On the night of our mother’s first seizure, the one that leaves her on the living room floor with her right leg flopping like a fish out of water, my sister shows up to the ER with a newborn mouse in a pouch around her neck.
“We found it today,” her husband says to me. “Underneath my car, next to its brother or sister, who was smashed dead. She’s trying to save it.” It is just the two of us standing in the orange and blue hospital waiting area. I stare at him. “I’m not sure anyone is supposed to know, though. So maybe don’t say anything.”
“Got it,” I say, and move past him towards the nurse at the ER desk. She buzzes me back to see my mom. My stepfather is at her head, my sister at her feet. In the time it’s taken me to get there, they have already done an MRI.
“It’s a brain tumor,” my mother says, and then she swears as she often does. I echo her and bury my face in her neck. When I let go and stand upright, we are all silent for a moment.
“Well,” my sister says, “I think I have something that you’d all like to see.” She looks around for doctors or nurses or the like before pulling the pouch out from under her shirt. And there it is, all pink and puckered, no more than a few hours old.
“Do you guys want to see it eat?”
We nod as she takes out an eyedropper and lets it suckle. We all lean in and coo, marveling.
Ma is horizontal on the hospital bed that is now installed in my parents’ bedroom. I have to get her up to go to the bathroom, and to do that I have to reach across her to get to the button that will raise her up to sitting, so I say, “Ma, do you want to push the button?”
She lifts her head up off the pillow to look at me. “Why does everyone ask me that, ‘Bobbie, do you want to push the button? No, I don’t want to push the fucking button,” she says, as she pushes the button.
As she rises slowly, the mechanical squeak of the bed following her progress, she says, laughing, “Is it because it’s the only thing I can do at this point? Push this motherfucking button?”
I’ve just moved back into my parents’ house. In the previous six months, my mother has been diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor, my beloved pug died suddenly, and I gave up my apartment, my freedom and my privacy. I also, for the first time in almost eight years, have a boyfriend. A very handsome, smart, lovely boyfriend. After the weekend I moved in, after he’d spent his previous visit helping me schlep nearly everything I own to a storage unit, I call him. He’s been gone a day or two and is back in Northern California where he lives.
“Now what do I?” I say. I really don’t know. I feel entirely lost.
“You hang out with you Mom. You love her. That’s the only thing you need to worry about right now.”
“Oh,” I say, but then think to myself: I’m in a relationship, I need to work out, I need to write, I need to produce things, I need to be productive, I need to show the world that I’m doing something.
“There are only two rules for getting through something like this,” he says. “Don’t lose your shit and have no regrets.”
“That’s it?” I say.
“That’s it,” he says.
I make the mistake of telling L. what’s happening with my mom. It’s a Saturday night. I’m a few glasses of wine in at the bar next door to the restaurant where we work when L. stops in and sits at my table. I already know she is not going to know what to say when I tell her that my mother is dying, but there is nowhere to go and no one else to talk to, so out it comes.
Her face doesn’t change expression when I tell her, although there is a strange smile that creeps across it when she tells me some girl she didn’t know very well in some event group she used to go to had a sister who died of brain cancer. “Hard stuff,” she says. I sip my wine.
“You know,” she continues, “I am really worried about my fish, Fluffy.” I don’t know L. well, but I know her well enough to understand that she is being entirely genuine and serious. Along with waiting tables, she runs her own telemarketing business, cold calls people all day long. Sarcasm and irony would have to be absent from your life in order to do this for a living.
She continues: “I mean, the other day I went into the living room and, well, he wasn’t swimming like this,” she says, and flutters her long white hand to indicate a horizontal position. “He was swimming like this.” Her hand then flutters vertically.
“Huh,” I say.
“I mean, I’ve had that fish for five years,” she says, taking a short sip of wine. “I’m pretty attached to him.”
Ma is waiting for the State of the Union address to come on TV, and she wants to watch it downstairs while she eats her dinner. This means Jim, my stepdad, has to bring the TV down to the living room, since I am making dinner.
Ma likes to watch me cook, and so is sitting at edge of the kitchen. A few minutes go by, then she cranes her neck towards the living room. Jim is sitting on the couch, on his computer, not getting the TV.
“What’s he doing?” she says. I shrug. She rolls her eyes, and scoots herself over past the wall between rooms where he can see her. “Um, Jim?” she says.
“I’ll get it,” he says, and continues to sit on the couch.
She rolls back over to me and taps her good hand on her good leg. “Marriage,” she says.
“It doesn’t start for like 40 minutes,” I tell her.
“Oh,” she says, and is quiet for a moment. Then she leans forward and whispers, “I don’t understand why he just won’t go get it.”
I shrug again. “Just think of all the karma you are burning by waiting so patiently.”
“Bullshit,” she says. She taps and taps and half-watches me. Then she starts laughing. “Doesn’t anyone understand how much I’m suffering? I mean, I am really suffering here!”
We are still laughing when Jim bring the TV downstairs 37 minutes later. I tell Ma she’s going to have to suffer a little louder from now on if she wants everyone to hear.
Lately, I have been dreaming of my mother’s hands. Not as they are now, thin-skinned and swollen from steroids, covered in what look like deep bruises, only the spots are mostly blood red, forming from the slightest pressure on her skin. I dream of them as they were in India, covered in intricate patterns of henna, swirls of life. She and Jim traveled there the fall before she got sick. She had wanted to go for 40 years, and it was a lifetime dream fulfilled. They spent a month going from Delhi to Varanasi, her guru Maharajji’s village in the mountains, back down to the Ganges. There, on the river banks, a few Indian girls henna’d her hands. She simply glows in the photographs, her short black hair framing the delicate bones of her face, a cream-colored scarf around her neck. She sits surrounded by children on the desert-colored steps that lead to the water, rows of hot pink and electric blue and butter yellow laundry drying in the background. Radiant, she holds up her painted hands for the camera. Going to India, she said, was like finding her one true home.
The night of her biopsy, the surgeon tells us although we have to wait for the pathology, he is 99 percent sure it is a malignant glioblastoma. He has grown fond of us in a short period of time, especially my mother, and as he hugs my stepfather and says he is sorry, I swear there are tears in his eyes. He offers us the option of telling her this news ourselves, and we do. My sister, stepfather and I surround her bed and say it. She knows from her hospice work that this kind of tumor is terminal.
She is shocked, still a bit loopy from the procedure, but clear-eyed as she says to us, “This isn’t the first time we have all been here together, you know. This is a heart connection, and it’s something that will always be here. We will always have this.”
Hours later, lying awake, unable to sleep, despite a few glasses of wine and an Ambien, I cannot access what it is she has said. This is the only thought I have: I do not exist without my mother.
Ma is pointing across the living room to a table full of photos of her gurus, Maharajji and Ram Dass. “Turn that picture over,” she says. “The one of Maharajji.” She is angry and frustrated, as in the last week she lost the use of her right arm, the tumor growing or swelling enough on her motor strip to leave it floppy and useless, much like her right leg. “I’m so pissed right now, I can’t look at him.”
Losing the use of her right arm means her last bastion of autonomy, writing letters or sending emails or making notes in the margins of the books she loves so much, is gone. It means she can do nothing for herself. She has told me again and again that this tumor is all part of her fate, her karma, her life’s bingo card as it were, and she has to accept all that comes with it.
But she is crying now, and unable to make sense of anything, which is how I feel nearly all the time.
“Asshole,” she whispers at the picture. I hold her bad hand as she cries.
Within a few days, she has moved through it, grieved what she can of this latest loss and decided there is no choice but to accept it. “What are my options?” she says to me when I ask her how this is possible. “I can sit here and wallow, feel sorry for myself, or I can keep living, right here in this moment.”
It is two years later now, and I have finally managed to leave her for California and my lovely, smart, handsome boyfriend. She is miraculously still alive, and there are days when I sit in this house with rose bushes in the backyard and a mandarin orange tree outside my office window, and do nothing but ache for her. Once, when she could still talk on the phone, she called me and said, “I was lonely for your voice.” It seems now I am always lonely for her voice or the touch of her hand or the sound of her laugh.
In the middle of moving, that feeling is all the more intense for the fact she will never be able to come here and see the orange tree or the rose bushes. While unpacking my desk, I find one of the last things she was able to write, a few shaky lines on a blue post-it note. My name is on it, underlined. Underneath, a quote, “From the preface in The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane: ‘The heart breaks and breaks and breaks and lives by breaking.'”
I am lonely for her voice and here it is, for me to listen to again and again and again.