(It hurts to think about this.)
But her underwear was a disaster. Under the soft sweater, I could see her bra drooping around her sides, hanging loosely, the cup fronts folding and creating a funny extra shelf of flesh.
“Mom,” I said, “you need new bras.”
“I know,” she said, “these are too big, I guess.”
“If we are buying you new clothes, we're buying new underwear. We'll do a whole makeover.”
She'd been watching a TV show about learning to dress stylishly and she smiled with delight.
“They keep saying you should divide your body in thirds,” she said. “And they tell you to get nice fabric and watch the fit. It's interesting. Things about clothes I never would have noticed, I notice now. Like this isn't really fitting right, here. And this fabric feels cheap.”
Wearing the cowl-neck, she looked kind of like a sexpot. But a sexpot with a lumpy, saggy bra. I ran upstairs and grabbed an armful of bras in a variety of sizes. I have
idea what size I am, my mom had said. And neither did I.
“Can I help you?” said the saleslady.
“Um . . . not really,” I said, not knowing how to explain that I was looking for new bras for my dying mother, who'd lost so much weight we had no idea where to begin. I pulled a whole range of styles, including some lace onesâif she was going to die soon, she should at least get to feel sexy and pretty firstâand downstairs my mother tried them on. The lace ones, the prettiest, were the wrong size, and she was clearly disappointed. “I'll just get this one,” she said, holding up a practical cotton piece. “No, I'm going to get you some more,” I said.
“But they're all the way on the other floor,” she said, but then she looked at a periwinkle lace bra I had tried on, and said, “That's nice, it's like delft,” and so I threw on a shirt and ran to find a better size in the lace.
After, we went through all her clothes, the pants and sweaters, deciding what to keep. As we stood in the dressing room, she looked at them in my arms and a shadow crossed her face. “But this is a lot,” she said.
“You need it,” I said. And the unspoken thing was there: How long would she need it for? Probably not more than a month or two.
Still. I wanted her to have them. And everything was twenty percent off. I reminded her of this. She got giddy and said, “It
a good value.” And she smoothed the sweater down and said, “I have cleavage!”
As we paid, she was happy, stroking the clothes like a girl. For a moment I thought, this must be what she'd felt when I was a teenager and she could lift my mood by taking me shoppingâa slippery pride, tinged with sadness that it couldn't always be like this.
She fingered a tag. “Size twelve,” she sighed. “You see, Meggy, there are some good things about having cancer!”
That night, she gave Diana and my father a fashion show, delightedly going up and down the stairs and coming down with a new outfit on.
As we waited for her surgery, my mother and Liam and Eamon and I watched TV. She spent most of each day on the chaise longue section of the couch. Sometimes her fingers absently traced the fabric and kneaded it, as if to touch a body. The dogs sat on either side, like sphinxes. We watched
“That Evangeline Lilly is so annoying,” my mother said. “Why can't she
something, instead of talking about it? Why does she always make such terrible choices?” For someone with brain tumors, my mother was doing a fine job of keeping up with the plot twists. (As Jim put it: “Even healthy people can't follow
. Are you sure you want to watch it?”)
In between episodes, when I paused the DVD to go get her a Limonata, you could hear the grandfather clock.
Tick, tick, tick, tick.
My mother is dying, I would think. And she is spending her last hours watching
. How totally bizarre. For a moment I hated the show for that. But then I thought:
What the hell. What is she supposed to do, contemplate every moment with saintly beatitude? Exclaim that she loves us, is devastated to be leaving us, cannot bear not to watch Eamon graduate from college, to see our children?
Time doesn't obey our commands. You cannot make it holy just because it is disappearing.
Other peopleâfriends, colleaguesâgot used to my mother dying of cancer. But I did not. Each day, sunlight came like a knife to a wound that was not healed.
Even though it was obvious by Thanksgiving that my mother was extremely sick, the swiftness of her final days came as a surprise. She'd had CyberKnife radiation in Stamford; it had made her more confused for a whileâthe surgery caused a supposedly temporary swellingâwhich meant she couldn't be alone. I'd gone up to Connecticut on Sunday to see her and to talk to my father and brothers about arranging for hospice care. She was getting weaker and we needed to be ready; even if her confusion diminished, as was supposed to happen, she was losing weight and clearly declining. And yet we were all acting as though she were going to be around forever, if in an increasingly diminished state. Working up my courageâthere was a way in which we all just wanted to be silentâI said as much to my brothers and Dad and they agreed. “We'll talk about it tomorrow,” they said.
The next day, Liam and I took her for a follow-up visit with the neurosurgeon in Stamford. Her confusion had lasted longer than the doctors anticipated. She had a hard time locating the doctor's officeâI got lost driving her there and we were fifteen minutes lateâand she struggled with finding the correct words when she spoke. She wanted to know if she could drive. This was clearly not possible, but the doctor was rude about it. “No, absolutely not,” he said unfeelingly, not acknowledging that this news might be hard for her to hear. Her face flushed and she slumped back in her chair at his words.
I asked whether the confusion she was experiencing was a normal side effect, and he dismissively replied, “We didn't give you any guarantees that this surgery would work.”
“I'm not asking for guarantees,” I said, enunciating each word. “I'm trying to have a conversation with you that will enable us to understand just a little better what is going on.”
My mother stirred and said, “Meg . . .” and I bit my tongue. She was never confrontational with her doctors.
My mother cried on the way home, trying not to let us see. But as we walked into the house, she leaned on us to climb the steps and said, crisply, “That asshole would never have been so patronizing if you weren't so small, Meg.” And then she said, “He doesn't know that you're big inside.” That night she seemed more herself than in weeks, joking with Isabel and Diana on the phone. Her locutions were slightly off, but poetically. When Diana asked how she felt, my mother responded, “I hurt less.” It was a windy night, and we sat and watchedâas it happenedâa particularly stormy episode of
. A gust of wind howled outside. Mom turned and said, “Is that
wind I hear?”
Later, as I came out of my room, there she was, leaning on the stair railing, climbing one foot at a time. She paused. She looked more and more striking in those last days. Objectively, I know she was ill: I have photos on my phone that show her sallow and drawn. But not taking chemo meant her skin had some of its old glow. The lost weight made her appear young and slightly transparent. I often had the feeling she was passing into a liminal state.
“Good night, Meggy,” she said, playfully, even happily. “I love you to death.” She used the voice she used when I was a childâthat old good night.
The next morning, she was delirious. Her mouth slack, she was twisted up in the sheets. My father hovered over me. We were trying to wake her. “Mom,” I said, shaking her shoulder a bit. She groaned in annoyance. “Mom,” I said, and her eyes opened, but they weren't hers. She looked possessed. Instead of fear of what she couldn't name, now there was hatred of all that she had once been close to. Her skin was hot to the touch.
“Did you take her temperature?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “She's always hot when she wakes up.”
“Not like this,” I said. I got the thermometer and tried to get it under her tongue, but she kept pushing it away. By now she was moaning and clutching her right side. When I touched her stomach there it was extremely warm, and the skin was distended.
My dad was pacing. “We have an appointment with the pain specialist,” he said, “so if you could just get her dressed.”
“I don't think she needs the pain specialist,” I said. “I think she needs the emergency room.”
“I don't want to go to the emergency room,” he said. “Let's just get her to the doctor.”
Fine, I said. But I thought: This is not going to work.
She had on only a T-shirt and underwear. “Mom,” I said, “we have to get you dressed. We're going to get you dressed and then take you to the doctor.”
She kept batting my hand away. Then she said, “I want to go to the bathroom.”
I lifted her up and she cried out, seizing her side. I knew that one of the risks of her cancerâwhich tends to metastasize first to the lungs and the liverâwas that the liver would begin to fail. It was, my doctor friend had told me, one of the two things that was most likely to kill her. The other was a hemorrhage in the lungs. I had been assuming the failing liver would be less awful than blood-filled lungs. Now I was questioning that assumption. She collapsed back on the bed and refused to talk to me.
“Call the ER,” I told my dad.
The paramedics came, three of them. In some obscure way I noticed one of them was good-looking. My mother was confused and angry and rolled her eyes at us like we had betrayed her, and it felt like we had. The paramedics kept saying, “Barbara, come on, we're just going to get you on the stretcher.” I'd tried to get her pants on before they came, so she wouldn't feel embarrassed, but I hadn't managed to.
“Fine,” she finally said, seeming to come to her senses. “But I have to go to the bathroom.” They had her by both arms. I shook my head at them. I knew she was just trying to get away. But my father said, “Let's let her go.”
“OK, Barbara,” they said. They led her into the bathroom and then they said to me, “Do you want to help her from here?” She refused to look at me. She went in and closed the door.
“I think we need to get her out,” one of the guys said.
“No fucking kidding,” I said, full of a weird I-told-you-so anger at everyone.
“Does one of you want to try?” they said.
Did I want to
? No, I did not want to try.
My dad went forward. “Kell,” he said, using his pet name for her. “Come on, Kell, we have to go. Let me help you.”
Come on Kell, I'll help you.
I'd never heard my father's voice like this before. It was his voice for her, intimate, direct, adoringâclearly the voice he'd used when they were alone together, in their tender moments. She refused to answer.
“Meg,” he said, coming out, “I can't get her, can you?”
I hate you, I thought.
But I was her daughter.
“Mom,” I said. “Come on, we're just going to go to the hospital so they can give you some medicine.”
“Go away,” she said. “Leave me alone.”
She wouldn't look at me. She sat on the toilet, underwear (the underwear we'd just bought) at her ankles.
My book of poems was on the toilet behind her, along with Darwin's
The Origin of Species
, her favorite book. And a crossword she'd started two Sundays ago.
I stepped forward to take her arm.
She batted me away.
“Dad,” I said, “we're going to have to pull her out.”
So I went in and I grabbed her under her shoulders and I lifted her up and she struggled and I collapsed a little inside and she grabbed for her underwear but couldn't reach it so I pulled it up as my father took her other armâthe room was too small for both of us so he was reaching in awkwardlyâand we hoisted her out as she went tense with anger and frustration.
I thought of her when she was happyâher voice the night before when she said, “I love you to death”âand I wondered which was the real her. The other is, I thought. But her anger was so vivid, it was easy to believe this was the unmasked truth: She was dying, and she hated us.
She didn't stay in the hospital for long: they released her, because she wouldn't drink barium for a CAT scan. I'd had to drive into New York for a business dinner, and my father was alone with her. He called me to say they were sending her home because her fever had gone down, and since she wouldn't drink the barium they had “no reason for admitting her.” They can't send her home, I said. What about the fact that she has terminal cancer? Is that not a reason? I'd just finished talking to the hospice people and they'd told me it would be forty-eight hours before they could get someone to us. “We're not set up to take care of her,” I told my father, but he said, in a thick voice, “She wants to go home, I have to do what she wants,” and hung up on me. I slammed my phone shut. (At the time, I was so bent on her safetyâor at least my idea of her safetyâthat I wanted to kill him; now it is much easier for me to understand why he had to take her home.) I'd planned to stay in Brooklyn but was too disturbed to do so; I drove back up to my parents' house and fell into bed. Thirty minutes later, there was a horrible crash in the other room and I heard my mother screaming. The sound, at once piercing and soft, was like nothing I'd ever heard, and for a couple of minutes I couldn't get out of bed. Then doors were opening. In my parents' room, my mom was on the floor, crying, holding her head and her side, and Liam and my dad were standing, and Eamon was cradling her head, kneeling over, saying, “Where does it hurt? Shhh, it's OK, where does it hurt, Mom?” Liam knelt next to her and was stroking her arm.