Fear, Karma

By Abby Mims


I read an essay a few months ago by David Rakoff called “Another Shoe,” which details his second bout with cancer at 49. His first was lymphoma in his twenties, and now there is a tumor in his shoulder, probably caused by the radiation he had the first time around. This newest cancer threatens to cause the removal of his entire left arm, which, you can imagine, is a particularly daunting notion for a writer. (The best part of the essay comes when he practices what life would be like with one arm, literally tying one hand behind his back and trying to go about his day.) The biggest thing he takes away from the experience is extreme gratitude for not losing his arm, and this: the decision to live without letting the fear of death swallow him whole. He also accurately observes that we are all dealt a fair amount of crap in this life, and the best way to respond is to simply get back to the business of grocery shopping, getting our hair cut, paying our parking tickets, and loving the people we love—because life continues on, whether we are participating or not.

In June, roughly an hour after a brain biopsy revealed that my mother had a glioblastoma and would be lucky to live a year, she shook an IV’d hand at her handsome Bolivian neurosurgeon and said, “I know you’re married, but now this is officially serious. We need to find my daughter a husband, and we haven’t got a lot of time.”

As said daughter, I was only mildly horrified. This new persona of my mother’s had mostly to do with the steroids she was on to control the swelling in her brain, and our whole family had adjusted to the side effects. Essentially, they had turned my meditative, soft-spoken, yoga-doing mother into something of a manic, bossy chatterbox.

I did, however, wince at the handsome neurosurgeon. He laughed and said, “Well, I don’t usually cross those lines, but I’ll see what I can do.”  Then he smiled at me like he knew what it was to have a mother who loved you in this way.  My sister, lucky girl, is already married.

Pre-cancer, my mother always wanted me to meet that right person but she didn’t obsess about it, never saw it as a shortcoming of my character. That was my job and it was something I talked about almost constantly.

“Build the life you want,” she’d say when the topic came up. “Then you will attract the love you want.”

“Ok, ” I’d say. “I’ve built it. Now where the hell is he?” I said this at 19, 23, 27, 31, 34 and 36. And probably every year in-between.

“Patience,” she’d say. “It will happen when it’s right, and you will never see it coming.”

Now, it is July, and almost her birthday. It is a sunny afternoon, and we are sitting in the backyard of the house where I grew up in Portland.  I have a present for her, in the form of a possible man in my life. He has, as she promised, come out of nowhere and it seems to be impossibly right. I’m trying to figure out how to tell her in a way that will encourage her but keep her from getting too excited.  It’s so new that it’s not anything but a thought, an idea, a piece of blue sky.

She is restless, still a little amped up from the steroids. She shifts from side to side in the wheelchair she’s had to use since a massive seizure rendered her right leg useless a few weeks ago. She shifts and touches the silver chain around her neck. The spectrum of her beliefs hang there — an Om medallion, a tiny blue Mary Magdalene medal, a picture of her guru, Mahrajji, and a small icon of the Hindu elephant god Ganesh.

And then I tell her. He is a friend of a friend, I say. He is my age and he understands what’s happening better than anyone, because bizarrely,  his father died of the same brain cancer she has less than two years ago. He lives near San Francisco and this mutual friend referred him to my blog;  he read about her diagnosis and emailed me. This is about all I know, aside from the fact that he is single. We have only emailed back and forth two or three times, have never met, never spoken.   This is all the information she needs. She’s instantly convinced it is fate, karma, kismet. The stars have aligned.

“This is your guy, this Matt. Good name. He has to be your guy.  How could he not be?”

“Ma,” I say. “We don’t know anything yet. Not one thing, really.” And we don’t, but I’ve allowed myself to fantasize about it, the idea that he will comfort me and guide me through this unfathomable time.  When I can’t take it anymore, I will be able to press my face into his chest and bawl.

“I mean, can’t you see how perfect this is?” she says. “This missing piece of your life is falling into place.” I shake my head at her, knowing I can’t stop this speeding train of consciousness that she’s on. “Listen,” she says, grabbing my hand. “Right now, I’m clearer than I’ve ever been in my life and I know that he is a part of why this is all happening.” She means her cancer, and I shake my head again.

“Ma,” I say. “Let’s just see what happens next.”

“Alright,” she says. “Alright. Now you need to listen to me. I realized something yesterday and I need to tell you about it.” I lean back in my chair and take her in. “If I die quickly, I know that I’m coming back in India.  It will be a fast reincarnation.”  She tells me she will be reborn in the mountains of Kainchi, the former home of Maharjji.  She and my stepfather traveled to the ashram there last fall.  She wants my sister and I to go there after she dies, she says, and we will find her in those mountains, adopt her, bring her back here.  Her brown eyes flash and mine fill with tears. I know in part, this is the steroids talking, but the sentiment and beliefs are at the core of the mother I love with everything I have.

My mother is 63 and I am 36 and from start to finish, everything that has happened since her first seizure less than two months ago (a shaking in her leg that she said felt like a stroke that went as fast as it came) has been so surreal that I find myself thinking, yes, yes, this is fantastic plan. She can die and  just like that, she will be back in our lives as a beautiful black-haired Indian child that my sister or I will raise.


“Hold on to hope until it’s taken away,” Matt says to me the first time we talk on the phone. And that’s the moment it happens, the moment I start to fall in love with him and my mother is right along side me, falling just as hard. She cannot believe he is real either, from his love of Kerouac and Ginsberg, to the typed letters he sends that have been banged out on his Underwood. When she meets him for the first time, only a few hours after I have, she squeezes my hand and shakes her head in wonder. “I love him,” she says. “I just love him.”

By winter, we have seen each other three times and are in love. I find myself doing something slightly disturbing – referring to him as my soul mate, a term I’ve always thought was kind of a crock of shit. But the rub is, he’s exactly that. From his sweet face to the sound of his voice to the way he talks about writing, books and family; the way he makes me laugh.  Then there is the way he and my mother are so alike  in so many ways:  loving, kind, sensitive, both  possessing an uncanny, innate understanding of me.

He is also the only person I can really talk to about what it will be like when she dies. She will be here one day and gone the next, I tell him. And that will be it. He says it will be different than that, it will be something you will help her do and in the end, something she achieves. Being with her through it will change your life and although you won’t be ready, you will let her go.  It will be the hardest and most beautiful time, he says.  I know he is right, but then there is the question that no one can answer:  How will I continue to exist in a world without her in it?

In the early fall, a grand mal seizure lands my mother in the ICU for two days. When she comes back to us, she opts to have surgery in the hopes of ending the seizures and buying some time.  She comes through it all beautifully and in the months after, her mania fades without explanation. We tease her about it, her excessive demands for scotch tape, the constant rearranging of the living room. Some things she remembers doing or saying, some she doesn’t, but she never waivers about Matt.

“You’ve found him and that’s all that matters. It makes all of this worth it,” she says. This is the one thing I can’t abide her.  No matter how much I love Matt, I could never make that trade.  Some days, though, I feel like this is exactly what I’m doing.  When I tell her this, she has a ready answer. “Don’t you see?” she says. “It may not be how we would want it, but it’s all entirely perfect. Everything  is happening just the way it should.”  She should die 20 or 30 years before her time? How in the fuck is that perfect? “In Hinduism there is the belief that each death happens not one minute too early or one minute too late,” she tells me. To that, I have no response.

Soon, it is the day before Thanksgiving and I am flying to San Francisco to spend it with Matt. He cannot get the time off work and although she understands, he feels guilty for taking me away from her on the holiday.  My mother, however, is thrilled that the two of us are spending it together. A few days before I leave, we go over the dishes Matt and I plan to make. She has been teaching me to cook since her diagnosis (I’ve  always just been a baker) so she was particularly invested. I told her there would be apple pancetta stuffing, Parmesan mashed potatoes, spinach with crispy shallots and sage butter for the turkey.  As we talked and laughed, and she oohed and ahhed over my choices, I was suddenly struck anew by the fact that she won’t be here next year or the year after that, or any year in the future.  She won’t see me get married or kiss my children. Thinking about all of this, I asked her something I’d been wondering about since our conversation in July.

“Ma,” I said. “Do you really think you’re coming back in India?”

“Oh,” she said. “Well, that could have been the mania. But you never know.  Could be India, or – who knows? I could come back as one of your babies.”

I take off for California, a pecan pie at my feet, baked in my mother’s kitchen for Matt as a surprise. I wonder how it is that this has become my existence, living between the two loves of my life, having to leave one to be with the other.  As I fly away from her, what she has said soothes me. Not that I necessarily believe she will come back as my child or that we will find her reincarnated in an Indian village.  It is moreover, the feeling that there is a seamlessness and continuity to what is happening, from the unconditional love she’s given me all my life to Matt’s love coming along just in time.  It is this love, her love,  that will continue on. In this way, she will never really be gone.


We met in New York when I auditioned for a play she’d written. She didn’t cast me. I struck her as being too intelligent for the part, or so she told me later by way of softening the blow. She’d done some acting herself, mostly in musical theater, where she excelled as a dancer. Then she hurt her back, and so turned to playwriting, graduating from the Yale School of Drama—an impressive achievement for a girl from a small town in Arkansas.

She was pretty, though she didn’t believe she was. She had a dancer’s lithe build, dark hair, and fair features that came off as wan in photos. She walked daintily, with mincing steps, and her voice had a kind of tremor, hinting at something brittle at her core. Still, she definitely attracted attention on the street, which surprised and, at times, amused her.

We didn’t get involved right away. She was with somebody else at the time, and we gradually began an affair that ended before I left New York for L.A. Then, with a new boyfriend, she also moved to L.A., where she, like me, wrote screenplays. Two of her scripts were produced, one with a lot of fanfare, though we seldom saw each other during that period, her boyfriend being jealous of me. Eventually, when they were done, she and I resumed.