symptoms. I was telling your father about them. And he kept insisting it was the medicine. But I didn't know why the medicine would do this.”
“Like what?”
“Like, I would be sitting here looking at the TV with him. And one night I felt like the TV should be over
”—she pointed toward the hallway corner—“like it really
there and the image was just projected here.”
“And today Isabel was making an appointment for the blood work for me, and I couldn't remember what day was what.”
“You mean
was making the appointment for you?”
“No, Isabel. She brought me soup and—”
“Oh,” I said. “OK. Get your coat on, Mom, it's time to go.”
I called my dad and Liam, who were on the way home, and waited for my mother downstairs. I derived a strange comfort from being able to take her to the hospital. Liam got to see her every day at school. He and she had the same sense of humor. In the face of her pain, he and Eamon both knew how to make her laugh. I could only ask how she felt, or drive her to and fro.
Where was she?
“Mom!” I shouted and bounded up the stairs. She was drifting along putting clothes away.
I'd insisted that her doctor call the ER ahead of time, so we were whisked into triage like VIPs. When the nurse asked Mom questions, she gave answers that weren't accurate. I shifted to and fro and made faces. How do you interrupt your mother and tell her she is losing her grip on reality? By just doing it. Inside, the nurses gave her a private “room”—a nook, really—and handed her a lime-green gown. The entire ER was coated in green. All the nurses wore green “animal” scrubs. One nurse's were papered with pastel fish, another's with rabbits. We are not
, I thought. “Now open your mouth,” the nurse said to my mom, in an enticing voice. “Dr. Popper will be with you in a moment.”
Outside our nook, a frail, white-haired woman who must have been in her eighties lay on a stretcher moaning. I stared rudely. There were nurses everywhere, but no one was paying any attention to her. Evidently, she'd been seen and was now in the purgatory of Waiting for the Next Step, whatever that was. We had entered the country of bureaucratic confusion, a hub plastic and colorful and empty as the innards of a Tinkertoy. “AHHHHOOW,” the woman went. It sounded oddly—and obscenely—like an orgasm. My mother looked over appraisingly. “They better give her more of whatever they're giving her.”
Machines buzzed and clicked around us. Hell, I thought bitterly, was technology in the presence of inevitable death. Because the machines were present, no one—no
, that is—seemed to feel the need to be, unless we made them pay attention to us. I understood the power dynamics here—I was not supposed to ask too much, not supposed to know too much. To try to assert authority would only mean you'd be met with lassitude. Instead, you had to coax their help by deferring to the charts, the information. Meanwhile, they wore animal pajamas and gave you animal clothes, like you were all in a twisted episode of
Romper Room
. It was the stupidest thing I had ever seen.
I asked my mom if she was hungry. She nodded. Why don't I get you a yogurt? I said, and I headed upstairs, back to normal life, where people were in the hospital for routine procedures, bearing children and having tonsils out and eating ice cream, getting flowers and going home.
When I came back, my mother was in her aqua gown and socks. She dutifully told me they had taken her in for the MRI. I opened the yogurt and gave it to her. I had forgotten to get her a spoon, so she drank it. I paced, pulling the curtain back to search for Dr. Popper and his Information. Sirens went off outside and one of the nurses—this one in ducks—said to a tall doctor running past, “Do we have a trauma here?” I heard a short laugh behind me. My mother was pointing at her nose, on which a dab of bright yellow lemon yogurt sat. “Look!” she said, in high amusement. “I'm like a child.”
An hour later, as my mother dozed, the ER doctor flicked the curtain back to enter. His balding head was down, looking at a scan. “So, wow, she does have nodes on the brain after all,” he said without affect. “I'm gonna call Dr. Chi, the oncologist upstairs, to come take a look.” Then, barely looking at either of us, he turned to leave.
My mother was staring blankly. “Dr. Popper,” I broke in, “so you mean my mother does in fact have tumors in her brain?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Two over on the left side. They would be in a place that's consistent with the spatial confusion you've been describing. Very unusual. So I'll get Dr. Chi.”
Silence. The noises and clicks continued. I didn't want to look at my mom; I couldn't bear what I was going to see in her eyes. Then she said, as if she were telling a joke, “Well, THAT was awfully casual of him!”
I could hear the effort in her voice and it broke my heart. It was easier later, when she got irritated and said, “He's just talking to you. He's got to stop doing that. I'm here, too.
the patient.”
I called Dr. Hershey, the new research oncologist. For all my mother's hard-won lightness, I was furious. How could none of the doctors have warned us? A man picked up. “Dr. Hershey here.” “Oh, Dr. Hershey,” I said, faltering. Then I felt pleased: I could tell him what happened; I could make him feel remorse for his ignorance and punish him with my prescience.
had known she had tumors.
had not.
“This is Meghan, Barbara's daughter. We called today, because she was experiencing confusion, and your office recommended she come to the ER for tests and scans.”
“Yes, yes—how is she doing?”
“Well, actually, the MRI shows she has several lesions on the right lobe of her brain. It looks like the cancer has spread to the brain, in fact.”

-ly,” he said slowly. His response was dramatic. But his tone was not the one I had hoped for. He didn't sound embarrassed or apologetic. Instead, he sounded
“That's highly unusual,” he drawled.
Then, gathering himself, he said, “I'm sorry to be clinical about it. I know this is your mother, but that is fascinating. This rarely happens with colorectal cancer.” Another pause. “And you've been dealing with this long enough now that you have a sense of what is taking place.”
“Yes,” I said, stunned into monosyllables by his assumption that I could think clinically about the fact that renegade cells were devouring my mother from the inside out.
“I mean, when I was a boy, OK, not a boy, but a long time ago, you read the clinical lit, there was nothing about mets to the brain. But that's because so few people make it as long as your mother. She's an outlier. She's rare. We're learning things about the disease from her and people like her. We have seen this type of development, but almost never. In the past, patients with her diagnosis would never have lived this long. We used to think it went just to the lungs and liver, and not to the brain—unlike say, breast cancer.”
“Right,” I said.
“Well, I am sorry to hear the news.”
I gathered myself. “I'm calling to see if we can take her home. I'd prefer not to leave her here in the hospital overnight, as you might understand.”
“Yes, that should be fine. They'll probably give you some steroids to reduce the swelling around the lesions, and discuss surgery options. Give us a call tomorrow.”
But he didn't say that this new development would mean the end of her experimental therapy, which left me a ray of hope—like the sliver of light as a door is closing. I got off the phone allowing myself to think that after this surgery, she'd be mentally tip-top again. And then she could go back to the therapy. And perhaps the therapy would work, and six months from now she would be running the school once more and being my mother, taking care of things.
She was released that night, after another doctor delivered the good news: The tumors were “operable” through radiation surgery. It was cold and rainy outside and I bundled her in a warm scarf and walked in front of her to protect her from the wind. My father had ordered pizza, and when we got home we sat in the den and ate while she lay on the sectional where she always lay. The dogs nosed around my feet and wagged their tails. Liam told her funny stories about school. It felt strangely normal, part of a life that had vanished some time ago.
But the next day the liaison called to say my mother would no longer be part of the experimental treatment. She would be discontinued. Like a TV show? I think. Is this how it works?
Sorry, no one was watching that show, so we have discontinued it.
It was up to us now. Only we believed.
What did we believe?
The options had dried up. No one had actually said the words yet: Your mother is going to die. And yet our mother was going to die. We were clinging, for the moment, to the possibility that the radiation surgery would make her better, even if only temporarily. It was another thing to do, another way not to talk about that thing growing inside her, invading her bones like little rotten spots on a vegetable, all soft and dark.
I am still looking for the alternative outcome to this part of the story—as if had I pushed harder at one of these moments, had I been more aware, all would have changed. Choose Your Own Adventures were a fad when I was a kid. I had a sense of special providence, and if, reading a story I liked, I made a bad choice, I would pretend it hadn't actually happened. I had, in essence, to lie to myself about my own poor outcomes. This was what I was doing then and it is what I am still doing, rummaging through the bric-a-brac of my mind for possible alternatives, the family silver that was put aside in the attic but still gleams unseen in the autumn sun.
{the particulars}
If the condition of grief is nearly universal, its transactions are exquisitely personal. My grief, I know, has been shaped by the particular person my mother was to me, and by the fact that she died at fifty-five. Then, too, I was bound up with her in ways that stretched beyond our relationship: I live a mile from where I grew up, in a neighborhood in Brooklyn where, when I walk down the street, I always see a store or a house that reminds me of her.
I'm not sure that I buy this, but psychologists theorize that grief is sometimes connected to your general level of anxiety and the kind of attachments—secure, insecure, avoidant, ambivalent—you have to others. My anxiety level has always been high. As a toddler, I hated the feeling that my socks were wrinkling under my feet, and in the morning would ask my parents to take my shoes off and put them on over and over until I felt my socks were not, as I put it, “scrabbled.” The world frightened me: when there was lightning outside my window, I took it personally. It seemed that everything was here only to be lost. The world was beautiful and it would be taken from me; I would die, and so would everything I loved. People seemed loud, drunk, violent, unpredictable. (Of course, it was the 1970s, and in many ways they were.)
BOOK: The Long Goodbye
12.45Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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