One evening in early October, as Ellie was reading to me from Everyone Poops, Jeff called me to the telephone in our bedroom. And, even though it was only my mother, I flew down the hallway, happy to be relieved of this particular bedtime duty. In one breath, my mother told me that she had cancer, and that she was scheduled for a double mastectomy the following week.
“When did you find this out?” I heard the accusation in my voice. My mother was infamous for keeping medical secrets from me. A hysterectomy when I was away at college, the basal cell carcinoma she had removed from her chest shortly after my wedding, three broken ribs last summer, and now this.
“I didn’t want you to worry,” she said. It was what she always said. But instead of making me feel loved and protected, it made me feel as though a big door had been slammed in my face.
“Did you get a second opinion?” I said now. “Who’s your doctor?”
“I have a wonderful doctor,” she said. “The top in the field. Recommended by my student who works at Columbia Presbyterian.”
I had a hundred questions — why did this student know about my mother’s cancer before I did, for one — but my mother had to go; there were more calls to make.
“I’m sorry,” she said, before hanging up, as though she had just broken a lunch date. But I understood.
Jeff had gone into the shower without hearing any of my conversation, and now he came into the room grinning, in anticipation I suppose, of one of my mother’s foreigner stories. An ESL instructor, she often called to talk about her students’ amusing language mix-ups and cultural confusions, because my father would no longer listen. It was uncharitable to laugh at immigrants, he’d said, probably thinking of his shanty Irish grandparents who’d cleaned rich people’s toilets a century ago.
“What’s up with your mother?” Jeff said, drying his hair with a red towel. The shades were up, but he didn’t seem to care that anyone passing on the road could see him naked. I told him about my mother’s cancer, and although I tried to control my voice, it came out sounding shaky. I saw with sudden clarity all the years I had wasted, nurturing petty resentments against her. She was supposed to live forever or at least long enough for us to reconcile our differences. That was the illusion she had created by conducting all her illnesses offstage.
When Jeff moved to put his arms around me, I pushed him away. “Everyone can see us,” I told him.
“What are you talking about?”
“The windows,” I said. The two dark panes facing our leafy suburban street reflected our image like one-way mirrors in a police interrogation room.
“A husband comforting his wife,” he said. “What’s shameful about that?”
“When the husband is naked, it just looks like sex.”
“Comfort is comfort,” he said.
I had no answer; his logic confused me.
One week later, my older sister and I stood on either side of our mother’s hospital bed, looking down at her sleeping figure. We had dispatched our grizzled father, up since dawn, to the cafeteria. Several hours after her mastectomy, my mother’s complexion was gray and her hair clung damply to her scalp in a way that it made it easy to imagine the skull beneath it. I didn’t dare look at the place, covered by the white blanket, where her breasts had once been.
“She doesn’t look too bad,” I said.
“What do you mean?” Laurie said. “She looks like crap.”
“You’re right. She does.”
“Before you got here,” Laurie whispered, looking past me to the door, “Mom was in a lot of pain, but the nurse kept saying she had to wait another hour for meds.”
“That doesn’t sound right,” I said. “Maybe we should talk to someone.” I was thinking of the scene in Terms of Endearment when Shirley MacLaine screamed at the nurses to give her dying daughter pain medication. I wasn’t sure I could make such a spectacle of myself even for someone I loved.
“And then,” my sister continued, “right in front of the nurse, Mom tells me in a loud hysterical voice that the black nurse is stealing her morphine to give to her drug-addict boyfriend.”
“She said black nurse?”
“No, but the nurse was black,” she said.
“So, why are you telling me she was black?”
“Why wouldn’t I tell you?” she said, sounding defensive. The riddle-like tenor of this conversation exhausted and confounded me. Only one thing was clear, my mother was scared and that scared me. “I don’t think we should make too much of it,” I said. “I have a feeling she would’ve blamed Mother Teresa.”
Laurie glanced at the door. “Just so she doesn’t go off like that again, I requested one of those self-inflicted drips.”
It was the wrong term, but I knew what she meant. I gave her a reassuring smile, but she was looking past me. I turned to see a tall, heavyset nurse, with skin as dark as prunes striding into the room with a propriety air. “Excuse me,” she said, trying to edge past me at the bed. I stepped aside, bumping my hip painfully against the night table. “Sorry,” I said.
“No problem. I’ll just be a minute.” The nurse adjusted our mother’s IV drip.
Behind her back, Laurie widened her eyes at me, as if she expected me to say something. As the nurse turned to leave, I blurted, “Everything okay?”
“Everything’s fine,” she said cleanly. But then at the door, she turned back, and with a gentle smile, said, “Be prepared for a long, slow recovery.”
“Yes,” I said. “Thank you.”
“Have a good day, ladies.” She disappeared into the hallway before we could reply.
“Do you think she hates us? Laurie whispered.
“No, definitely not,” I said with certainty. But how the nurse felt about our mother, I couldn’t say.
We walked out to the parking lot together and kissed good-bye. My sister’s breath smelled like our childhood, like Juicy Fruit gum. “Hang in there, Jenny Wren,” she said, climbing into her VW. I smiled at my mother’s old nickname for me. No one had used it in years. After Laurie had driven off, I returned to the hospital, to my mother’s floor where I looked for the nurse. I wanted to make things right with her. As I came down the hallway, I saw her large dark figure in turquoise scrubs entering the room next to my mother’s. I followed her inside and waited as she took the blood pressure of an old person whose breathing sounded like rustling tissue paper. After she removed the cuff, the nurse patted the sleeping patient’s arm in a way that made me think it had become a part of her routine. When she turned, she did not seem surprised to see me.
“I’m Dorothy’s daughter,” I said, pointing at the wall dividing the rooms. “My sister says that she was acting crazy before.” I made a swirling motion near my head with my index finger and grinned like an idiot.
She stared at me blankly.
“Not herself?” I tried.
The nurse appeared to be making up her mind about something. Finally, she said, “I couldn’t say; I didn’t know her before.”
“She’s a good person. Big-hearted, that’s what people usually call her,” I said, hurriedly. “But, she can be, you know, difficult,” I added, feeling heat come into my face. I started to back out of the room. “Sorry to bother you.”
“No bother,” she said, kindly.
I spent the night at my parents’ Brooklyn apartment, so that I could return to the hospital with my father in the morning. I needed to talk, but my father was understandably distracted and went to bed early. Something was bothering me about my mother, something besides the cancer. When I phoned Jeff, he told me Ellie was staying overnight at her friend’s. “Don’t worry,” he repeated several times. But I began to worry when he couldn’t remember the name of Ellie’s friend. “Where does she live?” I prompted.
“I don’t know,” he said. “They picked her up.”
“You didn’t go out to meet them?” I wasn’t accusing; I just wanted to understand.
“Everything’s fine,” he said. “I wrote the name down, I just can’t remember it.”
Without thinking about what I was doing, I had picked up my pocketbook and was headed toward the door. Now, I returned with the phone to my mother’s kitchen. Ellie would be fine, I told myself. She was smart for six: she knew her own telephone number and address. I couldn’t be in two places at once.
“If you’re not worried, I won’t worry,” I said, sitting down at my mother’s oak table. It was cluttered with student papers, crude Peruvian pottery, a wooden bowl that looked as though it might be more at home on the Kalahari Desert than in Carroll Gardens. I was in high school when my mother embarked on her new career. I remembered how animated she would become whenever she talked about her first students. Feeling like an abandoned child, I would tune her out or change the subject. How could she consider someone else more interesting than me, I’d wondered then.
“There was an incident with the nurse.” I told Jeff about my mother’s accusation, remembering with shame how I had called her “difficult.” Was it an explanation or an appeal for sympathy? It seemed like the wrong time to be working out my feelings about my mother.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “Nurses must hear a lot of crazy shit when people are all doped up. You know everyone likes Dorothy, the tough old broad from Brooklyn with the heart of gold. She won’t let people not like her.”
He was right. I wondered how she did it. My mother was so difficult to please, but people seemed happy for the work.
Early the next morning, after a breakfast of stale English muffins and muddy coffee, I followed my father to Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in my own car. Saturday traffic on the BQE was light. Even so, my father drove well below the speed limit. Tailing him, I glared at the back of his head, his red plaid railroad cap, willing him to pick up the pace. I could have passed him — the directions were keyed into my GPS — but I remained a respectful car length behind. His slow, plodding nature made my mother crazy. Like a border collie, she was always nipping at his heels, nudging him forward, barking instructions. In college, she’d somehow mistaken him for an alpha male, when all along he was a mild-mannered history professor in the making. It was her mistake, and I didn’t see why he should have to keep paying for it. Maybe if he dressed in desert robes and presented himself as an Uzbek refugee, she would fall in love with him again, I thought, following his blue Honda onto the Gowanus Expressway.
By the time we exited onto Riverside Drive, I had adjusted to my father’s leisurely pace and was sleepily admiring the sailboats rocking on the sun-dappled Hudson beneath the high drifting clouds. But when the medical center’s glass and steel buildings loomed up in the near distance, my heart resumed its usual panicked beat.
“I’m so damned cold.” My mother was shivering beneath the thin acrylic hospital blanket. Even though I had seen her less than 24 hours ago, I was shocked all over again by her pallor, her diminished form in the bed.
“I’ll get some more blankets,” my father said, heading for the door.
“Any excuse to leave,” my mother said, her voice an unfamiliar croak. “He hates hospitals.”
“It’s probably hard for him to see you in pain,” I said, realizing that my father might have mistaken his wife for someone who was indestructible. We all, apparently, had made the same mistake.
Laurie arrived with flowers. As my mother beamed at the grocery-store daisies shoved into a chipped water glass, she began to look more like herself. Why hadn’t I thought to bring something? It would have been so easy to take something from my parents’ house: a photo album, a pillow, a paperback. But I had been too preoccupied with thoughts of my mother in pain to consider gifts. To mention this now would have made me sound as childish as I felt. I straightened the pile of magazines on the radiator, impersonating an efficient, competent person. Maybe it was biological, a hard-wired survival instinct, this need to be your mother’s favorite. In other words: not my fault.
“Where’s Dad?” Laurie said.
“Looking for blankets,” I said.
“You’re cold, Mom?” Laurie said. “Oh, look how you’re shivering. You poor thing.” She took off her wool pea coat and laid it over our mother’s body. “Better now?”
Our mother nodded, smiling.
Laurie sat on the edge of the bed. She lifted a corner of the blanket and rubbed it between her thumb and forefinger. “This blanket is a joke. My underpants are thicker.”
Our mother snorted in amusement; we were all smiling now. After a few moments, our mother closed her eyes; her breathing settled into the easy rhythm of sleep. I sat down in the only chair, crossed, and then re-crossed my legs, trying to get comfortable. Laurie stroked my mother’s bony hand. I had a sudden envy of their easy relationship. They spent a lot of time together, my mother and sister; they shared a love of flea markets and farm stands, dinners at hip ethnic restaurants. They used to invite me along, but stopped a couple of years ago after my repeated refusals. With a twinge of remorse, I remembered telling my mother, “I have my own family now,” and silently vowed never to say “no” again.
“I had a fight with the Indian lady at reception,” Laurie told me in a hushed tone. “She wouldn’t give me a goddamned pass; she said there were too many people in Mom’s room.”
“That’s Ameena, my student,” our mother said, startling us both. “From Guyana, not India.”
“Whatever,” Laurie said, smiling at me. “She’s rude.”
“She’s just looking after me,” our mother said, sleepily. I wondered if Laurie heard the same challenge in that statement that I had. I was still jealous of my mother’s students. It was hard to compete, for example, with a young woman who had fled civil war in Rwanda with no earthly possessions to begin a new life in America. All too often, I could not make myself understood in my native land, speaking my native tongue.
My mother snored lightly now.
“Is Ameena the one who wears pink shower caps over her shoes in the rain?” I asked my sister, shamefully trying to reduce the loyal student to a comical anecdote.
“Who knows,” she said, dismissively. “I can’t keep them all straight.” Then after a moment, she added, “But, she’s a tiger, that Ameena. Only she has no idea who she’s tangling with.”
“Probably not,” I said, grinning.
Two days later, my father phoned to say there were complications. Jeff had taken the call when I was out, picking up Ellie from dance class. I was still in the foyer when he told me, and I kept my coat on in case I had to head back out. “Is it serious? Is she okay?”
“I don’t think it’s serious,” he said, touching my arm. “It’s something about fluid building up.” When I tilted my head back and moaned, he said, “Hold on! I wrote it down!” He went to the kitchen for the message pad. I waited in the foyer like a solicitor.
“He wants you to call,” he said from the kitchen. “I think that’s what he said. You know how your father mumbles.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“What? I can’t hear you?” he shouted back. I didn’t bother to answer because he had returned with the pad. I took it from him and read two words: Seroma and Serena.
“Which is it?” I said.
He looked at the pad with a confused expression, and then his face lit up. “Seroma. Serena is Ellie’s friend. Where she spent the night when you were gone.”
“Oh, great, her mother’s a total nutcase,” I told him.
“No worries. I already thanked her.” He made a big check mark in the air with his hand. “Done.”
“Doesn’t count,” I said. “It has to come from the mother.” He looked confused, but I didn’t have the time or words to explain the complicated rules of the schoolyard. I wondered if it had been this difficult for my mother when Laurie and I were growing up. If so, her career made a kind of elegant sense. She had seized control of language.
I took the phone from Jeff and called my father, but there was no answer. He didn’t own a cell phone, so I called my sister’s house. Mitch, her husband, told me that she was at the hospital. Complications, he said. He didn’t know much more than Jeff.
The drive up the Palisades Parkway and over the George Washington Bridge passed in a blur. On the way, I tried my sister’s cell over and over again, but only got her voice mail. I drove fast, weaving in and out of traffic, imagining a variety of death-bed scenarios, including one in which my mother’s nurse, winked conspiratorially at me from the doorway. Stop the melodrama, I told myself, tightening my grasp on the steering wheel. Everyone says her mother is difficult. It was just like saying, Everyone Poops.
I stood in my mother’s hospital doorway and stared uncomprehendingly at the empty bed. My mind was a blank, but my body was on high alert, sweating and trembling like it knew something. I felt the weight of a hand on my shoulder and turned to see my mother’s nurse. My eyes were even with her name tag. Bella, it read.
“They took Dorothy upstairs to the ICU,” she said.
“Intensive care,” she said, steering me gently into the hallway. “She’s doing fine now. She was having some respiratory trouble earlier. But they’ve stabilized her. They’ve got wonderful nurses up there. I’ll bring you up.”
We were getting into the elevator. I could not say how we had arrived there. The nurse pressed a button, and chuckling, she said, “It was a Tower of Babel here earlier. A horde of people showed up at the ICU nurse’s station, speaking a hundred different languages. Only one word was clear: Dorothy. Over and over again, they asked for Dorothy. Someone at reception was handing out passes like crazy, breaking our strict family-only policy for ICU.”
Ameena, I thought, shaking my head.
“What is Dorothy, an immigration lawyer?” Bella said.
“ESL instructor,” I said, following Bella out of the elevator into a wide hallway with glass-fronted rooms on either side. “They’re her students.”
“I never understood how that works,” she said. “She’s got all of these people, speaking all of those different languages, and she’s supposed to be able to communicate with everyone at once?” She shook her head.
“It sounds impossible,” I admitted. “But she must be really good at it. Her students love her.”
At the nurse’s station, a young male nurse with wire-framed eyeglasses was speaking in a loud voice to a middle-aged Asian woman with gray streaked hair. She seemed agitated as she pointed in the direction we were heading. When the nurse saw us approach, he turned away from her, and said with exasperation, “I don’t know how she got past reception.”
Bella rolled her eyes at me. “What did I tell you?”
“Do either of you know how to say ‘family only’ in . . .” he trailed off. “What language do you speak?” he asked the woman.
“Try, no,” Bella said, laughing.
The Asian woman frowned at the three of us, her lips slightly parted, waiting. I tried to think of a pantomime for family. How did my mother do this? I could mimic a woman cradling a baby. I could lay my hands over my heart. “You don’t belong here,” I said finally. Then I marched toward the sound of my sister’s voice coming through an open door as though I did belong, which I did, and always would.