My mom has breast cancer. At only 60, she is way too young to be sick. I’m on the airplane to Milwaukee alone. Saying goodbye to my children was hard, but I know that Jack is perfectly capable of caring for them while I’m away. I’m proud of that; it’s a sign of my faith in Jack and most importantly, of my recovery from PPD. My sister and my aunt (my mother’s sister) are also converging upon Milwaukee to help my mom get through her lumpectomy. The doctor and my mother are hopeful that this is survivable, but there’s no way of knowing for sure. I’m terrified, yet strangely excited. I’m looking forward to being with the women in my family, the freedom of being without my kids. I try to put my fear about my mom aside.
Before I left I’d asked her how I can help while I’m there. She said, “Well, I really need someone to do errands — like get groceries, ferry me and grandma and gramps back and forth to the hospital and get everyone to the right place. You’re really not driving?” My throat tightened up. She focused in on the one thing that makes me feel the worst about myself. I can do so much — why zero in on this?
“No, I’m not. You’ll still need me won’t you?” I asked.
“Of course, honey! ” She said. “I asked you here because I need you. You have a steadying influence on me and everyone else. I can’t imagine going through this without you here. If you can’t drive, that’s that.”
But that isn’t that. I notice my shortcomings every time someone picks up a set of car keys. We are all stressed and fighting our traditional roles. My mom is the “good daughter.” She lives in the same town as her parents and takes care of them. Her sister lives farther away but is here to help now. My sister and I both live away from mom, but she has always had a harder time with it. When my mom bought her new house after the divorce from dad, it was really important to Naomi that the guest room was “her” room. She needed a place to come home to.
Now, we all compete for the title of “Helper in charge.” It seems to me that every time Naomi does something it emphasizes what I can’t do. She says, “I have to go to the grocery store to get mom’s groceries,” or “I’ve decided we are going to the hospital at 7 o’clock tomorrow.” She’s not being intentional; nonetheless, I feel trapped like a child. And worst of all, I know it is my fault. No, not fault exactly, but my doing. If I am really, truly recovered from my depression, I should be driving by now. Just as quickly as the thought comes I push it away. Besides, I stopped driving long before Simon was born, when I lived in NYC for grad school. I have to stop dwelling and focus on the now, focus on mom.
The day of the lumpectomy, we bring my mom to the hospital and “see her off” for surgery. None of us is prepared for my youthful mom to be sick. My grandparents, in their nineties, are just now starting to slow down. The notion of my mom being ill just doesn’t sink in until I see her in her hospital gown, terrified. They wheel her into surgery.
Naomi, Aunt Jane and I go to the waiting room. We find my grandparents and several of my mom’s friends. They have brought food, card games, love. I sink into a chair and allow myself to be mothered. My mom’s friends make a schedule of dinners to bring to our house. I listen to the chatter, play cards, and wait. I distract myself by planning a dinner for my mom’s first night back from the hospital. Cooking is something I love, something I can do well. A big salad with a citrus vinaigrette. Roast chicken pulled apart and tossed in its own juices, parsley, and sprinkled with sweet pomegranate seeds.
Naomi looks up, overhearing me describe the meal to my mom’s friend. She says, “Rebecca, I’m not sure we’ll have time for that, Mom gave me a list of what she needs and that sounds like it will take a lot of grocery shopping. Are you going to take the car?” I clam up, embarrassed by my shortcomings, but also by the endless well of rage seething just below my collarbone. I can’t lose it here, now.
Seven hours pass. The doctor comes in and announces that he got all the cancer and the three lymph nodes he took are negative in preliminary testing. Everyone cries. All the false cheer dissipates, all the underlying tension releases. My mom is our glue.
Naomi, Jane and I bring my grandparents to see my mom. As we walk down the hall, the naked emotion of the waiting room fizzles and we are again in the grip of our worries. Who will be the first to go in? Should her first sustenance after recovery be a Coca-Cola or a Popsicle? Should we be quiet or amuse her with funny anecdotes? Outside my mom’s room, Naomi and I somehow find ways to argue over these topics. Jane tries to referee, but we don’t make it easy. Inside her room, we try to make her comfortable, but she’s just tired and nauseated and doesn’t want to talk. Before we leave, we talk with the “night nurse” we hired to keep my mom company in the hospital. Naomi takes charge and lists the medications my mom takes. I wonder if I would have remembered all those. The nurse hands me a form, and I begin to fill out our contact information. Naomi takes it and pulls me aside. She tells me, “Rebecca, you put our old phone number!” The one from our childhood home with my father, where he now lives with his mistress of 20 years. My hands begin to shake. How could I have made such a monumental Freudian slip of the pen?
I’m overwhelmed with how much I want to help my mom. Maybe it’s part of my new identity as “recovered” from depression. I want to be independent and capable, someone she can lean on. I know it’s important just that I’m there to listen, and to have this experience with her, but I want to do more. Maybe I can help her by encouraging Grandma to connect with her. Grandma has never been able to tell her daughters that she loves them. Gram and I are really close. Maybe I can help them both.
The next day I have lunch with my ninety-year-old grandmother. She drives. She tells me how grateful she is that my mom is okay and how much it means to her the way my mom takes care of her. Grandma has never been good at discussing her feelings. She’s always been able to listen to her granddaughters, but certain things she won’t share with anyone. What she’s saying to me now is the deepest I’ve heard from her in a long time.
So I take a leap. “Gram, I know how grateful you are. What I also know is that you’ve never been able to tell mom you love her. Now that she’s recovered, I think that would be the most precious gift you could give. Can you do it?”
“Oh Rebecca, I’m sure she knows that.” My grandma’s jaw tenses up beneath the massive sunglasses she wears for her cataracts. She somehow manages to make them look glamorous. She’s dressed in tan trousers and a mocha-colored leather jacket. She fumbles with her purse. Her bracelets clack. I push further, ignoring her recent fragility and somehow seeing my grandma of old.
“She does know that, but it would mean the world to her if you told her. Said the words. I know how much she wants to hear it. Please.” I’m terrified; I’ve talked about everything under the sun with Gram but not this.
“Becks, I can’t. I won’t. And stop talking about this.” Still I push, my anger taking the edge off my fear.
“But why? After all she’s done, you can do this. I know you can.” But she can’t. I can tell she’s closed off now. She has the look on her face that says I’m treading on “grown-up” stuff.
“Please, could you at least think about it?” I want a scrap at least.
“Okay, if we can talk about something else.” And we do.
I feel sad, sad for Grandma and sad for my mom. I love them both so much.
My mom comes home that afternoon and I get to make my chicken dotted with pomegranate. My sister takes me to our favorite grocery store where we spend an hour. We have one argument, but manage to laugh it off and reconnect. We have mom to take care of.
Two days later Naomi and I have a knock-down, drag-out fight, accusing each other of everything from selfishness to sabotaging the other. My mom mediates. Afterwards we are guilty and ashamed, but glad my mom had the strength to tell us to shut up. I am reminded of when I was pregnant with Gus and nauseated, in bed all the time. Simon used to do bad things just to see me get out of the chair, just to see his mama alive and capable.
I’m so glad mine is still here, still mothering.